Lifetime TV movie review: House of Versace

“You know we created the supermodel. It wasn’t until we took the print girls—Naomi, Christy, Linda, Cindy and put them on the runway.” Donatella Versace to a Vanity Fair editor.

The little I knew about Donatella Versace I’d gleaned through tabloids. Not that I knew much about the Versace family or designer Gianni other than his shocking 1997 murder outside his Miami home. I knew the red carpet Versace looks and the glossy magazine ads and other bits and pieces. This film fills in tons of gaps with a solid script and an authentic performance from Gina Gershon as Donatella Versace.

We start right with Gianni [Enrico Colantoni] preparing a runway show amidst a rush of dresses and models. In swoops Donatella. She glances at a model and scoffs at the sandals she’s wearing. Gianni gives his explanation for a connection to the earth but Donatella thinks it’s ridiculous. She whispers to someone to put all the models in stilettos. The woman says, “He’s going to kill you.” The crowd goes wild and after the show Gianni tells Donatella that she was right.

"House of Versace" Day 08 Photo: Jan Thijs 2013

A strongly run family business, Gianni designs the collection, Donatella works as stylist/ publicist and eldest brother Santo [Colm Feore] runs the business end of things. Of course, being the designer, Gianni remains the star and garners much of the credit for the styles. Although extremely close there’s lots of bickering and competition. Donatella possesses a keen sense for trends, publicity and business. She does interviews, handles photo shoots and garners celebrity clients by attending parties and public events. Gianni prefers to remain home with his boyfriend. He’s quieter though many consider him difficult. Donatella wishes she were as creative as Gianni and Gianni wishes he possessed his sister’s publicity and styling abilities. They’re strangely supportive yet jealous of each other. During one particularly awful fight Gianni tells Donatella: “I am the designer. Me. Gianni Versace. And you, Donatella are a stylist.”

Understandably Gianni’s murder rips House of Versace to the core. Donatella enters a truly dark period. She subsists on cocaine, cigarettes, booze, pills and little sleep. Now it’s almost a Lifetime docu-drama “how to lose 100 million in a few years.” Donatella has 20 percent of Versace, Santo has 30 and Gianni left niece Allegra 50 percent. At first this hurts Donatella immensely as if Gianni were trying to control her or ridicule her in some manner. She thinks that he’s “haunting” her from the grave. She feels she’ll end up working for her daughter, losing control of the company, not being able to do what she’d hoped—be a designer in her own right. Versace nearly goes bankrupt. Aunt Lucia [Raquel Welch] comes in to take care of Donatella and her family.

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We watch this struggle for Donatella. In attempting to keep Versace going, she tries to remain true to Gianni’s style, relying on drugs and booze to keep her going. Darkness engulfs her and she struggles with that fact that Gianni didn’t believe in her enough to leave the company with her but with her young daughter. She’s terribly insecure. Donatella left college to help Gianni with his dream. She always wanted to have her own fashion line. Her marriage suffers and her children feel alienated as she focused so much on the business.

This is based on Deborah Ball’s book House of Versace: The Untold Story of Genius, Murder and Survival. Directed by Sara Sugarman and with a script by Rama Stagner [that avoids Allegra’s struggles with anorexia and places the focus on Donatella], Gina Gershon brings empathy and depth to her role as Donatella Versace. Many might wonder why they should care about this wealthy woman who hobnobs with celebrities and holds ritzy international parties and outfits A-listers for the most glamorous events. Although this film covers a limited period in Versace’s life it’s clear she’s worked hard to become a successful designer and business icon. She nearly lost her family, ruined her life with drugs and bankrupted her family business.

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When she turns 18, Allegra takes over her half and sends her mom to rehab but wants to go to college and be a “normal” girl. When Donatella returns from rehab she’s fresh with design ideas and a new attitude toward her future with the family business. She takes a new approach toward designing a collection. A sober one. Seven years after Gianni’s death Donatella finally designs a collection that fits her aesthetic.

House of Versace premieres on Lifetime on October 5 at 8pm ET/PT.

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