When The Talented Mr Ripley first graced cinemas two decades ago, more cautious studio executives would have expected outcry from conservative audiences and LGBT+ activists alike. When they were met with rave reviews from LGBT+ publications and a string of Oscar nods, it became clear Anthony Minghella’s melodrama had stumbled on the blueprint to what would soon become a billion-dollar concern: queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting as a term emerged in the early 2010s to describe a marketing strategy deployed by a succession of televised and cinematic blockbusters. By way of hinting at same-sex romance or other LGBTQ representation, without actually depicting it, producers found they could “bait” a queer or straight ally audience by alluding to relationships or characters that might appeal to them – but at the same time they could avoid alienating more conservative consumers by not making these aspects of the product too overt.
The Talented Mr Ripley walks this fine line to a tee, with Matt Damon’s titular Tom Ripley spending the film’s first act in a will-they-won’t-they entanglement with Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) – whose wealthy father has sent him to fetch from Italy. Essentially, everything else in the picture is window dressing to distract ‘traditional’ (homophobic) viewers from this titillation with conventional thriller tropes. These include Damon’s laughable ability to “flawlessly impersonate” those around him by way of the world’s least subtle ADR (a word to the wise: try not to drink or eat during his cringe-worthy ‘cover’ of Chet Baker’s My Funny Valentine – unless choking is your thing); a listless tour of the most scenic parts of Italy; and, of course, a string of murders.
Arguably the most striking thing about the film 20 years later – besides its laughably dated editing and a credit sequence straight out of a “graphic design is my passion” meme – is the close ties drawn between Ripley’s violent actions and the pent up frustrations of his repressed sexuality. Having been definitively rebuffed by a decreasingly interested Dickie, Ripley clubs his crush to death with the oar of a boat, and steals his identity – setting into motion a series of events which will see him statistically enter serial killer territory. In the process, he fosters two close relationships – one with a man and one with a woman. Guess who gets an on-screen kiss, and who gets strangled off-screen.
Interestingly, what won the film plaudits for its depiction of homosexuality from the LGBT+ community was that many felt it was a “sensitive take on the gay experience,” which glossy LGBT+ publication Advocate suggested made it “more resonant for a contemporary audience.” Elsewhere, fellow LGBT+ magazine New York Blade News went further in its lionisation, stating that “Ripley’s pathology is no longer connected to sexuality.” I know there are many mealy mouthed film academics, who would caution against ‘judging old culture, by modern standards,’ but it’s hard to figure out exactly which film these publications were watching.
Ripley’s bisexuality, and the events which have conspired to prevent him exploring at least half of that, drive his first bout of violence, while the spiralling series of encounters that lead on from that are all informed by that first moment. Meanwhile, the thrilling scenes of opulent high living that Ripley is able to enjoy at his deceased friend’s expense are incidental. What seems to have kept literally everyone blinkered to this at the time is the finely tuned balance of Minghella’s script.
The libertarian fantasy of the swindle caper – where a ‘talented’ individual enriches themselves and uses their untamed wit to give the authorities the run-around – is essentially a B-plot, but it is presented as though it were Ripley’s primary motivation for resorting to desperate tactics to avoid being caught. In this sense, the film invites viewers to see Ripley not a gay serial killer, but a serial killer who happens to be gay. While placating the LGBT+ audience in this manner, this sleight of hand also manages to appeal to conservative viewers, who thanks to a litany of copycat Buffalo Bills simply expect serial killers to have ‘perverted tendencies.’
There will be many people who would argue this is too harsh a line to take for a film which was daring “for its time” (that old chestnut), but I will close with this. For a film supposedly concerned with finally giving the “gay experience” mainstream recognition, it is remarkably coy about any part of that experience that isn’t longing gazes from across the room. Certainly there is never any hint of overt discussion of issues surrounding gender and sexuality – as seen in Dog Day Afternoon a quarter of a century earlier – or even a hint of physical affection, something other 90s Oscar fodder like Philadelphia or Gods and Monsters managed to surpass, however subtly they did so.
What was the real enduring talent of Ripley and co then? It certainly isn’t a pioneering trailblazer of LGBT+ representation. Rather, its larger contribution to the film industry is its deception – having been able to disguise rather cynical intentions as something nobler. From Sherlock and Hannibal to the Fantastic Beasts series and the latest Star Wars trilogy, major IPs which might previously have struggled to attract queer or ally viewers without ‘offending’ consumers already in the fold have deployed the tactics of The Talented Mr Ripley: alluding to clichés associated with homosexuality, without meaningfully engaging with any of the LGBT+ experience overtly.