Eat, Pray, Love. Nip/Tuck. American Horror Story. The Boys in the Band. And, of course, Glee. Ryan Murphy is a mess. He produces too much, and the work that he produces is never really consistent.
In 2018, the Pulitzer Prize–winning television writer Emily Nussbaum, working for the New Yorker, profiled Ryan Murphy. This was coming off a $300 million production deal from Netflix. The profile opens with Murphy claiming what he isn’t:
Ryan Murphy hates the word “camp.” He sees it as a lazy catchall that gets thrown at gay artists in order to marginalize their ambitions, to frame their work as niche. “I don’t think that when John Waters made Female Trouble that he was, like, ‘I want to make a camp piece,’” Murphy told me last May, as we sat in a production tent in South Beach, Florida, where he was directing the pilot of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, a nine-episode series for FX. “I think that he was, like, ‘It’s my tone—and my tone is unique.’”
He then called himself baroque.
Even using “baroque” instead of “camp,” even refusing the idea of camp with a historical reference, betrays his anxiety. Camp might then be an apparatus, a thing that we do to texts as opposed to texts themselves. It must be done balancing cynicism and earnestness, transparency and opaqueness.
I also don’t quite know what Murphy means by “baroque,” or what he means by “camp,” but Murphy has never been able to discern tone—never been able to define what “baroque” is. (Glee is too earnest to be baroque, O. J. Simpson is too cold, American Horror Stories too convinced of its own cleverness; perhaps only the secular martyrdom of Versace is properly baroque.)
Murphy’s work as a director, producer, or writer would be what critic Andrew Sarris described as expressive esoterica: “These are the unsung directors with difficult styles or unfashionable genres or both. Their deeper virtues are often obscured by irritating idiosyncrasies on the surface, but they are generally redeemed by their seriousness and grace.”1 But in the five decades since Sarris wrote those words, work has changed substantially—the auteur is no longer the director but the producer; unsung directors have become famous on the backs of difficult styles (and Murphy is nothing but pure style); genres that were unfashionable (creature features, body horror, melodramas) have become lauded. The deeper virtues Sarris talks about are humanist ones, and the old-fashioned liberal belief in the dignity of all humans—but those are obscured by a desire for the grotesque, the monstrous, and the low. In fact, it almost seems like Murphy believes in a kind of mutual redemption—that the low or burlesque is no longer grotesque when put in service of individual liberation.
See how he hires Zachary Quinto to play Harold in The Boys in the Band. Harold describes himself in the play as a “pockmarked Jew fairy.” The original film adaption is uglier to look at, more toxic and more sodden. There is something in recasting the history, a way of making Quinto look serious and making Harold look good. Murphy does not make arguments about why this play needs to be revived, why it needs to look slicker, why the leads need to be prettier, but he makes an argument that the formal nature of recasting and revising is in itself an act of queer liberation, or he would if we were convinced he was in favor of anything but aesthetic adaptation. This is a streamed adaption of a Broadway revival of an adaptation of a filmed adaptation of a Broadway adaption of off-Broadway theater. The mirrored boxes of these adaptations are explicitly about textual revision.
When Sarris was writing about film, for a long time there was a third rail between film and television. Now film and television no longer exist, and what has replaced them is a miasma of competing digital streaming services, some more legitimate than others. Murphy’s obsession with revising, editing, and glossing is key here. Part of this digital culture is a belief that curation, reference making, winking, and/or nodding are their own forms of creation. Sarris is useful to read with regards to Murphy, because Murphy is one of those poststructural, post-form auteurs who has a historical memory, and whose aesthetic interest is in the recast, the remix, the rework, the ironic reversal. (Compare him with Shonda Rhimes, who fucks less with genre, who does not seem to have a historical memory of the form, and whose innovations are largely in important matters like color-blind casting.)
With Murphy, the ironies, the mutual inconsistencies, the strangenesses pile higgledy-piggledy on top of a bedrock of references that are only partly taken seriously. To make sense of this chaotic milieu, here are 12 provocations—questions, statements, notes—about Murphy’s work. There is so much of it that these are limited examples, small signposts. To write about each of his dozens of projects would require 10 times as much space.
The art historian Dave Hickey has said that “good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege.” In nine words he describes the ongoing problem with good taste, bad taste, bad taste redeemed as good taste, and bad taste hidden in good taste, via the transmogrification of prestige.
Queer taste, for an exceptionally long time, perhaps as an artifact of the closet, was articulated in a set of references. These references were often about taking seriously that which was considered vapid or silly, lurid or tabloid. Interest in the steep descent of a career, in the failures of someone previously successful, deepened the obsession with bad taste. Good queens would talk about Crawford in Mildred Pierce, solid good taste. Queens who were developing a new camp taste would be interested in the desperate late work, like the caveman B movie Trog. When Crawford’s adopted daughter wrote a tell-all memoir, it was read as an explicit critique—of Hollywood, of heterosexual families—and was absorbed into these high-camp fantasias. These fantasias led to Faye Dunaway’s infamous production of Mommie Dearest. The movie was so overwrought, so brilliant in its excesses, it destroyed Dunaway’s career. Murphy making a television show about the history of Crawford and Bette Davis has this whole history of queer receiving, queer reading.
Residue is the important word here: what is left over after processing, what sticks after everything else has been boiled down. (Feud, his show about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, as an argument about taste, requires middle-class pleasures like Mildred Pierce, low-class pleasures like Trog, 40 years of tabloids, Mommie Dearest the tell-all, Mommie Dearest the film, etc., in one thick syrup.)
Taste is the anxiety of what the consumer desires and what the consumer is presented with. Ryan Murphy, with his obsession with historically minded process, understands this better than almost anyone else.
The word consume is a bodily metaphor. There is something monstrous in the all-consuming obsession Murphy has with other people’s texts, shoehorned, stacked, piled, pushed forward. His relation to other texts has the meta quality of much camp, and the revision of historical texts to contemporary modes that marks current commercial television and movies.
No high school kids were listening to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the middle of a reworking of 1970s and ’80s soft schlock; that text was considered a middle ground of bad taste. However, when a high school choir sings it, in a fantasia of Ohio (people I know from the Midwest who teach high school band suggest this might be both cheesy and inspirational), it becomes a straightforward inspirational text.
Earnest inspiration is what we (queer folks, queer artists) used to make art out of; we didn’t interpret earnest texts using earnest forms. Camp was a strategy of intertextual reading, which allowed access to narratives that were forbidden.
Sontag was wrong about camp when she wrote that “taste has no system and no proofs”2—it is always proving, always working consistently toward a system, dependent on an accumulation of texts. Camp was about feeling more and feeling harder, putting a masked surface over a tumult of feelings.
The original Boys in the Band used camp as a weapon, as a specifically queer way of being. Set in a single apartment, it was a queer text for queer people in queer spaces. The gorgeous, expensive remake by Murphy, with its introduction showing everyone coming to a party, was a way for the text to indicate that this was now an exterior text, intended for a wide audience.
Maybe we don’t need essays on camp anymore. Maybe now that everything is public, interior-seeking queer texts don’t need to exist.
Camp used to be about taste. Sharon Stone in Ratched has the intertextuality of camp. You cannot see Stone without thinking of Basic Instinct or Casino or of her as a faded movie star, the reception area turned into a boudoir, the glamorous remaking of the hagsploitation role, how she talks about money, how she owns a monkey, the violence that the monkey does.
All this is a depoliticized, arid kind of taste making, a highly referential bad taste as good taste that is so overbaked that its set direction can never really be camp. Taste prevents camp.
Murphy’s ability to read, to pivot, to work both earnestly and against earnestness is a continual crisis of interpretation, which marks him as perhaps Hollywood’s last great auteur.
The film, or even the television show, is a limited form.
Think of Murphy’s telling of the Cunanan murders, where the ironic, fourth-wall-breaking jokes are wry, and very subtle. Two of Cunanan’s victims were a wealthy property developer and his home-shopping/cosmetic-magnate wife. Versace is a show about capital and striving; in it, Murphy talks about wanting money and how to get money—that couple (Marylin and Lee Miglin) live in a minimalist, tasteful, all-white Chicago townhouse. It is not the expensive, gaudy, Italianate mansion of Versace—but Versace’s bad taste was a kind of good taste. The couple is played by Mike Ferrell and Judith Light. Cunanan is played by Darren Criss. The fourth wall is not broken here as much as made pliable, both wave and particle, moving in and out between the meta and the adaption.
Criss is straight, but plays gay; he was found by Murphy, and his aesthetic in Glee had an absent, anxious edge. The anxiety is found in Cunanan, the closet turning into a monster. Ferrell is mostly known for playing B. J. Hunnicutt in a sitcom adaption of a movie nominally about one war, but really about another. Hunnicutt is thought to be a good father, but is absent, for reasons mostly out of his control. Light is known for playing a businesswoman who has much power in a late 1980s sitcom. She did an enormous amount of work for AIDS, and did theater work. She moved from the low trash of three-camera sitcoms to the limited high class of theater, allowing for a kind of prestige television. Often known both on and off the screen for always talking and a kind of anti-restraint, here she is restrained, severe, and cold. Ferrell is less cynical, avuncular—but watching him, both in the episode where he is murdered and in the episode where he first meets Criss, at a high-end gay party in La Jolla, the audience sees him as both Hunnicutt and as this new character.
Everything is intertextual, everything is nostalgic. There is the fantasy of Hollywood—with its sexually and racially diverse cast making the movie they want to make, which wins Oscars and destroys the racist system. It’s a less interesting narrative, sunnier than other subtextual places that Murphy hints at. (Camp, or the manipulation of taste, in order to sneak information past people.)
There is an episode in Hollywood that shows a gay male sexual obsession. It nominally depicts George Cukor’s pool parties. Cukor, the glass-closeted director of women’s pictures, would have two parties in an evening. The first would be for friends, and the second would be for male ingenues—butch chorines—often without clothes, often with Cukor trading these men to more-closeted elders for a kind of access.
To watch these pool parties, and know of Murphy as part of a small coterie of gay men in Hollywood, and think about his position—that must be a little bit deliberate. The intertextual reading that savvy readers might construct involves similar pool parties held by Bryan Singer or Roland Emmerich in the past decade. There is talk of Murphy at those parties—in this scene not stated but obvious to those in the know—is Murphy claiming Hollywood has always been that way, is he claiming his circle as Cukor’s circle, is he using it as an excuse to show flesh, is he depicting a kind of desire, is he making an apology for his own tastes or his own aesthetics?
Cukor’s parties were private, or public at least to the people who read Hollywood Babylon (Anger’s disinformation was deliberate—the noobs would believe everything, the insiders would know whom to pick and choose, and, in a Crowleyan moment, what was known and what was unknown were continually in flux); the remake of the public, against a hidden autobiography, through an alternative-universe Hollywood had a dozen kinds of wish fulfillment.
The self-fashioning of the closet as the self-fashioning of the coterie is a structural code that leads to a set of aesthetic problems, which lead to a strategy of reading, which becomes camp.
This public private, and the question of what is camp and what is a serious measure of Murphy’s aesthetic, mean that nothing can be considered serious. Even in his least camp, most public, least gossipy work, there is a punctum of tastelessness.
His work on OJ is deeply serious (there is nothing really flashy about the shots; everything is sublimated to make a serious argument about the nature of fame). Even the meta arguments, like the casting of Cuba Gooding Jr., are quieter and lower-key than anything Murphy had done before. It is an almost ritualistic, liturgical reworking of the ongoing crises of fame.
With two exceptions. There is John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, and Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey. Seriousness without some kind of escape value can stifle, suffocate, and be seen in its way as unserious—like Woody Allen trying to remake Bergman. So, Travolta, who is always himself, who is a ham, and whose own bizarre history of fame makes him eminently watchable, does this kind of hall-of-mirrors recursive showboating. It’s another way into the problem of the toxicity of fame.
Lane is a more interesting choice. I keep thinking of the play The Nance, which he did around the same time as this TV show. Lane plays an old burlesque performer, a sissy who is aware of how, via politics or via aesthetics or both, he has become irrelevant, and this irrelevance has become dangerous. The nance moves from the 1920s to the ’50s; he meets a man at an Automat that works as a cruising ground. The Nance is weirdly poignant, because it seems to be an economic gloss on Lane’s own anxieties—no matter how successful he is, there seems to be less of a place for his own high femmeness; he is often cast in these rolls for low comedy. This has been a central struggle for Lane—from The Birdcage onward—and so when he plays the straight Lee as vain, preening, aware of his own cleverness, and shut off, the hermetic quality of the performance complicates the rest of the work. One of the central questions of the OJ show (both Murphy’s depiction of the trial and the theatrical quality of the trial itself) is how fame functions as currency, how to perform when one is given fame.
The quality of Murphy, then—his intertextual aesthetics—is a continual revision of what we mean by “camp” and “taste” and the lability of form. Camp forms are ones where the intertextual readings not only build networks of meaning—the networks of meaning are not strong, they might not even be networks—they cluster then scatter, flit in and out, move quickly, and collapse even quicker.
Pose is serious. It is about money, the failure of real estate, growing a family despite (trans)homophobia, loss—really about all of the losses that Bishop elucidates in “One Art”:
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
It might also be Murphy’s most optimistic work—the balls a ritual that renews this desire to live every week despite all of these losses.
This might seem like one formal theme—resilience against loss, let’s say. But there is Patti LuPone’s performance as a greedy landlord, as bright and wide as a silent-movie villain; or there is the kindly nurse played by Sandra Bernhard, who sings Prince at a fundraiser. These spaces’ excesses place the kitchen-sink realism of the rest of the series in stark relief—they both push away from the tone of the rest of the series and comment on that rupture; in a show where performativity marks the central metaphor of poor people of color, they work as apologetics for more dominant forms of identity as well.
Nothing is stable, and the instability is part of why the series exists. There is an episode in the middle of the second season where three of the queens who work as pro doms kidnap a man who has a summer house in the Hamptons (can one consent to a kidnapping?), and they take him to that house over an autumnal weekend. The queens play while the sub is bound and gagged under the carport.
This is the whole series—a wink to Dorian Corey and an attempt to make that story less lethal; a metaphor about who has power and who has capital; an acknowledgment of how temporary some pleasures might be, and a discussion of how necessary those pleasures are.
If Bernhard’s and LuPone’s excesses mark a kind of pleasure against drudgery, this weekend has all of the marks of Murphy’s temporality—the structure never really changes; the respite is never permanent. A body is seized, and we live in tension for the body to be released or to be lost.
With Murphy, the ironies, the mutual inconsistencies, the strangenesses pile higgledy-piggledy on top of a bedrock of references that are only partly taken seriously.
For Murphy, the lability of form rests on the liability of bodies and the excessive display of those bodies, bodies that are often between more stable categories, bodies that could be read as monstrous (see the minotaur in American Horror Story: Coven, the bearded lady in American Horror Story: Freak Show, the burn victim in Ratched, etc.). The instability of flesh, the instability of tone, of aesthetics and forms, repeats again and again, a leitmotif. In Nip/Tuck, his second-earliest show, two plastic surgeons ask candidates for an intervention: “Tell me what you don’t like about yourself.” Every attempt the surgeons make to have these subjects like themselves more, there are more disasters. An attempt to perfect a body, even for free, even for crime victims, is a narrative catastrophe.
These attempts to redeem bodies can also be seen in the redeeming of historically disreputable forms. Some of these forms—like horror, domestic melodrama, pornography, or true crime—have been redeemed, and have been so since the 1970s, but Murphy seems anxious that they have become too pure. He takes objects that have previously been dismissed as camp not as deliberate textual interventions but as movies beyond the pale, and takes their formal interests forward.
How can you be respectable without losing respectability? How do you engage with these Grand Guignols of sex and violence, and sexualized violence, and convince respectable people to do these unrepeatable things?
American Horror Story: Coven is audacious in its pornographic excess: young women are tortured to preserve the decaying body of a witch; a woman returns from the dead; someone has sex to kill a friend’s rapist; a resurrection spell goes badly, and the rapist returns as a literal monster; someone has sex with a minotaur, a woman discovers she has the power of pyrokinesis, there is some incest; Voodoo priestesses and witches gather together to raise zombies as an act of revenge; an Ouija board raises the spirit of a historical serial killer called “the Axeman of New Orleans”; someone develops telekinesis; there is a feast of psychic skills, etc., etc.—all acted out by a coterie of some of the best actresses working today. In the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, the sex with the monster is both a metaphor and thrillingly literal. In Murphy’s work, the monstrous must be allegorical, but the one-on-one connection between sign and signifier, between allegory and subject, disappears.
Camp made on purpose is an impossibly failed form. Camp is not something that can be created; it is an honor bestowed by readers.
I wonder if it is possible to sit down with a work and say, “I am now using the apparatus of camp to make a text that is camp.” Maybe the most camp work of Murphy’s career is The Prom—a miserable movie, his least interesting work, and the one with the least semiotic weight. The redemption narrative falls flat, Meryl Streep tries to play Patti LuPone badly, the sexual charisma of Andrew Rannells falls flat, and Nicole Kidman—well, who can believe that she ever failed at anything.
It’s failed ambition, it’s wooden acting, and it’s silly earnestness—this is finally a text that we cannot use the camp apparatus to dissect.
This dissection is key—a financially successful text that reads as camp is a thoroughly digested form:
Ball culture begot Paris Is Burning, which begot Pose.
Confidential begot Kenneth Anger, who begot Hollywood.
The Vampire Lestat (novel) begot Interview with the Vampire (film) begot Coven.
In this case, it doesn’t matter if Murphy is good; it doesn’t matter that his flaws, the excesses, the improbabilities, the exoticism are a mark of the form, a set of moral test cases resting on aesthetic excesses; his ability to read, to pivot, to work both earnestly and against earnestness is a continual crisis of interpretation, which marks him as perhaps Hollywood’s last great auteur.
This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.