The life of author Patricia Highsmith was filled with so much drama that it resembled many of her novels, a majority of which became Hollywood adaptations. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, she was abandoned by her mother until age 6 then whisked away to New York only to find herself back in the Lone Star State at the age of 12. It was temporary. The documentary “Loving Highsmith” by writer-director Eva Vitija is based on the diaries and notebooks written by the author who passed away in 1995, and features candid interviews with family, friends, and former lesbian lovers.

The documentary opens with a shot of Patricia Highsmith behind the typewriter. “Ideas come to me like birds that I see in the corner of my eye”, the author’s thoughts spoken by Gwendoline Christie; the “Game of Thrones” actress serves as the film’s narrator. Cut to the famous Tunnel of Love scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” as the narrator continues, “If he had Miriam here in the boat with him, he would hold her head under the water with pleasure” those words written by Highsmith for her first novel, caught the attention of the “Master of Suspense” who adapted her book for the 1951 film starring Farley Granger and Kasey Rogers.

The success of “Strangers” jump started Highsmith’s career. She went on to write several more novels which took Hollywood by storm including a series of books featuring protagonist Tom Ripley, the most famous adaptation being the novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” which became a feature film starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jude Law. The 1999 film directed by Anthony Minghella, also featured Cate Blanchett who found herself sixteen years later as the title character of another Highsmith adaptation “Carol” directed by Todd Haynes.

When “Carol” was first published in 1952 it was titled “The Price of Salt” under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan”, which, as the documentary reveals, was done to hide the author’s identity to avoid being labeled a lesbian writer. For many years, “Salt” was known as the only lesbian novel with a happy ending. As American author Marijane Meaker (one of the featured interviewees) explains it was common practice for women to use pseudonyms to hide their sexuality when dealing with queer fiction. She would know after publishing novels under the names Vin Packer, Ann Aldrich, and Mary James.

The documentary features candid interviews with several people closest to Highsmith including Monique Buffet, a teacher and translator from Paris who grew to love the author. Flamboyant artist, actress, and costume designer Tabea Blumenschein recalls going with Highsmith to drink beers at Transvestite bars frequented by David Bowie, and family members Judy, and children Courtney & Dan Coates, who live on a large farm near Fort Worth, reminisce about their famous distant cousin being anything but a typical Texas woman. Old photographs of Highsmith as a child are displayed including some with the Coates’ grandfather Dan who became a brother to Patricia when she lived with her grandmother in Texas for several years.

“Loving Highsmith” features clips of the movies adapted from the author’s novels, including the lesser known “The American Friend” directed by Wim Wenders starring Dennis Hopper which is an adaptation of the 1974 novel “Ripley’s Game.” There’s also candid footage of Highsmith and her family that paints a troubled childhood for the author whose love for her mother was not reciprocated. Eva Vitija’s documentary moves at a casual pace as it sheds new light on the celebrated author thanks to her notebooks and diaries, now part of the Swiss Literary Archive. Patricia Highsmith became known for crime thrillers, but as the documentary points out, like “Carol” she was a romantic at heart.

(3 stars)

The documentary will screen at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth as part of its Magnolia at the Modern series which features critically acclaimed films. The dates are September 30 through October 02. For ticket information visit the website https://www.themodern.org/film/loving-highsmith

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.