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    Loving Highsmith Is a Wan Doc About the Fascinating Lesbian Author

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    Lesbian novelist Patricia Highsmith is probably as well known for her books as she is for the film adaptations of her books—Strangers on a Train, The American Friend, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The Price of Salt aka Carol, among others. The wan documentary, Loving Highsmith, opening September 9 in the Bay Area,is a portrait of the writer, but it is about as deep as a Wikipedia entry.

    Director Eva Vitija certainly has affection for her subject, a woman who dressed and acted like a man, and wrote mainly about men—because it was a path to success; both women and men, the film explains, would read stories with male protagonists. Highsmith was savvy when it came to her career. When she wrote Carol, a story about a young woman who has a love affair with a married lady, Highsmith penned it under a pseudonym so as not to be identified as lesbian. More importantly, she gave the novel, published in 1952, a happy ending, which was unheard of at the time. (Nearly 40 years later, she republished Carol under her own name.)

    Loving Highsmith does explore some of the attitudes about homosexuality in the 1950s, and how folks had to be subversive to survive. One of Highsmith’s many lovers, Marijane Meaker, delightfully recounts going to a lesbian bar in New York City and being banned because she indiscreetly took a taxi rather than walked from a remote subway stop so as not to be identified. Meaker also provides some interesting anecdotes about living with Highsmith. They may have looked like roommates sharing expenses, but when neighborhood boys spied them kissing, the gossip about the true nature of their relationship quickly spread across—and scandalized—the town.

    Highsmith, however, was never really hiding her identity. She was butch from a young age, as a photo of her as a child with a cigar indicates. (The film does feature some great archival images.) She preferred jeans to dresses, and spent several years of her childhood in Texas, in a rancher and rodeo family. But she was, by all accounts, “not a typical Texan.” She eventually moved to New York to be with her mother. 

    The film’s most interesting section addresses Highsmith’s fraught relationship with her unlikeable mother, a woman who divorced her husband less than two weeks before Patricia was born. According to one report, which may or may not be true, Highsmith’s mother tried unsuccessfully to induce an abortion with turpentine. That Highsmith still loved her mother—who didn’t return Patricia’s affection—is certainly telling and may explain why she wrote about such amoral characters like Ripley, or Bruno in Strangers on a Train.

    But Vitija mostly lets viewers connect those dots, preferring, inexplicably, to showcase scenes of cattle roping or, late in the film, a musical performance. These episodes seem to have little or nothing to do with Highsmith’s life or the topics being discussed. Likewise, various scenes of the author typing serve very little purpose except to serve as wallpaper during a voiceover. (The film has Gwendoline Christie voicing Highsmith’s writing.)

    Also disappointing are a handful of scenes with some of Patricia’s living Texas relatives. In one sequence, they are shocked by the idea that Patricia had a romantic relationship with a woman named Millie, who worked for American Airlines. But too little is explained about who these folks are, and if or how Millie is related to them, for the revelation to have any real impact for the viewer.

    Likewise, another pointless episode has one of Highsmith’s lovers, Tabea Blumenschein, who inspired Highsmith to write a Ripley novel, commenting on the peacock displaying its feathers. The tenuous connection is that the book was set on Peacock Island, and a passage from the novel is read aloud. When their affair ends sadly, Monique Buffet, another friend and lover of Highsmith’s, notes that she suffered from writer’s block as a result, which is more edifying.

    Loving Highsmith does feature clips from the films of the novels and some of the contexts are illuminating. It was pretty significant that Alfred Hitchcock chose to adapt Highsmith’s debut novel, Strangers on a Train, about an exchange of murders,for one of his films. And Carol was based in part on Highsmith’s experiences working in a department store like its main character, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara in the film), does. There is also an emphasis on Ripley’s effeminacy and homosexuality—as illustrated by a few scenes from the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Matt Damon in the title role. That Highsmith identified with Ripley to an extent is both interesting and not unsurprising for those unfamiliar with the author’s background.

    Loving Highsmith may be best appreciated by those who are unfamiliar with the author’s personal life and only really know her work from her books or films. Vitija briefly touches on Highsmith’s alcoholism, her racism and antisemitism, and tax issues that were prominent late in her life.

    But then there is a nugget, from her dairies, “Resentment was my second emotion, one I knew well before I knew its name.” It may be the most revealing moment in this largely superficial portrait.

    © 2022 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer

    Film
    Published on September 8, 2022