Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Talented Anthony Minghella

Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning director of The English Patient, died this week at age 54. Minghella had surgery to remove a growth on his neck, but was killed by a hemorrhage early this morning. My thoughts go out to his family, friends, and colleagues. I felt compelled to write today because one of Minghella's films is particularly important to me: 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Matt Damon and Jude Law. I was essentially dragged to this movie by my mother, who was attracted by the pedigreed cast and the 1950s costumes and sets, but walked out loving it. Adapted from the novel by master mystery writer Patricia Highsmith, the movie tells the story of Tom Ripley (Damon), a young man struggling to make ends meet in working class New York. Mistaken for the friend of an aimless Princeton grad named Dickie Greenleaf (Law), Tom is offered money by Dickie's father to travel to Italy and convince the son to come back to America. Using his considerable skill as a liar and a mimic, Tom convinces Dickie the two knew each other in school and gradually insinuates himself into the other man's life. Tom covets Dickie's status and picture perfect life: beaches, jazz clubs, and a circle of friends including caring girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). Critics made much of this "class envy," but any reviewer worth his or her salt knew their was something else going on here, too: lust, even love. Tom becomes completely infatuated with his new friend, underscored by scenes in which he gazes longingly at Dickie while signing "My Funny Valentine" and plays chess with Dickie while the other man is in the bathtub. The story struck a particular cord with me, as I was struggling to come to terms with my own sexuality at the time. (I would come out to myself and to friends and family just months after the film's release.) In fact, Law's Oscar-nominated and supremely sensual performance contributed to my own growing sexual panic. I could hardly deny that I was strongly attracted to the actor, even as I tried to maintain a "straight" identity. As the film progresses, Tom is rejected by Dickie and kills him violently; he then subsumes his identity and tries to evade capture and suspicion through an ever growing number of tricks and lies. When the film was released on video the following year, I had already come out of the closet and could more fully acknowledge how the film's themes resonated with me. While my feelings were hardly as violent (thankfully!), I saw a parallel between Tom's crush on Dickie and my own fixation on Matt, a classmate in my high school. (In fact, when I wrote a coming-out play the summer before my senior year, I named the character based on Matt "Tom Greenleaf.") The mix of tenderness and eventual guilt Tom feels prevents him from being an "evil" gay caricature, as some viewers suggested. Rather, he is a complex and misguided man whose unrequited feelings overwhelm and nearly destroy him. Tom attends an opera in which one man shoots another dead, then cradles him as a fan of blood spreads beneath them. Tom has tears in his eyes, and I felt I had been in his place before: lonely, isolated, denied the love I that craved so much. Minghella did an excellent job directing this film, with uniformly outstanding performances and superior cinematography, music (both the score and the selection of jazz classics), production design, and wardrobe. I have revisited this film again and again in the nearly ten years since its release, and it remains a powerful and revealing look at the dark side of human nature. In my own life I have witnessed the devastating consequences that can result when we deny who we really are; The Talented Mr. Ripley is both a crackling thriller and a haunting cautionary tale.

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