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Audrey Kupferberg: "Woman Walks Ahead" And "J.T. LeRoy"

Audrey inspects a film
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Audrey Kupferberg

It isn’t unusual to speak with a friend about the temptations of a fascinating story in a movie.  You know… Did you hear what that film is about?  Wow!  I really want to see it!

The unique storylines of two films lured me into viewing.  I figured… with such exciting plots, I couldn’t possibly go wrong.  To my surprise and dismay, I did!

J.T. LeRoy is a based-on-fact movie from 2019 that deals with a literary hoax.  Real-life author Laura Albert, played by Laura Dern, published a successful novel in 2000.  It’s called Sarah, a coming-of-age story about the harsh life of a truck stop prostitute’s child.  She wrote under the alias J.T. LeRoy and slapped a photo found in a thrift shop of an anonymous teenaged boy on the back cover. 

When Laura realized that she had a best seller and needed to do interviews, she asked her androgenous sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop, to pose as J.T.  Sav did so for six years.  Laura considered the deception a literary trick.  She described the hoax as having an avatar, but the avatar signed legal papers concerning publication and the film adaptation of her book. 

That’s a legal no-no called fraud.  The case ended up in a court of law where Laura was sued over the film option contract.  According to Wikipedia, the jury found against Laura.  For doing business under the guise of a so-called avatar, she was instructed to pay the film company $116,500.

J.T. LeRoy should have been an exciting movie.  But it isn’t.  It’s mainly ruined by the performance of Kristen Stewart as Savannah and J.T.  I do not recall ever seeing so amateur an interpretation in a professional film.  Wearing wigs and unusual outfits, she adjusts her boyish female body into J.T.’s teenaged boy body.  She makes her voice his voice. But the result is stupid, just plain ridiculous.

I say ridiculous because all the literary and film company people believe that Savannah is J.T.  Any viewer sees the failure of the game, which is Stewart’s failure.  At one point, Laura says to the fake J.T., “I know the photo shoot was intense, but there was a light in you.”  Believe me, there was no light, no light at all. Meanwhile, Laura adapts the persona of a Cockney agent called Speedie.  She appears ridiculous!  The whole fraud plays out poorly in this movie, which, by the way, may break the record for the number of times the “F” word is spoken. 

A second flawed movie with an exciting story is Woman Walks Ahead from 2018, another based-on-fact film.  This movie tells the story of Caroline or Catherine Weldon, a wealthy widow and portrait painter who travels by train from New York City to Lakota Territory in the Dakotas.  It is 1889, and she has decided to paint a portrait of Sitting Bull.  Jessica Chastain and Michael Greyeyes costar.  The acting throughout is impressive, as is the cinematography. 

But the manner in which the screenplay depicts the main characters is deplorable.  She is naïve, stubborn, and prissy, a female stereotype.  And the screenplay depicts Sitting Bull more as a gentle and pliable farm boy than an incredibly brave Lakota leader and warrior who united the Sioux tribes. 

There are so many non-truths and skewed facts in the script that critic Peter Travers made a listing of them in his review of the film in Rolling Stone on June 29, 2018.  It’s available online… as are these two films.

Ironic that J.T. LeRoy begins with a quotation from Oscar Wilde, “The truth is never pure and rarely simple.”  Those words almost seem to be an apology for the flaws in both films.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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