The myth of JT LeRoy, the literary avatar of writer Laura Albert, is alive and well in Jeff Feuerzeig’s (“The Devil and Daniel Johnston”) documentary “Author: The JT LeRoy Story.”
JT was initially a persona created by Albert during phone conversations with crisis hotlines. Under the recommendation of her therapist, she started to write and publish stories under the name “Terminator,” before authoring two novels and a short story collection under the name JT LeRoy. The books were instant hits in grungy artist communities, and JT quickly became a literary “It” boy.
Albert kept up the act by employing her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to play JT. Savannah made public appearances, did book signings and mingled with the artistic elite wearing an awful blonde wig and dark sunglasses. Albert was Speedie, JT’s British friend and confidant.
“Author” isn’t about unmasking JT. The mask comes off within the first thirty minutes of the film. It seems like it wants to be about why JT was created, but doesn’t commit to answering that question thoroughly. What “Author” does become is a platform for Albert to defend and perpetuate the myth of JT, and for her to prove his reality, however metaphorical it might be.
The central narrative of the formation and evolution of JT is interspersed with home movie footage from Albert’s childhood, and in voiceover she chronicles struggles with abuse, bullying and low self-esteem. The information hidden here is the key to understanding the “why” that is neglected in the rest of the film. But it’s too little and it comes too late.
The biggest problem with “Author” is that it doesn’t know where to spend its time. Too much time is spent following JT through repetitive red carpet events and celebrity phone calls, and most of the talking head time is taken up by Albert defending the creation and reality of JT. The secondary characters who were sucked into Albert and JT’s orbit aren’t given space to tell their stories, stories which — at least in the case of Savannah — have the potential to elevate the film above other documentary work on the same subject.
“Author” might be worth watching only for the bizarre recordings of celebrity phone conversations. The standout is a conversation between JT and Courtney Love, in which Love pauses the conversation to do a line of cocaine and the subtitles read “snorting sounds.” The dream of the ’90s is alive!
The most surprising — and potentially the most interesting — aspect of the film is how Albert and her entourage were able to fool so many people for so long. Their accents are absurd and Savannah’s costume looks just what it is — the wig is obvious and the over-sized sunglasses are laughable. So many people believed something that, at least in retrospect, seems so obviously fake. Maybe that says something about the willful ignorance of the masses or the narcissism of celebrity.
The informative content of “Author” is fascinating for anyone who hasn’t heard the story before, but the emotional content falls flat. “Author” suffers from a weird sort of heartlessness, in which emotionally potent content is presented in a way that warrants little to no emotional reaction from its audience.