Enrico Colantoni and Gina Gershon
House of Versace, a new Lifetime Original Movie premiering Saturday night, takes off like gangbusters, opening in 1996 in the fashion capital of Milan. Designer Gianni Versace (Enrico Colantoni) is sitting pretty, his vibrant, sexy styles in strong demand for both red-carpet events and high-profile artistic projects such as operas and movies. If Gianni is the driving force behind his family’s empire, however, his sister, Donatella (Gina Gershon), has begun to capture her share of press attention thanks to her dynamic personality and a flair for being outstpoken and compulsively quotable.
Gianni, who is given to saying things like “the woman who wears this gown must feel like a sexy warrior,” is mostly proud of his sister’s elevated profile, but he turns snappish when she starts wanting to launch a line of her own designs.
“I am the designer. You are a stylist. Don’t confuse the two,” he tells her peevishly at one point.
The first third of the TV movie fairly bursts with energy and color. Clearly, this is a very big world populated by big talents and comparably sized egos, and House of Versace captures that world in all its high-stakes excitement.
Flash-forward, now, to the summer of 1997. Gianni is in Miami to meet with some American clients, but he phones a stressed-out Donatella, who is struggling to coordinate a high-profile Versace show in Italy. Tired and irritable, she yells at her brother when he tries to micromanage via long distance, then hangs up on him. Later that day, in one of that summer’s most shocking incidents, Gianni is murdered outside his home by serial killer Andrew Cunanan.
Naturally, the family is completely devastated, but with a major show coming up in just a few weeks, someone has to step in to complete Gianni’s collection or turn it over to another high-profile name and risk the collection being claimed by another brand. From a creative standpoint, Donatella isn’t nearly ready for this kind of exposure, but as she is the second best-known among the Versaces, she gamely takes a shot at it.
It’s a mistake. The other members of the Versace fashion team, many of whom had worked with Gianni for many years, look on with ill-concealed disapproval as she tries to impose her own taste on the garments instead of doing “what Gianni would have wanted.” Already insecure, Donatella starts to take legitimate criticism as signs of disloyalty and she begins firing long-time Versace loyalists and associates, causing even deeper dissention within the ranks. She is aghast when her first collection is greeted with derision by the fashion press, who slam her designs for being sad and lackluster, lacking Gianni’s cheerful buoyancy and sexiness.
At about this juncture in the TV movie, I had to admit, I was seeing their point. I never would have thought of Colantoni for the role of the flamboyant Gianni Versace, but he’s absolutely brilliant, filling his scenes with energy, ego and a hint of madness. That’s not to suggest Gershon isn’t very good. She is, but she seems to be somewhat locked into sustaining Donatella’s signature vocal patterns and intonations even when it starts to make her line readings sound a bit monotone after awhile.
After Gianni’s death, House of Versace, like the business of the same title, suffers a real slump in creative energy, as Donatella goes from one professional low to another, compounded by the personal hurt when she learns that Gianni has cut her and most of the rest of his immediate family out of his will. All of this sends Donatella into a drug- and alcohol-fueled depression spiral that lasts seven years – and occasionally I felt as if those years were playing out in real time in this film.
Thankfully, Donatella’s family eventually sends her to rehab and she pulls herself together for a stunning comeback that we see in the final moments of the TV movie. I just wish the screenwriter had cut some of the depressing (and repetitive) middle third of the film and allowed us to enjoy more of the triumphant, post-rehab Donatella.
House of Versace may be imperfect, but it has moments of near-perfection, however, and it’s worth seeing for those. In addition to the compelling performances of Gershon and Colantoni, the cast also includes good work by Colm Feore as Santo, Gianni and Donatella’s brother; Broadway’s Donna Murphy as Maria, a key member of the Versace creative team; and Raquel Welch, looking supernaturally stunning at 73 as Aunt Lucia, who acts as a surrogate mother and grandmother to the Versaces.
The Vatican explodes with acts of treachery as The Borgias returns for its third season tonight on Showtime, joining a very crowded Sunday primetime lineup. The action picks up right where the second season finale left off, with Pope Alexander (Jeremy Irons) being poisoned by a young assassin dispatched by the pontiff’s nemesis, Della Rovere (Colm Feore). As Lucrezia (Holliday Grainger) desperately tries a little-known antidote to save her father’s life, Vanazzo (Joanne Whalley) confides to her son Cesare (Francois Arnaud) that she fears for the fate of the entire family if Alexander dies.
And her foreboding proves prescient, because as the hour unfolds and the pope’s life hangs in the balance, the three other members of the family find themselves (and Lucrezia’s infant son) assailed by a complex violent coup designed to eradicate the entire Borgia clan in Rome. To avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal who’s behind the mayhem, but for anyone who watched season two, the answer isn’t all that hard to figure out.
In other words, this new season finds the personal stakes seriously raised for all the main characters. When the dust settles, the surviving Borgias must fight for their safety in a new reality where some of the oldest and most important families in Rome regard them with barely veiled contempt. It’s a shrewd plot development for this historical soap opera, and despite the pomp and pageantry in which the series is wrapped, the storytelling is admirably lean and swiftly paced. The focal point of the show, of course, is Irons’ plummy-verging-on-high-camp performance as Pope Alexander, a highly mannered piece of work that sometimes goes totally over the top, yet he’s certainly never boring. Arnaud, a French-Canadian actor, is superb as Cesare, one of the most emotionally complex character threads in this huge tapestry, and Grainger is likewise very fine, especially in scenes that involve her, um, warm feelings for her brother. Even better, the spectacular Gina McKee is back this season as the terrifyingly formidable Catherine Sforza, who has several serious scores to settle with the Borgias.
If you haven’t sampled this series before, I strongly recommend you catch up on at least some of the previous episodes via any available media platform before trying to jump into season three unprepared, because understanding the dizzying intrigues, betrayals and double crosses is crucial to enjoying this show. If you’re a seasoned fan, though, by all means tune in tonight secure in the fact that The Borgias is in better shape than ever before.