In the world of JT LeRoy, people are so hungry for art that feels edgy and real that they won’t scratch the surface of a facade that turned out to be a multifaceted literary hoax.
In the late 1990s, the supposedly autobiographical tales of LeRoy, a transgendered, abused teen whose mother was a truck-stop prostitute, captivated the literary world. Celebrities like Debbie Harry, Gus Van Sant, Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, John Waters, Matthew Modine and Carrie Fisher were among the admirers who praised the stories for their honesty until journalists uncovered that LeRoy wasn’t real.
What sets this ruse apart from other fictionalized autobiographies was that the true author, Laura Albert, who called LeRoy more an “avatar” than a pseudonym, had hired someone to portray LeRoy in public: her partner’s sister, Savannah Knoop. For six years, Knoop posed as LeRoy in blond wigs and big sunglasses, ostensibly out of shyness. Meanwhile, Albert, with a British accent, wig and sunglasses, appeared at LeRoy’s side as a handler who parroted their answers to questions.
Into this fascinatingly bizarre setup comes the film JT LeRoy, based on Knoop’s book, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy. Directed by Justin Kelly (Welcome the Stranger), the film features engrossing performances from Laura Dern (The Tale, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) as Albert and Kristen Stewart (Lizzie, Personal Shopper) as Knoop, even if the story itself doesn’t probe as deeply as one would like.
The film admirably doesn’t paint Knoop or Albert as saints or charlatans; however, Knoop’s motivation isn’t clear. Knoop, who prefers the pronouns “they/their,” arrives in San Francisco to live with their brother, Geoff (Jim Sturgess), who’s trying to get his band off the ground. Sturgess (TV’s Hard Sun, Geostorm) has the thankless job of hanging around this relationship too long while Albert in a low twangy voice pretends to be LeRoy on the phone. It isn’t long before Albert shows Knoop the best-selling book that she authored as LeRoy and persuades Knoop to pose as LeRoy in person because interviewers are becoming suspicious.
With close-cropped hair and baggy shirts, Stewart portrays Knoop as someone without ambition and not fully comfortable in their own skin. As Albert, Dern is a whirlwind of creative energy. She flits between a woman who buys into her own nonsense and also senses she’s full of it. Considering the script is based on Knoop’s book, Albert surprisingly feels more fleshed out as a character, revealing her own background of abuse and explaining how LeRoy gave voice to her pain.
Knoop is initially reluctant to go along with Albert’s pretense, but the offer of $50 and Albert’s compliments and reassurance soon carry Knoop along. “When you’re meeting someone for the first time, would you ever question who they are?” Albert asks. Later, Knoop admits to enjoying creating something through the performance: “I’ve wanted that feeling my whole life.”
Knoop also is attracted to a sexy starlet, Eva (Diane Kruger, In the Fade), who wants the film rights to LeRoy’s work, finding it pure and raw. In real life, Knoop as LeRoy was enamored with Asia Argento (Drifters), who directed and starred in 2004’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, based on LeRoy’s short stories.
The LeRoy saga underwent the documentary treatment with 2016’s Author: The JT LeRoy Story, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. That film benefited from archive footage of Corgan, Harry, Love, and others enraptured both by LeRoy’s prose and its purported writer. Love (TV’s Empire) appears in JT LeRoy as a producer who asks Albert, as LeRoy’s the “handler,” why she keeps answering for LeRoy. But beyond trips to Paris and the Cannes Film Festival, JT LeRoy has little of the Hollywood atmosphere that no doubt was one reason to keep the charade going.
For those unfamiliar with the real-life details of the LeRoy saga, JT LeRoy will seem light on details. But for fans of Stewart and Dern, it’s an absorbing look at a dysfunctional and manipulative relationship. “I get to show people exactly what I want to show them,” Dern’s Albert as LeRoy explains at one point. “I get to focus on the words and leave my body behind.”