VOICES AND ECHOES
JANUARY 7, 2000 • HOUSTON VOICE
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The evolution of the gay stalker (and the gay activist)
In "The Talented Mr. Ripley," Matt
Damon plays a gay man whose obsession
with socialite Dickie Greenleaf (played by
Jude Law) inspires a killing spree shocking
for its amorality.
Among Tom Ripley's victims, after he
duplicitously wins his way into high society, are the two wealthy young men with
whom he falls in love, a perverted expression of affection if ever there were one.
It's not the first time in recent years that
Hollywood has offered up a gay stalker for
the big screen. In 1992, "Basic Instinct"
enraged gay activists, who took issue with
Sharon Stone's chilling, seductive portrayal
of a man-hating bisexual.
That same year, "Silence of the Lambs"
featured as its villain a misogynous, effeminate man who collected the skin from dead
bodies to create a "dress" for him to wear.
A year later, activists took issue with "Six
Degrees of Separation," in which
rapper/actor Will Smith played a young
black man who won his way into white
Manhattan society in Ripley-esque fashion
by pretending to be Sidney Poitier's son.
Although at the time, it wasn't the less-
than-flattering portrayal of a gay character
in "Six Degrees" that angered the activists
so much as it was Smith's highly publicized
refusal to do an on-screen male-male kiss
for fear it would ruin his career.
But at the end of the decade, with gays
never more powerful in Hollywood, there
hasn't been a peep about the negative image
homosexuality portrayed in "Mr. Ripley."
And that's a very good thing.
As we enter a new decade, Hollywood
has happily evolved and so have gay
activists, and both are smarter about how to
handle homosexuality on the screen,
though both still have something to learn.
For one thing, "Mr. Ripley" doesn't have
the history that would suggest insensitivity
toward homosexuality The story is based
on a novel by lesbian author Patricia
Highsmith, and the adaptation by directory
Anthony Minghella actually adds to the
homoerotic content. (See story, Page 15)
Minghella injected a more overt, 1990s
gay sensibility to Ripley's desire for Dickie,
which was portrayed less sexually in
Highsmith's early '50s original. Even more
important, Minghella added a new, completely likable gay character, Peter Smith
Kingsley (played by Jack Davenport).
That Mr. Ripley finds himself incapable
of accepting love says more about his character than the movie's view of homosexuality, and Ripley's cruel treatment of the
Kingsley character only puts an exclamation point on the image.
Minghella has also been refreshingly open
about the tightrope he walked in updating
"I'm desperate that no one infer a connection between [Ripley's] actions and his sexuality," Minghella told the New York Times. "But
it's a sorry state of affairs if you can only write
about a homosexual character who behaves
well—that's another kind of tyranny, I think."
Minghella's point is well-taken, especially
in a turn-of-the-century Hollywood more
notable for its well-adjusted, if one-dimensional, gay characters in movies like
"American Beauty" and "As Good As It
As Minghella himself puts it so well, the
flesh-and-blood Ripley, warts and all, is far
more interesting to watch and despite his
amorality is at times much more sympathetic.
"The minute you try to pull back from
what's sensual and erotic, you're losing
your nerve, and I just didn't want to shrink
away from the romance of it; it's very tender to me," he said.
With all the positive role models in
Hollywood today, it's a lot easier than it was in
1992 to swallow the gay psychopaths, and it is
a more mature gay audience that understands
central characters—gay and straight—must be
tragically flawed to be worthy of the casting.
Low marks for the promo
But if Minghella has earned high marks for
his intelligent, sensitive update of
Highsmith's story, Miramax Films deserves a
failing grade for its promotion of "Mr. Ripley."
In ubiquitous commercials and film trailers,
the studio portrayed the story as a typical boy-
girl stalking. The previews had you believe
not that Ripley wanted Dickie, but that he
wanted to be Dickie, and that included a relationship with his girl Marge (played by
A number of film critics even repeated the
studio tripe that Damon's character was
"bisexual," though there is absolutely no indication of it in the movie.
Some movie-goers took the bait and
weren't too thrilled with the homoerotic love
story they got fed instead.
While there's a certain juiceness to the idea
that Hollywood is subverting popular culture
by luring mainstream audiences to a movie
with a gay love story, it's much more likely that
Miramax was simply promoting the Christmas
movie it wished Minghella had delivered.
"The studio would have been thrilled if
[Tom's attraction to Dickie] was transmogrified into a love for Marge—he wants the
life, so he wants the girl!" Minghella confided to the Times.
Perhaps the movie's strong box office performance—"Mr. Ripley" finished number
two last week—will embolden studio promoters to be more direct in the future.
More honest packaging—and maybe an
actual love scene since Damon like Will Smith
before him avoids the dreaded male-male
kiss—would have made "The Talented Mr.
Ripley" a truly evolved portrayal of the gay