Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Favourite Movies #14: The Talented Mr. Ripley

As Phillip Seymour Hoffman took home the Best Actor Oscar on the weekend, I got to thinking about all the other creeps he has portrayed besides Truman Capote. His finest supporting turn is as Freddie Myles in 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley directed by Anthony Minghella. While not old enough to be called a "classic" it was from last century so that's good enough. Plus, slowly all of the cast members are winning Oscars...you're next Jude.
Based on Patty (we're old friends) Highsmith's novel about con-artist/forger/murderer/poser Tom Ripley, the movie manages to be both incredibly stylish and dramatically substantial. 1958 Italy is brilliantly represented in a La Dolce Vita-esque lushness, explaining perfectly why post-collegiate American upper-crusters would have flocked there. Mingella captures the moment through colour, costumes, set design and especially music; the late '50s jazz sound wonderfully permeates the movie.
The film is full of wonderful performances from an attractive young cast. The most impressive is Cate Blanchett as Meredith, who is only in the movie sporadically but whom the viewer thinks about constantly. Her posh east-coast drawl is a marvel to listen to, and her delivery is period-perfect.
It's easy to overlook Matt Damon's performance, especially in light of Jude Law's barvura portrayal of rich playboy Dickie. Damon's Ripley effortlessly embodies a tormented homosexual who kills to supress his (at the time) unwholesome desires. He mixes quiet nebbishness with sociopathic tendencies with remarkable skill. I am no Matt Damon fan but he does calculated work here.
Ripley is quite groundbreaking in its portrayal of a lead gay character in a mainstream film. The whole film subscribes to a gay aesthetic: the objectification of the male form, the camp aspects to Tom's character, the glamourous costumes, the musical score, and certainly the limp-wristed performance by Hoffman. When I saw this film theatrically in 1999 there were audience scoffs and walk-outs when Tom Ripley's sexuality manifested (hello, bathtub chess scene). I would hate to see the same crowd at a screening of Brokeback Mountain. But Jack and Ennis are not presented the way Tom is; with his insipid whimpering and manicial scheming, Tom is gay-gone-bad. He's somewhat of a '50s gay fantasy in that he holds all the power, which is the opposite of what he would have held in the real world. His identity swap allows him to have all the pomp associated with Dickie (Meredith as the Marge replacement), while retaining some of Tom's desires (relationship with Peter Smith-Knightly). We are presented here with an evil genius, and somewhat of an attractive gay anti-hero.