Alternative Music: Jazz and the Performative Resignification of Identity in Anthony Minghella's the Talented Mr. Ripley

Article excerpt

When Anthony Minghella began writing the screenplay for his 1999 film, The Talented Mr. Ripley, he decided to make two very important alterations to Patricia Highsmith's novel of the same name, on which the film is based. The first of these alterations involved changing playboy Dickie Greenleaf's hobby from painting to music, specifically jazz music. The reason for this change, Minghella explained in an interview with reporter Erik Floren, was that the film, as he envisioned it, was more about what the audience heard than what they saw. In other words, in the film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Minghella thought that "sound would more pungently and dynamically evoke the ... [late 1950s, the period in which the movie is set] ... than the motif of painting that Highsmith uses in her book" (1999, p. 18). Jazz, then, as much as the conventional elements of story, plot, and focalization, becomes the key to The Talented Mr. Ripley as a film and to its namesake, Tom Ripley, as a character.

The second change Minghella made when making the leap from Highsmith's novel to screenplay and, finally, to screen, was to make Tom Ripley's homosexuality much more pronounced and identifiable than it was in the book. In Highsmith's rendition of Mr. Ripley, Tom's homosexuality is nothing more than a subtext, a character trait--for that is what it is treated as--that runs beneath the surface of Tom's strange and often psychopathic behavior and, at least implicitly, explains his murderous actions. (1) In the film, however, Minghella chose to bring Tom's homosexuality to the forefront while at the same time allowing his character to develop a number of complexities that stem from his desire to become something, and someone, he is not, namely a straight socialite with enough money to buy rather than beg for social acceptance. That such aspirations-to redefine and refashion one's identity in a style that is much more easily negotiable and socially acceptable--are connected to jazz is not surprising. As Ajay Heble has made clear in Landing On the Wrong Note: Jazz, Dissonance, and Critical Theory, jazz is, both by accident and design, inextricably entwined in the process of identity formation, as it "encourages us to query naturalized orders of knowledge production" (2000, p. 28) and aids in, even facilitates, the rearticulation of normative categories of gender and sexuality by and through the use of improvisation and performativity. (2)

The need to perform and improvise identity, the need to resignify the self, becomes, in Minghella's hands, one of the main themes at work within The Talented Mr. Ripley, and helps to further illuminate the writer/director's choice of jazz for the movie's soundtrack and score. Unlike most other forms of music, jazz is essentially about redefinition. "Jazz," explains Minghella, "with its mantra of freedom and improvisation, carries the burden of expression for the existential urges of Americans"--like Ripley and Dickie both--"leaving home to redefine themselves in Europe" (1999). Dickie Greenleaf, a devout jazz fan and the object of Ripley's many and varied desires, for example, embodies "the idea of living in a state of improvisation. So by just hearing Dickie and seeing him with the saxophone, you [are able to] establish a chunk of his character" (Watters, 2000, p. 12). It is the perceived anti-establishment element of jazz that draws Dickie, a self-styled American dissident whose only real goals in life are to spend as much of his father's money as fast as he possibly can and to keep any and all forms of social responsibility at bay. As he often betrays himself as much more conservative at mind and heart than he wishes to believe, not only buying into such Western ideologies as classism, capitalism, and consumerism, but upholding them through his actions, it thus follows that Dickie fails miserably as a jazz musician. His playing often comes across as strained, as artless, and as shallow as his character, which might imply that his success as an improviser is not as clear cut as Minghella intended. …