Doc reveals the anatomy of a hoax 

click to enlarge Savannah Knoop appears at JT in “The Cult of JT Leroy," a film by Marjorie Sturm that explores the allure of celebrity. - COURTESY MARJORIE STURM
  • Savannah Knoop appears at JT in “The Cult of JT Leroy," a film by Marjorie Sturm that explores the allure of celebrity.
Centering on a literary hoax fizzy with personality, “The Cult of JT LeRoy” is an absorbing documentary that dissects an act of fraud and examines the allure of celebrity. Covering most of the decade-or-so duration of her title subject’s faux existence, director Marjorie Sturm begins in the 1990s, when an individual going by the name of JT Leroy claimed to be an abused, addicted, HIV-positive 15-year-old turning tricks on the San Francisco streets, abandoned by his prostitute mother.

Encouraged by a therapist, JT wrote stories. His accounts of hardship prompted literary-world support and sympathy. He wrote several well-received novels, including “Sarah.”

Reportedly publicity-shy, JT was represented by other notables at readings of his work. Carrie Fisher, Lou Reed and Sandra Bernhardt are among those Sturm shows in clips.

In 2001, JT began making appearances. An androgynous figure wearing a wig and sunglasses, he captivated the media. His self-styled eccentricity sparked Warhol comparisons.

It collapsed in 2005, when a magazine article exposed JT Leroy as a fabrication of 40-year-old Laura Albert, who had penned JT’s writings and posed as JT in lengthy phone conversations. A later article identified Savannah Knoop, Albert’s sister-in-law, as JT’s wig-and-shades incarnation.

Telling the story via interviews, footage and a few unnecessary reenactments, Sturm hasn’t made a big-picture documentary (that likely will be made someday). She addresses only sketchily the claim that JT LeRoy was an act of performance art, among other pro-Albert arguments.

But Sturm is an efficient storyteller, and she has assembled a cast of informative, engaging interviewees – writers, agents, filmmakers – whose stories convincingly bear out her view of Albert as a con artist who preyed on people’s emotions. The film is an engrossing study of how, amid the dazzle of celebrity, a hoax like JT LeRoy could, and did, happen.


The Cult of JT LeRoy

three stars

Starring Stephen Beachy, Geoffrey Knoop, Dennis Cooper, Ira Silverberg

Directed by Marjorie Sturm

Not rated

Running time 1 hour, 31 minutes

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Anita Katz

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