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Susan peterson Gateley
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Ellen meiksins Wood
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The Subversive Ms. Highsmith and The Talented Mr. Ripley
Isnt that the cute Matt Damon playing a beguiling, decidedly dangerous, homosexual in Anthony Minghellas film The Talented Mr. Ripley? Damon acts to perfection the role of Tom Ripley, the accomplished young American homosexual who makes his way in the world by continually reinventing himself, often as other peoplecasually committing fraud, forgery, larceny, and murder along the way.
Even in the year 2000, marketing this film to general audiences was destined to be a tough sell: its plot is complicated; its set in the 1960s in Italy; it contains little action; its main characterits hero, evenis a homosexual. How do you make this 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 seeing a gay film, the latter of negative stereotypes of gay people. Minghellas decision to cast Damonas well as the popular and pretty Hollywood actors Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law was clearly an attempt to overcome the gay factor. But Minghellas screenplay, based on Patricia Highsmiths novel of the same name cannily reinvents the Tom Ripley of the novel into a character who is 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 murderthese are actions that many otherwise well- intentioned individuals might perform under the right circumstances. Nor does Ripley believelike real-life homosexuals, Leopold and Loebthat hes an Ubermensch who can ignore common standards of morality. No, Tom Ripley is a psychopath who actively enjoys life and has no moral qualms about getting what he wants. He is conscienceless, free of any deeply personal emotions. Highsmith is enamored of Ripley: of her 28 works of fiction (21 novels and 7 story collections), 5 are about Ripleys life and career. She was fond of saying in interviews that Ripley isnt so bad, he only kills people when he has to.
To understand what happened when Ripley went from page to screenand why mainstream and gay audiences suffer for itit is important to look at Highsmiths body of work as well as at the historical context in which The Talented Mr. Ripley was written. If there is a theme in Highsmiths writing, it is that human existence is characterized by the stark inevitability of becoming corrupted and fraught with guilt. Highsmiths interest in guilt begins in her first novel, Strangers on a Train, which shares with The Talented Mr. Ripley a strikingly open (for the 1950s) portrait of male homosexuality. Strangers on a Train, published in 1950, was initially well-received and got a further boost after Alfred Hitchcock turned it into a film a year later.
The plot of Strangers is ingenious. Guy Haines, an architect, and Bruno Anthony, a wealthy, sociopathic, homosexual who travels and socializes with his young, flirtatious mother, meet on a train. Under Brunos intuitive questioning, Guy admits that he is trapped in a loveless marriage, that his wife Miriam is pregnant with another mans child, that hes 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 Guys 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. Highsmiths 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 Guyas in regular guyis just as guilty as Bruno even before he actually kills someone.
Highsmiths world-view is generally described by lowbrow critics as bleak, dark, and nasty. If you believe in the goodness of human nature or of societys moral order, then this characterization of Highsmiths work is valid. If one reads through all of her works, however, it becomes clear that she is almost perversely Panglossian: this is the best of all possible worldsor, at any rate, it could be a lot worse. Highsmith rejects the assumption that humankind has the potential and the will to act morally, upon which Western ethical systems are based, leading her to 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.
It would be simplistic to argue that it was Highsmiths lesbianism that predisposed her to value homosexuality as a cultural, emotional, and psychological gift. It certainly didnt make her 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 Ediths 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 1950s reader could easily have figured it out. It takes an outsider to bring forth Guys innate potential for violence.
Whatever his own moral shortcomings, Guy serves to expose the hypocrisy of the normal members of society. Hows that for an audience pleaser? When Hitchcock filmed Strangers on a Trainwith a script by Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde Highsmiths plot underwent several changes. Guy was transformed from an architect to famous tennis pro; his intended fiancée was made the daughter of a senator; Brunos aged mother was turned into an eccentric; and Guy doesnt actually go through with the murder of Brunos father.
This last change is illuminating. While the Hitchcock version presents the guilt theme in a more subtle wayGuy is guilty without having actually killed anyoneit also softens the story considerably. It even has Guy trying to warn Brunos father about his sons intentions. While Highsmith presented us with a man in crisis, the Hollywood version repackaged Guy as a traditional romantic lead. In Highsmiths version theres a great deal of erotic tension between the two men, as if Brunos sexuality is as much a temptation for Guy as his invitation to murder. Hitchcock keeps some of this intactthe early scenes between Robert Walkers Bruno and Farley Grangers Guy are nervily, disconcertingly flirtatiousbut refuses to explore it further. Instead, the thoroughly romanticized Guy becomes the persecuted heterosexual victim of Bruno, the queer making advances and hatching machinations.
As a result, Highsmiths moral and psychological ambiguity is lost and the film can easily be read as homophobic. Guy is now the storys 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 Highsmiths subversive moral vision turned upside down. It is unlikely that mainstream Hollywood could ever faithfully replicate Highsmiths seditious tone or intent. Few filmsVal Lewtons 1940s B thrillers like Curse of the Cat People and The Seventh Victim, maybe Hitchcocks Vertigocan be accused of deconstructing widely accepted moral absolutes or narrative conventions. Not surprisingly, then, Anthony Minghellas The Talented Mr. Ripley, like Hitchcocks Strangers on a Train, makes both major and minor changes to make the film palatable to mainstream audiences. Strangers was published in 1950.
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 1920s, and the country was about to pitch forth into the violent and vicious anti-Communist hysteria that would plague us for the next four decades. 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 Beat Generation captured the public imagination by mocking gender roles, work, and the nuclear family. Betty Freidans The Feminine Mystique was about to be published. 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 delinquency and motorcycle gangs. To make things worse, homosexuals were becoming more public, forming groups, moving into neighborhoods. Enter Tom Ripley.
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 rich man living in Italy while half-heartedly pursuing a career as an artist. Dickies father, a shipping magnate, hires Ripley to go to Italy and persuade his son to return home and take up the family business. Ripley goes to Italy, becomes obsessed with Dickiea heady mixture of wanting him sexually and wanting to be himand ends up murdering him. He takes on Dickies identity (as well as his bank accounts) and, when a friend of Dickies figures out the crime, murders him too. Successfully juggling identities, he manages to blame the second murder on the friend, fake Dickies suicide, and forge a will leaving everything to himself. The Greenleaf parents, convinced that Tom has done his best to help their son, dont contest the will, and the talented Mr. Ripley, carries on with hisfinancially enrichedlife.
Highsmith brings to this story a cool, elegant detachment and a dry-eyed realism. Her contention that Ripley is no more guilty than anyone else in the world is, for the year 1955, an astoundingly postmodern notion. In both the novel and in Anthony Minghellas film version we root for Ripley to get away with his crimes.
The Ripley of Highsmiths novel embodies a number of the fears of the 1950s: a sociopathic, murderous homosexual with intense social-climbing aspirations. His identity is so shaky and unbounded that he has no trouble taking on other peoples voices and personas, and has an uncanny talent for impersonating others. Minghellas Ripley is less of a psychopath and more of a confused gay man at a social disadvantage in a world where his social betters are often mean to him.
The movie Ripley is more guilty of looking for love in all the wrong placesand being rejectedthan of being an amoral queen who kills to bolster a constantly challenged sense of selfhood. The novel begins with Ripley already acting as a petty thief, a freeloader, and a scam artist. In the film, Ripley plays the piano for concert soloists, works as a mens room attendant, and is down on his luck. In the novel, Ripley hates Marge She- rwood, Dickies sometimes girlfriend (played by Gwyneth Paltrow in the movie) with a misogynistic fervor. In the film, Minghella creates a close bond between the two (initially), and this conveys the message that Tom Ripley is not such a bad fellow. In the novel, Ripley kills Dickie because he sees a chance and makes his move; in the film, he kills Dickie in a fit of anger after being humiliated and rejectedan action that most people can sympathize with. Minghella has also coarsened Dickie Greenleaf. The shallow, feckless, spoiled 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 is that Ripley is capable of loveand by the end of the film, he has a boyfriend. This is something completely alien to Highsmiths conceptualization of Ripley, one that violates her complicated, if perverse, moral universe.
As with Strangers on a Train, Highsmiths original vision would not have been a crowd pleaser. Theres a big difference between a confused gay con man and a charming unfeeling sociopath. In his introduction to the published screenplay, Minghella is quite clear that, despite the novels uninflected brilliance...its disavowal of moral consequences, Ripley solipsism, [and] the authors acerbic judgment of everybody other than Ripley...do not sit easily within the context of film. Minghellas last phrase here is probably code for not box office. Minghella is 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, but he 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.
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 dont really get away with anything. Of course, Highsmith thinks that Ripleys getting away with murder is justice of a kind, but Ming- hellas mainstream sensibilityor box-office concernscould never allow this to happen. His solution to Highsmiths paradoxically perverse universe is to humanize Ripley by having him fall in loveand then, in a surprise twist at the endhaving him kill his lover to escape detection, thus creating his own living punishment. But this is not only false to Highsmith, but to the commonplace, contemporary politics of gay representation.
That Minghellas Ripley, the sympathetic gay character who does bad things, has to be punished is really no different from the tragic queen who has to end badly. Whats ironic here is that this stereotype is usually associated with novels of the 1950s.
Highsmith makes us look at ourselves and the world in a new light, probing our inner secrets and fears about ourselves 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. Minghellas film tells us that whatever happens in the world including things done by gay peopleeverything will be set right at the end and justice will prevail (but whos 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 Ripleya homosexual herofor the new millennium: kinder, gentler, and far less threatening. Z