The Subversive Ms. Highsmith.
How do you make this potentially very nasty story of a charming gay killer who gets away with it palatable to both mainstream and gay audiences? The former will be wary of anything that looks like a "gay film," the latter of characters that play into negative stereotypes of gay people. Minghella's shrewd decision to cast Damon--as well as such popular and pretty Hollywood actors as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law--was clearly an attempt to overcome the gay factor. But Minghella's screenplay, based on Patricia Highsmith's highly praised novel of the same name, is just as shrewd, as it cannily reinvents the Tom Ripley of the novel into a character who would be palatable to both straight and gay viewers.
As conceived by Highsmith in her 1955 novel, Ripley is less a lovable scoundrel than a seductive sociopath. It is not simply that he commits theft, perjury, felonies, and ultimately murder-- these are actions that many otherwise well-intentioned individuals might perform under the right circumstances. Nor does Ripley believe--like those other, real-life homosexuals, Leopold and Loeb--that he's an "Ubermensch" who can ignore common standards of morality. No, Tom Ripley is simply a psychopath who actively enjoys life and has no moral or ethical qualms about getting whatever he wants. He is conscienceless, free of any guilt--or even deeply personal emotions. Highsmith is enamored of Ripley: of her 28 works of fiction (21 novels and seven story collections), five are about Ripley's life and career. She was fond of saying in interviews that "Ripley isn't so bad, he only kills people when he has to." While Highsmith's nonchalance about Ripley's amorality works brilliantly in her novels--where it functions as a sho cking plot device, as well as a metaphor for human existence--it would be a serious problem on the popular movie screen where, even in our postmodern world of independent film-making, the cheerful jettisoning of moral standards has been seen as going too far.
To understand what happened when Tom Ripley went from page to screen--and why the film, as well as mainstream and gay audiences, suffesr for it--it is important to look not only at Highsmith's extensive body of work, but also at the historical context in which The Talented Mr. Ripley, the first of the Ripley novels, was written. If there is a constant theme in Highsmith's writing, it is that human existence is characterized by the stark inevitability of becoming corrupted and fraught with guilt. Highsmith's interest in guilt begins in her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which shares with The Talented Mr. Ripley a strikingly open (for the 1950's) portrait of male homosexuality. Strangers on a Train, which was published in 1950, was initially well-received but received a big boost after Alfred Hitchcock turned it into a film a year later. (Hitchcock paid a scant $7000 for the rights to the novel, keeping his own name out of the deal to hold the price down.)
The plot of Strangers is ingenious. Guy Haines, an architect, and Bruno Anthony, a wealthy, sociopathic, ne'er-do-well homosexual who travels and socializes with his young, flirtatious mother, meet on a train. Under Bruno's intuitive questioning, Guy admits that he is trapped in a loveless marriage, that his wife Miriam is pregnant with another man's child, that he's in love with someone else, and that a divorce is unlikely. Bruno confesses his hatred for his bullying, abusive father, and soon proposes that they exchange murders: the perfect crime. Guy laughs this off as a joke, but Bruno thinks Guy has consented, and so murders his wife. Bruno demands that Guy fulfill his end of the bargain. Guy feels guilty because, after all, his wife is blissfully dead, so after threats from Bruno he does the deed. Highsmith's "moral" in Strangers is that the potential for violence and corruption is present in all people, and will as likely as not eventually manifest itself. Bruno may be sociopathic, but Guy--as in "regu lar guy," just one of us--is really just as guilty as Bruno even before he actually kills someone.
Highsmith's worldview is generally described by lowbrow critics as "bleak," "dark," or even "nasty." If you believe in the goodness of human nature or of society's "moral order," then this characterization of Highsmith's work is valid. If one reads through all of her works, however, it becomes clear that her attitude is quite different. Time and again she takes a perversely Panglossian point of view: this is the best of all possible worlds--or, at any rate, it could be a lot worse. Highsmith rejects the entire assumption upon which Western ethical systems are based, that humankind has the potential and the will to act morally, leading her to singularly subversive insights. Among these is the discovery that people who live outside the prevailing social and moral systems are in a unique position to critique, expose, and undermine their underpinnings: outsiders, such as homosexuals.
It would be simplistic to argue that it was Highsmith's lesbianism that predisposed her to value homosexuality as a cultural, emotional, and psychological gift. It certainly did not incline her to be particularly sympathetic to women: Apart from sympathetic portraits of lesbians in her 1952 The Price of Salt and the occasional compassionate portrait of a heterosexual woman as in the 1977 Edith 's Diary, Highsmith is often so hostile to her female characters as to be deemed a misogynist. But it does make sense to see her sustained attack on conventional morality as finding its embodiment in homosexuals, particularly gay men. In Strangers on a Train, Bruno is drawn as a homosexual, however coded the portrayal. By his dandy clothing and mannerisms, his intimate relationship with his mother and his brutally estranged relationship with his father, a sophisticated 1950's reader would easily have figured it out. It takes an outsider to bring forth Guy's innate potential for violence. Whatever his own moral shortcom ings, Guy does serve to expose the hypocrisy of the "normal" members of society. How's that for an audience pleaser?
When Hitchcock filmed Strangers on a Train--with a script by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Orrnonde--Highsmith's plot underwent several minor alterations and one major change. The smaller changes shifted the texture and tone of the story: Guy was transformed from an architect to a more athletic and famous tennis pro; his intended fiancee was made the daughter of a senator; while Bruno's aged mother was turned into an eccentric. The major change was more substantive: in the movie version, Guy doesn't actually go through with the murder of Bruno's father.
This change is illuminating. While the Hitchcock version presents the guilt theme in a more subtle way--Guy is guilty without having actually killed anyone-it also softens the story considerably. It even has Guy trying to warn Bruno's father about his son's intentions. While Highsmith presented us with a man in crisis, the Hollywood version repackaged Guy as a traditional romantic lead. In Highsmith's version there's a great deal of erotic tension between the two men, as if Bruno's sexuality is as much a temptation for Guy as his invitation to murder. Hitchcock keeps some of this intact-the early scenes between Robert Walker's Bruno and Farley Granger's Guy are nervily, disconcertingly flirtatious-but refuses to explore it further. Instead, the thoroughly romanticized Guy becomes the persecuted heterosexual victim of Bruno, the queer making advances and hatching machinations. Consequently, Highsmith's moral and psychological ambiguity is lost, and the film can easily be read as homophobic. Guy is now the sto ry's moral center and stands for a world in which traditional morality makes sense. Bruno is the evil queen who threatens the established order. This is Highsmith's subversive moral vision turned upside down.
It is unlikely that mainstream Hollywood could ever faithfully replicate Highsmith's seditious tone or intent (and neither did Rene Clement's 1961 film, Purple Noon). Few films--Val Lewton's 1940's B thrillers like Curse of the Cat People and The Seventh Victim, maybe Hitchcock's Vertigo?--can be accused of deconstructing widely accepted moral absolutes or narrative conventions. Not surprisingly, then, Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, like Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, makes both major and minor changes to make the film palatable to mainstream audiences. Strangers was published in 1950. In 1952 Highsmith published The Price of Salt, for its time a daring story of a lesbian relationship, and, in 1954, The Blunderer, a psychological thriller. Highsmith was making a name for herself as a novelist who, while highly literary, was also being pegged as a popular genre writer who dealt with deviant sexuality and aberrant psychology.
ONE wonders what The Talented Mr. Ripley must have looked like to readers when it was published in 1955. World War II had been over for a decade, the U.S. was in the middle of its biggest economic boom since the 1920's, and the country was pitching forth into the violent anti-Communist hysteria that would plague us for the next four decades. On the surface, America was pretending that Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best were mirrors of everyday life. But outside TV-land, things were changing. African-Americans were pressing ever more boldly for basic civil rights. The Beats captured the public imagination by mocking gender roles, work, and the nuclear family. Betty Freidan's The Feminine Mystique was about to spring forth. Teenagers were finding that life would be quite different from what their parents had led them to expect. Rock and roll was seen by many adults as wreaking havoc on traditional social, racial, moral, and musical norms. The tabloid and mainstream presses were obsessed with juvenile deli nquency and motorcycle gangs. To make things worse, homosexuals were becoming more public, forming groups, moving into neighborhoods. Enter Tom Ripley.
The Talented Mr. Ripley is structurally quite different from the more traditional thriller narrative of Strangers on a Train. In the earlier novel, the tension between two characters moves the story forward, enabling Highsmith to advance her theme of exposing the innate guilt of the average person. How culpable is Guy for wanting Miriam dead? But this is child's play compared to the bolder, more dangerous game she's playing in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Tom Ripley is a petty thief and con artist who stumbles into the opportunity of a lifetime. Dickie Greenleaf, a casual friend of a friend, is a ne'er-do-well rich boy living in Italy while halfheartedly pursuing a career as an artist. Dickie's father, a shipping magnate, hires Ripley to go to Italy and convince his son to return home and take up the family business. Ripley goes to Italy, becomes obsessed with Dickie--a heady mixture of wanting him sexually and wanting to be him--and ends up murdering him. He takes on Dickie's identity (as well as his bank accounts) and, when Freddie, a friend of Dickie's, figures Out the crime, murders him too. Successfully juggling identities, he manages to blame Freddie's murder on Dickie, fakes Dickie's suicide, and forges a will leaving everything to himself. The Greenleaf parents, convinced that Tom has done his best to help their son, don't contest the will, and the talented Mr. Ripley, carries on with his--financially enriched--life.
Highsmith brings to this story a cool, elegant detachment and a dry-eyed realism. In her rejection of traditional morality, Ripley, like Bruno, is the moral center of the novel. Her contention that Ripley is no more guilty than anyone else in the world is, for the year 1955, an astoundingly postmodern notion. Her suggestion that Ripley might even be less guilty than followers of traditional morality is still hard for some readers to accept. If, in Strangers on a Train, Highsmith showed us that a "normal" person could easily by implicated in "bad" behavior, in Ripley she brings us deeply inside her central character, and we want him to succeed. It is now the reader who becomes complicit in the central character's world and guilt. In both the novel and in Anthony Minghella's new film version, we root for Ripley to get a way with his crimes.
The movie version of The Talented Mr. Ripley is a neat, catch-your-breath thriller; Minghella has adapted Highsmith with intelligence, added some dazzling twists, and generated two terrific, keenly observed performances. Jude Law--who continues his penchant for playing unlikable, semi-closeted gay characters--brings real life to Dickie Greenleaf. Matt Damon, in the best performance of his career, makes Ripley sexy, smart, and seductive. As compelling as Minghella's Ripley is, it is radically different from the original.
The Ripley of Highsmith's novel embodies a number of the fears of the 1950's: a sociopathic, murderous homosexual with intense social-climbing aspirations. His identity is so shaky and unbounded that he has no trouble taking on other people's voices and personas, and indeed has an uncanny talent for impersonating others. But there is a telling difference between this characterization and Minghella's more sentimentalized and sanitized film version. He has softened Tom Ripley, made him less of a psychopath and more of a confused gay man who's at a social disadvantage in a world in which his social betters are often mean to him. Matt Damon's Ripley is more guilty of looking for love in all the wrong places--and being rejected--than of being an amoral queen who kills to bolster a constantly challenged sense of selfhood.
The smaller changes that Minghella has made help underscore the major shift in Ripley's character. The novel begins with Ripley already acting as a petty thief, a freeloader, and a scam artist who spends part of his time living off of wealthy gay men. But in the film he plays the piano for concert soloists, works as a men's room attendant, and seems to be down on his luck. In the novel, Ripley hates Marge Sherwood, Dickie's sometimes girlfriend (played by Gwyneth Paltrow in the movie) with a misogynistic fervor. In the film, however, Minghella creates a close bond between the two (at least initially), and this conveys the message that Tom Ripley is not such a bad fellow. In the novel Ripley kills Dickie because he sees his chance and makes his move, while in the film he kills Dickie in a fit of anger after being humiliated and rejected--an action that most people can sympathize with. In an apparent attempt to make Ripley more sympathetic, Minghella has coarsened Dickie Greenleaf. The shallow, feckless, spoile d rich kid is now a heartless, callous womanizer responsible for the death of his Italian mistress, not to mention a cock-tease and a murderous hothead.
But the biggest change that Minghella has made from the original is that Ripley is now is capable of love--and by the end of the film, he has a boyfriend. This is something completely alien to Highsmith's conceptualization of Ripley, one that violates her complicated, if perverse, moral universe. What happened? As with Strangers on a Train, Highsmith's original vision would not have been a crowd pleaser. There's a big difference between a confused gay con man and a charming, unfeeling sociopath. Movie audiences may have rejected a Ripley--and a Matt Damon--who lacked certain conventional elements of sympathy. In his introduction to the published screenplay, Minghella is quite clear that, despite the novel's "uninflected brilliance ... its disavowal of moral consequences, Ripley's solipsism, [and] the author's acerbic judgement of everybody other than Ripley... do not sit easily within the context of film.
Minghella's last phrase here is probably code for "not box office," but there may have been other reasons for his changes as well. The politics of representation around gay characterizations in films are, now more than ever, in a state of flux. Although Vito Russo's 1980 book, The Celluloid Closet, set a standard for evaluating how to understand gay content in films--are they positive portraits or negative stereotypes?--gay audiences can now read such content in a more sophisticated manner. We see this not only in the heroin-snorting lesbian artists in Lisa Cholodenko's High Art, but also in Tom Kahn's retelling of the Leopold and Loeb story, Swoon. Interestingly enough, films such as Fassbinder's Fox and His Friends and The Bitter Tears of Petra van Kant, which were excoriated by some gay activists when they opened in the early 1970's, are now staples of gay film history and festivals.
Minghella finds himself caught between several conflicting needs. Ripley has to be charming and sympathetic for the film to work, yet he also has to be something of a grifter for the narrative to make sense. He has to be clearly identifiable as gay (as in the Highsmith novel), but he also cannot be a stereotypical "gay villain." Ripley has to be alluringly out-of-sync with accepted moral standards, yet brought to some justice by the end of the film. In his preface Minghella is clear where he departs from Highsmith: "The novel is about a man who commits murders and is not caught. And so the film is about a man who commits murders and is not caught. But it departs in one crucial sense by concluding that eluding public accountability is not the same as eluding justice. The film has a moral imperative: You can get away with murder, but you don't really get away with anything."
Of course, Highsmith thinks that Ripley's getting away with murder is justice, but Minghella's mainstream sensibility--or box-office concerns--could never allow this to happen. His solution to Highsmith's paradoxically perverse universe is to humanize Ripley by having him fall in love--and then, in a surprise twist at the end--having him kill his lover to escape detection, thus creating his own living punishment. "Each man kills the thing he loves," wrote Oscar Wilde famously in the refrain to "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." But this sentiment is false not only to Highsmith, but to the commonplace, contemporary politics of gay representation. That Minghella's Ripley, the sympathetic gay character who does bad things, has to be punished is really no different from the old motif of the tragic queen who has to end badly. What's ironic here is that this stereotype is usually associated with novels of the 1950's. It is a testament to Highsmith's brilliance that her 1955 "gay novel" is so far advanced that it can't even be filmed now without sentimentalization.
Highsmith makes us look at ourselves and the world in a new light, probing our inner secrets and fears and not allowing us to be complacent about our easy sense of normality and our moral order. This is, at heart, a comforting message to gay people and other outsiders. Minghella's film tells us that whatever happens in the world--including things done by gay people--everything will be set right at the end and justice will prevail (but whose justice?). If Minghella had remained true to Highsmith, this Talented Mr. Ripley would have been quite a different film: "bleaker" and "nastier," perhaps, but also more archly witty and more deeply unsettling. As it is, we have a Tom Ripley--a homosexual hero--for the new millennium: kinder, gentler, and far less threatening.
Michael Bronski is the author of Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility (1984) and The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (1998).