The Subversive Ms. Highsmith and The Talented Mr. Ripley

Isn’t that the cute Matt Damon
playing a beguiling, decidedly dangerous, homosexual in Anthony Minghella’s
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 people—casually
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; it’s set in the 1960s in
Italy; it contains little “action;” its main character—its
hero, even—is 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. Minghella’s decision
to cast Damon—as well as the popular and pretty Hollywood actors Gwyneth
Paltrow and Jude Law —was clearly an attempt to overcome the gay factor.
But Minghella’s screenplay, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 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 murder—these are actions that many otherwise
well- intentioned individuals might perform under the right circumstances.
Nor does Ripley believe—like real-life homosexuals, Leopold and Loeb—that
he’s 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 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.”

To understand what happened when Ripley went from page to screen—and
why mainstream and gay audiences suffer for it—it is important to look
at Highsmith’s body of work as well as at the historical context in which
The Talented Mr. Ripley was written. If there is a 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 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 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 Guy’s 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 “regular guy”—is just
as guilty as Bruno even before he actually kills someone.  

Highsmith’s world-view is generally described by lowbrow critics as “bleak,”
“dark,” and “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 she is almost perversely Panglossian: this
is the best of all possible worlds—or, 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 Highsmith’s lesbianism that
predisposed her to value homosexuality as a cultural, emotional, and psychological
gift. It certainly didn’t 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 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 could easily have figured it out. It takes
an outsider to bring forth Guy’s innate potential for violence.

Whatever his own moral shortcomings, Guy serves 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 Ormonde— Highsmith’s plot
underwent several changes. Guy was transformed from an architect to famous
tennis pro; his intended fiancée was made the daughter of a senator;
Bruno’s aged mother was turned into an eccentric; and Guy doesn’t
actually go through with the murder of Bruno’s father.

This last 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.

As a result, Highsmith’s moral and psychological ambiguity is lost and
the film can easily be read as homophobic. Guy is now the story’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. 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.

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 Freidan’s 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. Dickie’s 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 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 a friend of Dickie’s figures out the crime, murders him too. Successfully
juggling identities, he manages to blame the second murder on the friend,
fake Dickie’s suicide, and forge 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.
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 Minghella’s film version we root for Ripley to get away
with his crimes.

The Ripley of Highsmith’s 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
people’s voices and personas, and has an uncanny talent for impersonating
others. Minghella’s 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 places—and
being rejected—than 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 men’s room attendant, and
is down on his luck. In the novel, Ripley hates Marge She- rwood, Dickie’s
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
rejected—an 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 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.

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. In his introduction to the
published screenplay, Minghella is quite clear that, despite the novel’s
“uninflected brilliance…its disavowal of moral consequences, Ripley
solipsism, [and] the author’s acerbic judgment 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.” 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 don’t really get away with anything.” Of course, Highsmith thinks
that Ripley’s getting away with murder is justice of a kind, but Ming-
hella’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. But this is not only false
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 tragic queen who has to
end badly. What’s 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. 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 who’s 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.     Z