It’s a famous series of books about a young male addict and hooker, JT LeRoy, who jacked up the literary world in 1999, was exposed as breathtaking bit of performance art — or a fraud, as many called it — by a woman author, Laura Albert.
Now, it’s a movie — and it opens at the Varsity Theatre Friday evening, as an offering from the Ashland Independent Film Festival (AIFF), collaborating, because of the literary angle, with Ashland Literary Festival coming up Saturday at Hannon Library, Southern Oregon University.
The film, “Author: The JT LeRoy Story,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where AIFF Program Director Richard Herskowitz saw it and pronounced it “a fascinating story, with so many twists and turns, about how she pulled off this masquerade. I came to admire Laura. The film lays out the various positions on whether what she did was defensible. I ended up convinced it was. It’s very intelligent and engaging, a very fast-moving film, absolutely riveting throughout.”
The show starts at 6, to be followed by a Skype discussion with the audience, featuring Herskowitz and local author-publisher-screenwriter Tod Davies of Exterminating Angel Press. Another showing starts at 9:10 p.m.
Davies, who will give a talk on screenwriting at noon Saturday at the literary festival, says, “It’s a fascinating documentary, a skillful biography, as well as a gripping story about our culture, where she created an uproar over how she became a 15-year old prostitute … It’s the most bizarre statement about celebrity culture that you will see this year,” as it pulls in Bono, Courtney Love, Tom Waits, The Smashing Pumpkins and others who found it irresistible.
The literary charade ran until 2005, when the New York Times ran an expose, showing that LeRoy did not exist, but was played in public by a female friend, Savannah Koop, thus bringing up the whole fuzzy gender dimension. The book, supposedly written by a 15-year-old boy, was actually written by a middle-aged female.
“There seems to be something in the air now, major issues around gender identification and whether it’s fixed or should be something fluid,” says Herskowitz, “not just about trans people but everyone … Should we be allowed to play with it? In this movie, you see what drove Laura out of her female gender to masquerade as this young man.”
Davies notes, “The sex roles are what this movie is about. She felt she couldn’t write as a woman, so she wrote it as a boy. It was safer to be a boy. She could go back and forth fluidly. Culturally, many little boys and little girls feel stuck in their sex roles … There are an awful lot of issues of which she was a forerunner … There would not be the uproar today. Things have moved on, a lot because of her experience.”
Writing for The Times in 2016, Albert noted, "I meet a lot of young people and they're shocked that it was an issue to even have an avatar. Because they've grown up where you have multiple fully formed avatars.”
Davies’ hour-long talk from noon to 1 p.m. Saturday at Hannon Library is a workshop on writing screenplay adaptations. She was the writer on Dennis Hopper’s “The Hot Spot” and “Backtrack” and writer-producer on Alex Cox’s “Three Businessmen” and co-writer on “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
The film Friday benefits AIFF. It’s $9 and continues through next week Thursday.
The Ashland Literary Festival (ALF) is an annual event that celebrates the literary arts by bringing together authors, publishers, and community organizations from throughout the Pacific Northwest. This year’s event runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, at Hannon Library on the Southern Oregon University campus.
The festival schedule includes author readings, writing workshops, panel discussions, short presentations, and an exhibition table fair where visitors can meet authors and purchase books. There is also a dedicated Kids Corner, with crafts and activities for children led by Jackson County Library Services.
For more, go to hanlib.sou.edu/bookfest or call 541-552-6860.
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.