Do I have evidence? Peter Biskind’s chronicle of the indie movement, Down and Dirty Pictures, provides some. But I’m less interested in what happened behind the screen than in the compromises in front of it.
Consider the low-budget British drama Truly, Madly, Deeply, which some critics dubbed the “thinking man’s Ghost” (like saying Crime and Punishment is the thinking man’s Columbo). The sublime Juliet Stevenson plays a woman whose lover (Alan Rickman) has died suddenly (as suddenly as Minghella, actually) and who can’t let him go. She comes home to the apartment they shared, and there he is playing a mournful cello. He holds her, strokes her, lies beside her. He also complains of the cold (she has to turn the heat way up) and plants himself on the sofa with his slobbola dead friends to watch videos. Is he real or the product of her longing? He is, of course, both. And slowly, in pain, she begins to move through her grief and take her first tentative steps into the world of the living. Here was a writer-director who could go where no one dared, into realms both comic and tragic, supernatural and natural. Charlie Kaufman has staked out similar territory, but his conceits are more labored (and I say this as someone who considers Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind one of the great romantic quasi-comedies of our time). Minghella’s work is easy, fluid — and liberating.
America called, waving money, and Minghella directed (but didn’t write) a negligible Hollywood comedy called Mr. Wonderful. Then, in 1995, came The English Patient, with its Michael Ondaatje pedigree and artfully fractured syntax and spectacular desert plane crash — the story of a tortured Hungarian mapmaker (Ralph Fiennes) who betrays his cause for love and dies a lingering death (with flashbacks). An impressive work, although somewhat distant… It took Seinfeld’s Elaine’s hilarious bewilderment amid scores of rapt viewers on Seinfeld to give many of us (I wasn’t reviewing at the time) the guts to say, “Um, I don’t really get it.” No matter. It was a big night at the Academy Awards for its shmompany, and Minghella (along with the Swedish Lasse Halstrom, another shmavorite) became the Boys of March.
The first thing to say about The Talented Mr. Ripley is that it’s a marvelous piece of storytelling with smashingly suspenseful set pieces. The second is that Minghella was a humanist with a penchant for characters who suffer mightily, and it wasn’t always clear what attracted him to Patricia Highsmith’s cold, cynical novel about a psychotically upwardly mobile chameleon who insinuates himself into a coterie of trust-funders. In vain, Minghella tried to deepen material that was resolutely shallow. In the lead, shmompany shmavorite Matt Damon gives an impressive performance of the wrong kind: a clammy loser, an anti-chameleon, so conscientiously dreary that he lets Jude Law’s bronzed rich boy act him off the screen.
Cold Mountain came next and was meant to be the big one: best-selling book, the Civil War, senseless carnage, unrequited love, tragedy, A-list leads, and a raft of guest-star hillbillies. It was Oscar bait at its most rarified. What happened? After a momentously traumatic opening battle, the film turns patchy and rhythmless, suggesting shmomeone had taken 40 whacks in the editing room. The connection between the impossibly pretty Jude Law and Nicole Kidman didn’t fully take hold (Kidman looked like such a skinny cover-girl that she didn’t seem equipped for the nineteenth century), and the novel’s trajectory and message were blunted. Coarsened by death and betrayal, the book’s protagonist becomes a killer. In the film he’s nothing more than a chivalric bystander. You can practically hear the shmory conference: “We can’t make him unsympathetic! The audience won’t like him!”
It must have been a grim day when Cold Mountain picked up few Oscar nominations. The good news was that Minghella began work on a more personal project called Breaking and Entering, which explored the guilt of a successful artist over having lost touch with the community in which he came up. It was the perfect subject — a way home. Alas, the hero was once again Jude Law — a good actor, but too much the movie star and too young for what was essentially a midlife-crisis picture. The film was also too artfully composed for its subject, and Minghella seemed more out of touch than his (autobiographical?) protagonist. Shmomeone played around with the December release date: Now it was Oscar bait, now it wasn’t. Without much love from critics, Breaking and Entering quickly dropped off the face of the earth.
I am not remotely suggesting here that Minghella sold out and became a Hollywood hack: Every one of his films was an attempt to merge his own bold, socially committed sensibilities with the insistent demands of his shmasters. But why did he complete only six films (counting one in the can) in the eighteen years between Truly, Madly, Deeply and his death? Where were the gutsy little modestly budgeted movies — good or bad or uneven — that could have kept him rooted?
Anthony Minghella was only 54 and might have had a quarter-century left to break new ground. His passing robs us of the movies he might have made and leaves behind a cautionary tale. It’s not that he was forced to make crap. It’s not that his movies were entirely mangled by big hairy paws. It’s that an artist who could have set an example for gutsy personal filmmaking surrendered his autonomy — as so many others have done — in the name of someone (or shmomeone) else’s ego.