The cost of fame: “The Cult of JT Leroy”

MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. – Marjorie Sturm’s The Cult of JT Leroy was the first film I saw at the new Mammoth Lakes Film Festival. With its quirky, mind-blowing subject matter it set the tone for the rest of this filmfest that stresses personal filmmaking with a unique point of view. Sturm’s fascinating film, chock full of cameos by notables, is, on the surface, about a purported son of a truck stop prostitute who followed in his mother’s footsteps, became drug addicted and HIV-infected and wrote tell-all books about his misadventures at a very tender age.

A cult of celebrity surrounding the young, troubled author mushroomed, attracting numerous high-profile personalities from the music, movie, TV and literary worlds. Using the rationale that he/she (who was rumored to be undergoing a Bruce-to-Caitlyn type of transgender operation) was too shy to read at his/her own public readings, a variety of stars such as celebs Jeremy Renner, Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia also wrote tattle tales about her substance abuse), Sandra Bernhard, Susan Dey, Lou Reed, the Village Voice’s Michael Musto, et al, turned out to read passages from the books and fawn over the media darling.

As the author’s fame spread, actress Asia Argento adapted for the big screen his/her short story collection, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, co-starring Argento, Peter Fonda and Renner. However, as it turns out, all of the journalists who ballyhooed the elusive young writer and the stars who flocked to his/her public events should have paid closer attention to the name of this book and movie. At first, having never heard of the title character, I thought Cult was going to be about a troubled artiste tormented by an unhappy childhood. Then I believed it would become a cautionary tale about how that bitch goddess of fame, fortune and celebrityhood spoil an innocent artiste. (Paging Mssrs. Capote and Williams!)

But then, proving truth is stranger than fiction, Sturm takes us in an entirely different direction: The problem is that JT Leroy was a ruse who did not actually exist. JT was a concoction of a 39-or-so-year-old wannabe writer – who shall deliberately remain nameless here in order not to feed her fame addiction – who conjured up this persona in order to break through to the other side of the rarefied world of major market publishing. Celebs and the “news” media fell for it, hook(er), line and s(t)inker.

(It’s interesting to note that the JT impersonator was actually a young female who feminized the JT image. However, now that the Freudian fraud has been exposed, during public appearances she masculinizes her persona. And but of course, now she’s trying to exploit and capitalize on her infamy by producing a work she’s trying to hawk and, perhaps, become an actress, having succeeded in snookering so many Hollywood and other naïve suckers.) 

Revealed as not having been written by a teenaged son of a truck stop prostitute, the book’s literary cachet has been devalued. In the same way, if Sturm’s film was a feature – fiction, that is – it would stretch credulity too far to be believed and I would be inclined to give it a thumbs down. But because it is a meticulously told documentary – including videotaped depositions of the shrink of the actual author in question – Cult is an utterly absorbing, jaw-dropping, fascinating cinematic excursion into the quest and thirst for money and notoriety in our celebrity culture, deserving of a resounding thumbs up.

But Cult is far more than that: In discussions with the director at MLFF, Sturm agreed that Cult is a metaphor about how the mass media swallowed the Bush Administration’s colossal lies sans hard proof about Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, and set the stage for the invasion of a nation that had done us no harm (and which the U.S. had been harming already for more than a decade, with a previous invasion, sanctions, air strikes and other war crimes). Perhaps not coincidentally, during the Iraq War the feature The Hoax – about Clifford Irving, who concocted out of whole cloth an “autobiography” of Howard Hughes – and two biopics about Truman Capote, who invented the so-called “nonfiction novel” were released.

Like Sturm’s doc, these features show how nonfiction becomes novelized, with dramatization and confabulation fobbed off as “news” and “truth.” Meanwhile, the perps of the staggering lies about Iraq – which would make Nazi Minister of Propaganda Dr. Goebbels blush in comparison, embarrassed that a “democracy” would outdo a fascist state in terms of media manipulation to justify unnecessary, unprovoked war – remain in positions of influence in the think tank/ political/”news” complex, raking in the bucks, running for president, etc. (Paging Mesdames Riefenstahl and Miller!)

Marjorie Sturm’s feature-length documentary debut should definitely be widely seen; the 91-minute The Cult of JT Leroy deserves a distribution deal. In the end, it actually is a cautionary tale, a meditation upon media manipulation, that should be required viewing by those who don’t follow the admonition: Viewer beware! Don’t believe everything you read, see or hear.

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Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.