“They killed my husband for a car.”
That is what Home Shopping Network star Marilyn Miglin, played by Judith Light, tells her viewing audience at the end of the third episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. It’s what the rest of the world was told as well: Her husband, Chicago real estate magnate Lee Miglin (Mike Farrell), was the unfortunate victim of a random act of violence. Tragic, but most important, random.
The real story behind Miglin’s murder is much more complicated and multifaceted—there’s compelling evidence that Miglin knew his murderer, spree killer Andrew Cunanan (as portrayed in Versace by a terrifying Darren Criss). Not only that, Miglin was quite likely a client of Cunanan, who was a high-end escort for gay men. Following her husband’s murder, the most important thing to Marilyn is perception, and the lengths necessary to preserve a certain outward facade that’s falling apart.
As a dramatized account of Cunanan’s killing spree, Versace has the liberty to put the implied pieces together as follows. Miglin’s corpse was gruesomely left for show, spread out alongside gay porn magazines; Cunanan put women’s underwear on Miglin postmortem. The Miglins were a powerful couple well connected with the cops, and therefore, Marilyn is able to keep the details of her husband’s death—and the heavy implication that he was a closeted gay man—private.
The weight of this juxtaposition that the Versace viewer is privy to—public versus private—and the excruciating burden of keeping those two things separate, falls almost entirely on Judith Light’s performance. Her face is how Versace communicates its central theme, the way a systemic, internalized homophobia and suppression of truth allowed a killer like Cunanan to break free, and the devastating way that affected the lives of people such as Marilyn. It’s not every day that a show gives a guest actor this level of responsibility, but Versace does, and Light is up to the task. “A Random Killing” aired on the last day of January; we’re barely into the second month of 2018. But with her portrayal of Marilyn Miglin, Judith Light has already wrapped up the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series.
Since this episode, like most of the Versace season, is chronologically all over the place, we see Marilyn at different points, before and after the death of her husband. Even while Lee is alive, Marilyn’s expression is consistently poignant. The Miglins have built a successful life, but there’s a distance between them, an unspoken secret; something that feels like it’s been festering for decades.
Versace implies—again, because it can—that Marilyn probably knew, at the very least, that her husband was gay; it also implies that Miglin knew that she knew. Perhaps the most telling moment in the episode comes as the Miglins prepare for bed. Lee places his hand directly over his wife’s, somewhat platonically, and Marilyn then locks their fingers together—a more intimate embrace.
Light nails her character’s physical tics, which present Marilyn as a mess of contradictions—she seems less concerned that her husband was keeping secrets from her than with keeping the public facade of their marriage intact. When she finds out that her husband is dead—after arriving home and finding the house in a somewhat suspicious state—she whispers to herself, “I knew it.” She’s disconcertingly calm around the cops, until she breaks into tears, her makeup smearing in the process—doubling as some unsubtle but effective subtext. “How dare they say our marriage was a sham?” she chides, as Light cathartically falls apart, releasing some of her character’s suppressed emotions. “Lee and I shared our whole lives. We shared all kinds of adventures. We rode in hot air balloons. When I was lost in the desert, he rescued me. How many couples can say they have that kind of romance? I loved him. I loved him very much.”
The episode closes with Marilyn addressing Lee’s death on air. “When I first started selling my perfume on television,” she says, “my friend Dorsey Connors, who hosted her own television show, gave me a piece of advice. And she said, ‘Just think of the little red light as the man you love.’” Light’s face staring at the camera is the final image we see before the credits, unspooling the same wounded emotions she shared with the cops in private, now public.
I apologize to all other actresses set to make splashy guest appearances on television in the coming months. The Emmy belongs to Judith Light.
Update, 6:45 p.m. ET: It has come to my attention that, because Versace is a limited series, Judith Light is not eligible for the Outstanding Guest Actress award. So here’s what needs to happen: Either FX needs to submit Versace as a regular drama so she can win this dang award—which, as we’ve discussed, would most definitely happen—or Light needs to be considered for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series. Her competition in that category will be tough, and she’ll have a smaller body of work to offer than her adversaries. But she deserves a nomination for this performance—we’ll take it any way we can get it.