Like her best-known fictional creation, Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith had secrets. So while her books (and even more so the film adaptations of them, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 Strangers on a Train, Todd Haynes’ 2015 Carol, and the many films based on the Ripley novels) are world-famous, the author herself remains something of a mystery.
There are at least three major biographies of Highsmith in print, but my recommendation if you want to get a handle on who she was is to save yourself some time and just watch Eva Vitija’s documentary Loving Highsmith instead. It makes good use of archival footage, staged modern footage, clips from adaptations of films based on her works, interviews, and Highsmith’s own words (read by Gwendoline Christie) to create a portrait of an author who was certainly one of a kind.
Loving Highsmith isn’t a straightforward biographical film, but more of a mood piece that doles out nuggets of information within a visual context that’s more about creating a vibe that reporting facts and details. It’s certainly never dull, and does better than a more conventional work might in conveying an understanding about the context in which Highsmith lived and worked, and how she interpreted and altered the reality of her world in her creative works.
If Highsmith’s writing is cynical, maybe it has something to do with her life. Her parents were divorced before she was born, and her mother claimed to have tried to abort her by drinking turpentine. Whether true or not, the fact that that was said at all tells you all you need to know. Knowing her mother didn’t want to have her wasn’t the only source of Highsmith’s fears of abandonment, as she was sent away from her mother and stepfather several times to live with her grandmother in Texas. Young Highsmith dressed and acted butch when she could, further upsetting her mother, and, according to ex-lover Marijane Meaker, went to a doctor to try to change herself into something more acceptable. It didn’t succeed, of course, and Highsmith got on with living her life, publishing numerous books, achieving fame and fortune, and having relationships with a number of women, some of whom are interviewed in this film.
Meaker, a fellow author, minces no words about what it was like to be lesbian in the 1950s. There was a great emphasis placed on “passing,” and she recalls being turned away from a lesbian club for being too obvious. The world of literature wasn’t that much freer: no one published under their own name (Highsmith published The Price of Salt, the source novel for Carol, under the name “Claire Morgan,” while Meaker used a variety of pseudonyms, including Vin Packer, Ann Aldrich, and M.E. Kerr), and lesbian stories had to end unhappily—if not with suicide, then at least with the failure of the key romantic relationship. That was a rule Highsmith broke in The Price of Salt, and that it was the first lesbian novel to end on a happy note tells you a lot about how people thought about expressions of non-heterosexual sexuality, even in literature, at the time.
Watching this film gave me a different impression of Highsmith than I have gotten from other sources, and one that is more positive and understanding. Some of the biographies, for instance, seem to take a delight in emphasizing her unpleasant side, focusing on her health problems in her later life, and in featuring unattractive photographs taken in her old age. It’s almost like the point was to judge, rather than understand, which isn’t a good approach for a biographer. In case you were wondering, Highsmith was quite the babe in her young years, and if she didn’t look 17 forever, well, who among us can claim otherwise? More to the point, we all have our good points and our bad points and no one’s life story should be reduced to a single dimension, least of all someone with as many sides to her as Patrician Highsmith had. | Sarah Boslaugh
Loving Highsmith is distributed on DVD by Zeitgeist Films. Extras on the DVD include the film’s trailer and six short documentary segments: one concerning the recording of the soundtrack, featuring Mary Halvorson and composer Noel Akchoté, the others featuring additional interviews with Bruno Sager, Ingeborg Luscher, Marijane Meaker, and Monique Buffet, and Highsmiths’s relatives and neighbors in Alabama and Fort Worth.