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Call it a massive literary hoax or twisted identity theft. Or just call it art. Either way, “Author: The JT LeRoy Story” will fascinate and at the same time cause much frustrated head-scratching.

This documentary by Jeff Feuerzeig puts the novelist Laura Albert on center stage, and boy does she love being there. You may never have heard of Albert, but many will recall her creation — the young writer JT LeRoy, who shot to cult stardom in the early aughts with two memoirs — “Sarah” and “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.”

JT (which stands for Jeremiah Terminator) made appearances and became an elusive celebrity, hobnobbing with the likes of Winona Ryder and Gus Van Sant. Madonna professed to adore his writing. Asia Argento bought the movie rights to “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” and starred in it as JT’s mom Sarah. When this movie was released in 2004, JT LeRoy even came on a promotional tour to Japan, bringing a bag full of sex charms as gifts to the press.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story (Sakka, Honto no JT LeRoy)
Rating
Run Time 110 mins
Language ENGLISH
Opens APRIL 8

But no one really knew JT LeRoy and he was never seen without a trademark pair of huge sunglasses that covered half his face. Then it was uncovered that JT LeRoy didn’t even exist. He was the made-up persona of Laura Albert.

In 1993 Albert, who was just shy of her 30th birthday, called a suicide hot line, telling the listener she was 13-year old JT, a truck-stop prostitute. She posed as a boy who had been abused and exploited his entire life by his mother Sarah, who plied the same trade and was a drug addict to boot. The therapist on the other end of the line encouraged JT to call back and to write it all down. Albert duly complied, and it became published as “Sarah.”

Shortly after that, Albert asked her boyfriend’s androgynous-looking half sister, Savannah Knoop, to don a pair of shades and a blond wig and pose as JT. Albert herself became “Speedie,” JT’s fast-talking British agent and best friend, with an appalling fake accent.

Albert, Knoop, along with Albert’s boyfriend Geoff, had a good gig going for almost a decade. But then in January 2006, The New York Times published Warren St. John’s article “The Unmasking of JT LeRoy: In Public, He’s a She.” By this time, LeRoy had a contract with Viking Press in New York and had also announced that he had tested HIV-positive, garnering a lot of support from fans and boosting sales for his other two books.

After the article came out Albert pulled the HIV statement, but it was over. JT LeRoy was accused of being a fraud and the myth surrounding his personality was swallowed up in a muddy sludge of recriminations, denials and frantic cover-ups. Like Icarus, Albert’s creation had flown too close to the sun, and now began hurtling straight back down to Earth.

But then what happened? “Author” is far less articulate about the chapters of Albert and her conspirators’ later lives than it is about the events that led up to that fateful news article. Feuerzeig’s documentary is both distinctive and terribly flawed — by letting Albert run with the narrative baton throughout, it winds up replacing one myth with another, both products off her personal spinning wheel. Albert’s clearly not done with this, too. According to her, JT LeRoy does exist, as a real entity within her and speaking through her alone. On the other hand, she talks of how difficult her own childhood had been, by way of explaining the reason behind her need to fabricate the JT persona. Both statements are confusing but Feuerzeig makes no judgements and certainly never pushes Albert into any uncomfortable corners.

Albert is scheduled to arrive in Tokyo next week to open the film — my guess is that a horde of cosplay fans will welcome her, decked out in blond wings and sunglasses.

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