Phyllis Nagy: “Being gay is Tom Ripley’s kryptonite”
The Carol screenwriter talks Patricia Highsmith, homosexuality, and how the movies keep getting Ripley wrong
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Just as he always managed to elude the cops, criminals, and assorted vengeance-seekers who sought to bring an end to his wicked ways, Tom Ripley — whose shady adventures were chronicled by the great suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith over the course of five novels — has managed to elude a definitive cinematic incarnation. While few film versions of beloved literary characters are ever completely faithful to their sources, it may say something about the chameleonic nature of Highsmith’s suave charlatan, con man and killer that the actors who have portrayed him on the screen have presented such wildly diverse interpretations.
In René Clément’s Purple Noon (a French-language adaptation of Highsmith’s first Ripley novel The Talented Mr. Ripley), Alain Delon is so breathtakingly handsome that one tends to overlook the glaring fact that this Gallic dreamboat makes for a ridiculously ill fit with the nervous, envious, sadistic and impulsive little schemer whom the young Ripley is in this first outing. Matt Damon, in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, comes much closer to Highsmith’s Ripley in this regard, but the foregrounding of the story’s undeniable gay undertones — which here results in Ripley’s multilayered (and eventually murderous) obsession with handsome, wealthy ex-pat Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) being reduced to a case of unrequited homosexual desire — simplifies the character’s complex sexual ambiguity. Then, way out in left field, there is Dennis Hopper as an older Ripley in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (an adaptation of the novel Ripley’s Game), an uneasy-riding cowboy adrift in Europe, muttering cryptic reflections into a tape recorder.
Playwright and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy is one of those who is convinced that the movies have never gotten Ripley right, whatever other virtues they may have. A longtime friend of Highsmith’s, Nagy adapted The Talented Mr. Ripley for the stage in the 1990s and later garnered an Oscar nomination for her script for Todd Haynes’ Carol (starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara), which was based on Highsmith’s lesbian love story The Price of Salt. Prior to Nagy’s appearance at TIFF Bell Lightbox to present Carol as part of our Books on Film series, we spoke with her about the relation between the Ripley series and the highly atypical Price of Salt, how the cinematic Ripleys stack up against Highsmith’s original, and how the author’s own sexual identity expressed itself in her most famous creation.
The Price of Salt is such an outlier in Highsmith’s body of work, in so many ways. Do you see any affinities between that novel and her more well-known work in the crime genre?
I do think that it’s more akin to her other work than we might expect it to be. Of course, the main difference is that this isn’t a thriller, it’s a love story — but it’s an obsessive love story, one in which our major POV character, Therese [played by Mara in Carol], presents a very incomplete and shadowy picture of her object of desire.
To me, what really sets the novel apart is the complete lack of psychologizing about or agonizing over the state of being gay. And that’s what really made me want to [adapt this book]. There are other lesbian films that have a happy ending, but none I can think of which don’t require their characters, at some moment, to have a dark night of the soul about What It Means to Be Gay.
Highsmith was literally ill when she wrote the first draft of the book, and she was obsessively thinking back on this encounter that she had had in a department store with this beautiful, wealthy woman, just like Therese does with Carol [Blanchett in the film]. And so the book really has this propulsive, feverish quality to it, which is something that we really worked to try and keep in some way in the film.
It’s interesting that at or shortly before the time that Highsmith wrote the book, she believed that homosexuality was a psychological flaw that could be “cured” — and then she goes and writes a story like this.
I know! And I’m not sure she would have done that if she hadn’t had that encounter [with that woman] and not been sick at the time. So it’s fascinating that during her early-life search to eradicate an “illness,” it took an illness to eradicate her obsession with that belief.
To use a very reductive word, do you think that that lack of agonizing about being gay in the book makes this a rare “healthy” — or maybe “progressive” — depiction of homosexual desire, at least for the time in which she wrote it? How do you think that Highsmith’s view of what it is to be gay accords with our own post-liberation view of it today?
Well, there’s no way to answer that without seeing the novel and the characters filtered though our present-day thoughts about that. And I’m reluctant to do so, because I don’t think that was at all in her mind, and it wasn’t in my mind when I wrote the adaptation.
I think that [Highsmith] would have been flummoxed by the public openness of many people about the idea of gender fluidity, which is something she clearly explored in the Ripley novels — though she’d probably hit me if I said that. [Laughs] The chameleon-like quality of a lot of her characters, both physical and psychological, fits in pretty neatly with a rather intersectional view, let’s say, of what it means to be a man, a woman, gay, straight, bi, trans.
But I think she would not have been pleased to have been seen as an exemplar of freedom in that way: she was a very private type, which is also something generational. So would she have been pleased with Carol and what it seems to have opened up? I don’t know. I think she would have liked aspects of the film very much — but I think that any of the displays of physical affection [that we have in the film] would have made her uncomfortable. I’m sure though that she would have tried to go after Cate Blanchett, at a dinner or something — because that was definitely her type! [Laughs]
Highsmith wrote her first Ripley novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, shortly after The Price of Salt. It’s interesting to consider that, just as The Price of Salt was born from this autobiographical episode, Highsmith found a lot of herself in Ripley as well — apparently she would even sign herself “Tom” in some of her letters! Could you describe Ripley as Highsmith conceived of him?
Ripley is a character that Highsmith and I talked about a lot. Her personal view of Ripley… well, if you heard her talk about him, you’d think he was Pierce Brosnan! This elegant, dapper, urbane man who is forced to kill only when circumstances are beyond his control. She often said that Ripley “only killed when he had to” — which would be a get-out for virtually any murder! “I killed my wife because I had to, she was screaming at me.” [Laughs] And she was most interested in Ripley’s relationship to guilt, which is a huge motivation throughout all those novels — but especially so in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Now as to the matter of his homosexuality… I think that those moments where Ripley reveals the only thing he’s good at — which is being a murderer — are fuelled by his refusal to acknowledge his homosexuality. Pat would often say, “Oh, he’s bisexual” — and I would raise an eyebrow. Because like Tom, Pat would never say, “I’m gay,” even though she was — and really didn’t hide it. Unlike Tom, she acted on those impulses. [But] Tom would rather slit his own throat than admit he’s gay — which I think, if I can be so bold, is what makes some of the [film] adaptations problematic. If Tom is able to talk about his gayness in any way, shape or form, to acknowledge desire in that way, it takes away his superpower. Being gay is kryptonite for Ripley.
There’s a certain resemblance between the scenarios of The Price of Salt and The Talented Mr. Ripley, in that you have this young, lower-class protagonist who becomes obsessed with a beautiful, wealthy, glamorous person — but of course, the two stories have very different endings!
I think that Highsmith fancied herself this scrappy, working-class person always fighting against the system, but at the same time she had a real love for glamour and beauty, in that traditional sense — the golden-haired children, you know. I mean, the list of women I know her to have been with, most of them are Grace Kelly clones. So she wanted that, she wanted that [dream], but at the same time — since she was very smart and a great artist — she knew that that was ridiculous. And so she sought to destroy [that dream] over and over again in the novels. […] In her books there’s always this connection between wealth and escape. If you have enough, there’s always a get-out — whether it’s from a relationship, or a crime you’ve committed, or anything.
I’d like to ask you about the two film versions of The Talented Mr. Ripley, René Clément’s Purple Noon with Alain Delon, and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 version with Matt Damon. These are very different performances from two very different actors, and each of them is different in their own ways from Highsmith’s Ripley. Could you reflect on some of the differences and contrasts there?
Well, Purple Noon is ridiculous — I love it, but it’s ridiculous, with the heterosexual love triangle and all. Highsmith herself loved Alain Delon, because he was just the epitome of the male object of desire, but she didn’t have much time for that film.
I think that the big mistake that movie made was that it punished him [Ripley], and that to me is unforgivable. The fact that Ripley gets away with what he does is what makes it worth going on the journey — it makes us question our sometimes not very salubrious relationship with these kind of criminal characters and impulses [in books and films]. So Purple Noon, it was a beautiful film, and everybody looked great in it, and it made me want to go there [the Italian coast], but… No.
As to the Minghella film, what I would say is that Matt Damon was perfect casting. He’s anonymously handsome — and I don’t mean that as an insult! There is nothing about him physically that really draws attention to him, but it’s all pleasing. So he’s got that Everyman quality — well, a heightened Everyman, because not every man looks like him.
The homosexuality aspect in that film, though, I had trouble with, because again, it’s articulated [unlike in the novels]. And that’s something that fundamentally doesn’t make sense to me in terms of [Ripley as a character], but it does make sense in terms of what that film was doing. And it links neatly with the other aspect that that film changed about Ripley — namely, that he is talented in this film. This version of Ripley is someone who might have had a chance if he wasn’t such a poor schmuck — there’s that scene at the beginning of the movie where he’s sitting and playing the piano and you think, hey, he’s pretty good! But Ripley’s real talent is to suck the talents of everyone else, to take it away, to kill them. So here, it becomes much more an American Dream version of Ripley, or the dark side of it.
Dennis Hopper’s version of Ripley in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend is — well, I mean, if Delon and Damon were each in their own ways not Highsmith’s Ripley, Hopper is definitely not. I’m curious about Highsmith’s feelings about that film — did you ever discuss it with her?
We did talk about it, and at a certain point — because she admired Wenders, or at least some of his other films — she softened her public stance on that film. But privately, she thought it was a mess, and did not understand what the hell was going on with Dennis Hopper. I mean, can anyone?
The Wenders film was all about money and class and capitalism — it was actually quite political, despite its rambling, kind of ramshackle feel. It seemed like a real comment on America, and what’s striking about that — and what makes it probably not right for Highsmith — is that Highsmith ceased to be American. She was a citizen of her own country, which is why she eventually settled in Switzerland — a country where everyone is a citizen, and nobody in the government takes responsibility for anything. [Laughs] So I think the mistake in a lot of these Ripley adaptations is, they see Highsmith as an American abroad, when really she had zero nationality and zero interest in the notion of what it means to be an American. What she’s interested in, what she’s always getting at, is what it means for a person to have an olive pit for a soul — whether you’re American, or European, or whatever.
Watch Phyllis Nagy discuss Carol at TIFF's Books on Film event below.