Ryan Murphy’s anthology series, American Crime Story, debuted in 2016 with The People vs. OJ Simpson. A second installment, The murder of Gianni Versace, came two years later. In these initial series, which won 16 Emmy Awards Between the two, the crimes in question were obvious: the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman; the Versace assassination.
On Impeachment: American Crime Story, which premieres September 7 on FX, crimes are more ambiguous.
Set in the ’90s, 10-episode series reviews the tangle of scandals and innuendo that engulfed the Clinton White House: mainly, Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against President Bill Clinton.
And then Clinton’s sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky; Lewinsky’s friendship with Linda Tripp; and the plot of lies, half-truths and illicit recordings that were finally detailed in the Informs Starr, the infamous and lurid document produced by independent attorney Kenneth Starr.
While Bill Clinton and several male figures appear in the series, the camera especially follows the women.
The report led the House of Representatives, in 1998, to impeach Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. The Senate, by refusing to remove him, declared him innocent.
But these high crimes and misdemeanors did not particularly interest the creators of Impeachment.
“For me, the crime is that Monica, Linda and Paula had no control over how they were perceived“said Sarah Burgess, executive producer who wrote most of the episodes. Burgess, playwright, studied the media coverage of these women: the jokes of the night, the jokes in the car, the scathing opinion columns. “The hate was unbelievable,” he said.
Burgess spoke on a recent Monday afternoon from the gleaming basement reading room of the Whitby Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Murphy joined the talk, alongside executive producers Brad Simpson and Alexis Martin Woodall and four of the series’ actresses: Annaleigh Ashford (Jones), Edie Falco (Hillary Clinton), Beanie Feldstein (Lewinsky) y Sarah Paulson (Tripp).
Lewinsky, producer of Impeachment, was not present. No one else involved in the administration or its scandals worked on the show. Tripp died in 2020.
The fictional plot about a well-known story
The series delves into the lives of Lewinsky, Tripp and Jones – and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton. Its objective is not necessarily rehabilitative, but the creators and actors have wanted to understand the ambitions, fears and desires that motivated these women.
“We all know what happened”Murphy said. “But we don’t know how it happened.”
In a roundtable interview, the cast and creatives discussed how the Clinton-era swirl of partisan politics and expendable notions of truth resonate today, as well as why. these scandals still captivate us, how the media came for these women and, today, we would treat them better.
“Impeachment” is set in the ’90s. Monica Lewinsky is on the production team. He did not participate in this talk.
“I just hope that when people see this, they continue to feel involved,” Simpson said. “We are not that far removed from this; it is a part of history, but we are still living it.”
Edited excerpts from the conversation
-What do you remember of having lived through these scandals?
Ashford: I remember this time from the perspective of late night comedy. It was very dark and very macho, terrible for the women involved, so grossly sexual and inappropriate. And it was fun. We all applauded.
Murphy: Monica and Linda and Paula. I remember that I just felt like their lives were taken away. I think I was empathetic since I was in high school. Seeing that they were constantly attacked and made fun of, I felt bad for them. AND I still feel bad for them. When I ran into Monica at a party, we talked about how we were going to do this. He came over and I told him: “I want you to be part of this”.
-Why does this story continue to fascinate?
Burgess: The Starr Report is a part of that; it’s still shocking how explicit it is.
Simpson: The Clintons haven’t abandoned us. We all remember the moment when Donald Trump brought the women who accused Bill Clinton into the debates. It still haunts culture.
Martin Woodall: But at the end of the day, it’s still a conversation about women. Even in 2021, we keep talking about Monica, Linda, and Hillary. Bill is not part of that conversation.
-The left argued that Clinton was the victim of a great conspiracy of the right. The right maintained that it had a duty to investigate a dishonest leader. How does the series approach these two opposing narratives?
Murphy: We present both points of view. That’s what’s interesting about the series: Live in a gray world.
Simpson: Both can be true. What interests us, in reality, are defective individuals who come across these power systemsespecially these male power systems.
-It seems that we are re-examining the way we treat women from the scandals of the ’90s and 2000s. Does the series participate in that re-evaluation?
Burgess: Yes, of course. I thought about that a lot. There was no group that supported Monica. there was a faint heartbeat from, say, three feminists, somewhere. Seeing Beanie play her and put herself in her shoes and hopefully put us in a point of view to understand how young she was, maybe it reorients people’s thinking about Monica. But do you think it would be different now?
Murphy: If you look at the Britney Spears case, I think more people would defend Monica today.
Paulson: I think there would be more defenders. But there would be a part just like it that would attack her. We have so many platforms from which to do it now …
“Impeachment” invites us to rethink the gaze of the media on the women involved in these scandals.
Martin Woodall: People I know closely, when I talk about the show, they still make jokes. And I tell them: “Enough, stop making jokes”.
-Bill Clinton’s popularity soared. Lewinsky became a joke. Why do we hate this woman so much?
Ashford: Part of it has to do with how uncomfortable people are with sex. People can’t bear not being joked about it.
Paulson: I wonder if it’s what we’re not willing to see in ourselves, in terms of this hatred of Monica. I would have walked into that back room (Bill Clinton’s Oval Room study, where he and Lewinsky had sex), no doubt.
Murphy: I would have done it too.
Paulson: Is all the patriarchal story of accepting his wish and having it celebrated and understood. And she is really punished for giving in to his own wish. There is something that vilifies that when it comes from a woman.
-We don’t see the sex that the Starr Report details. We do see the famous revelation of the thong …
Simpson: That thong moment (when Lewinsky pulled up his jacket so Bill Clinton could see his underwear) was not in the original script. Monica asked us to put it.
Burgess: She said: “Everybody knows I did it. And I know they’re trying to protect me, but it has to be on the show.”.
-But why don’t they show the sex?
Murphy: The behavior that led to the act was more important than the act. We spent a lot of time asking these questions and also asking Monica: “What do you think and what do you want?”.
-What did Lewinski want? What was your participation in the program?
Murphy: We went through every page of the script. Sometimes I had a lot of comments, other times nothing. The process seemed fascinating and necessary to me. She never wanted the easy option. I always wanted it to be more complicated, more nuanced.
-What did you want to make clear about your relationship with Bill Clinton?
Feldstein: Monica, at that time, it was a bunch of contradictions. She was naive but smart, sensual but innocent. That has been the wonderful fight: playing two-way. Like any 22-year-old, he thought he knew the world. He had to learn from the world. This was his apprenticeship.
Simpson: Hillary’s point of view is also complicated.
-You play women that viewers think they know. How important was it to perfect his way of speaking, walking, gesturing?
Feldstein: His emotionality mattered to me more than his physique or his voice. I tried to focus on how she felt and what motivated her, and put everything else aside. But it’s one thing to play a real human being and it’s another thing to play a real human being that you text and call. I want her to see it and feel validated.
Falco: Hillary was imitated on late night talk shows and on Saturday Night Live by almost the entire cast. So that worried me. I was not interested in being another interpretation. And over the years, he changed a lot – his accent, his way of walking – as he evolved as a person in public life. I thought this whole story is about getting to who this woman is.
Paulson: I worked with a movement coach, who was with me every day, to try to create a different physical form than the one I have, in terms of my posture. It helped me to look in the mirror and not see myself. I still consider what (Tripp) did is beyond morally questionable. I am not trying to humanize her; I’m just trying to be her in the situation and in the circumstances.
Feldstein: I call it the Tripp Dip.
Ashford: For Paula, it’s always about pleasing her husband, it’s about pleasing someone else. It’s part of why he talks so loud; it’s part of why it gets so small. There is a true childish quality. I also worked with a movement coach.
-There was a lot of archive material to study: the recordings, the congressional records, the response from the media. How did you decide what to include?
Burgess: Character first. In the ’90s, Linda and Monica were secondary in the way it was perceived and reported. They were fools who talked about Macy’s on the phone. It was the lawyers and the men who mattered.
Simpson: The way this story was traditionally told is that of these great and powerful men confronted: Bill Clinton contra Ken Starr, Newt Gingrich contra Bill Clinton. Then off to the side are these crazy women. We decided early on that we were going to start with these women.
Feldstein: These characters, in different ways, have never been given full humanity. What it does the series is to prioritize humanity over the plot.
The New York Times
Translation: Patricia Sar