In contemporary popular culture, we have internalized a certain vision of the United States of the 1940s and 1950s. At the end of World War II, life seemingly descended into the uncomplicated simplicity we see in sitcoms of the era. Easy, clean, white fences throughout. We all know that’s not the truth.
At the same time, however, honest depictions of foreign and minority cultures at this time remain hard to come by. These stories have not been told. That doesn’t mean they weren’t there, though. In the new documentary Loving Highsmithfilmmaker Eva Vitija turns the lens to writer Patricia Highsmith and the experience of a certain group of queer women in the mid-twentieth century.
The documentary traces the life and career of detective novelist Patricia Highsmith through the lens of archival footage and the many women who knew and loved her. The incomparable Gwendoline Christie voices Highsmith as she really existed, but few remember her. The writer kept many diaries throughout his life. Eva Vitija is directing the film from her own script.
Patricia Highsmith, admittedly, was a figure for whom I gained a belated appreciation for the work. This despite the fact that the work of the prolific author is almost impossible to miss. For those who might need a bit of a refresher, Highsmith is best known to contemporary readers as the author of “A Price of Salt”, the novel that would eventually become known as Carol. Todd Haynes turned the novel into a 2015 feature film of the same name starring Cate Blanchett.
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Others may be familiar with his novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” which became an announced 1996 movie starring Matt Damon and Jude Law. Finally, classic movie buffs will certainly recognize his work on “Strangers on a Train.” His 1950 novel will be adapted for the screen by “The Master of Suspense” himself. Alfred Hitchock released the film of the same name in 1951.
I only learned of Highsmith’s name from podcasts in the last ten years, although I’ve watched some of those movies for decades. In reality, Strangers on a train is my favorite Hitchcock movie. Often, novels aren’t considered as…sexy…as feature films. Many remember these works. Talk to many millennials and I’m sure they have a memory of The Talented Mr. Ripley, be it Jude Law, Matt Damon or the stunning scenery. It’s a seminal film for those of us who grew up in the 1990s. Sadly, however, the writers are rarely remembered.
In Loving Highsmith, Vitija gives voice to the author and the delicate intricacies of his personal life. The film embraces Highsmith not only as a creative woman at a time when very specific – and conservative – gender roles were the norm, but also as a woman who identifies as a member of the gay community.
The film gives a beautiful voice, through Highsmith’s own words, to the struggles many experienced during this time when the expectation was to conform to the accepted societal norm. Highsmith writes poignantly about her struggles with her sexuality. We hear about the pressure she was under from her mother to get married.
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Highsmith’s description of her attempts to form romantic relationships with men is heartbreaking. Her writing acknowledges the awareness of who she is, but also a lucid and painful sense of how much easier life would be if she could just find an attractive man. At one point in the film, through Christie’s narration, Highsmith describes kissing a teenage boyfriend as “falling into a bucket of oysters”.
The most complete interviews come from Marijane Meaker. An author herself, Meaker shared a home with Highsmith during their relationship. The women even left Manhattan for a quiet country life where they could just be together. In interviews, we hear about all facets of their romance. Meaker talks about the early joys of the relationship, from Highsmith’s struggles with alcohol, their personal dramas to the simple struggles of existing as a lesbian couple in 1960.
As mentioned, much of Vitija’s research in Loving Highsmith revolves around the women in the author’s life. These are the writers, performers and scholars who have shared intimate and personal ties with Highsmith. In these presented memories, we finally hear their voices. These are their stories. The voices of generations of LGBTQ people were silenced during the second half of the 20th century.
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Vitija, however, lets us hear these stories in all their passion, relativity and humanity. At one point in the film, Meaker vividly points out how often Highsmith tried to be “normal.” While society is often quicker to recognize alternative lifestyles in 2022, in 1960 these people often had to fight to simply exist as themselves.
At the same time, Vitija makes brilliant use of interviews with Highsmith’s surviving family. Originally from Texas, the author still has family in the region. Although the interviews are not confrontational, the presence of this footage shows the dichotomy that hangs over Highsmith’s very existence. The family is never overtly cold or judgmental, but for lack of a better word, they’re “Texas money.” There is an unconscious divide between Highsmith and his family who seem to see the author almost as the quirky cousin. Looking at these quaint rural scenes, there’s a deliberate sense of the struggle Highsmith must have felt to fit in, and in that, a frustration she didn’t feel.
At the end of the day, Loving Highsmith brings a unique touch to the author’s story. As mentioned, the narrative is deeply invested in Highsmith’s personal story. It’s a story that isn’t often told, even today in 2022. However, as a prolific writer deeply rooted in mid-century popular culture, this specific focus largely goes unmentioned about her creative existence ( apart from Carol.)
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As a member of the 1950s New York social scene, there is a definite lack of cultural attention around Highsmith. The nostalgia virus in me yearned for anything about that brilliant and fascinating era of entertainment and, sadly, the documentary left me wanting more.
At a time, Loving Highsmith is a largely positive portrayal of the author’s life. The filmmaker begins the documentary with her own narration and openly admits to falling in love with Highsmith through her diaries.
As mentioned, there is a discussion of his personal struggles with depression and alcohol. However, it is difficult to call this a “warts and all” analysis. A quick scan of the author’s Wikipedia page shows a discussion of complex political views and even troubling personal opinions.
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The political side of Highsmith is largely absent from Loving Highsmith. Vitija makes a brief reference to these views (especially the author’s notorious anti-Semitism) at the very end of the documentary. However, it is a passing moment and within the scope of the constructed narrative, it is largely explained by the advanced age and failing health of the author. Does a discussion of these issues fit into this constructed narrative, no. However, while this documentary aims to provide a complex examination of Highsmith the author, it is an oversight to truly get to know and understand her as a woman and a creator.
When diving in Loving Highsmith, Eva Vitija’s documentary brings a clear objective. In a society that has canceled and hesitated to tell queer stories, this film carefully and lovingly paints a portrait of Patricia Highsmith as a woman trying to live her own life in the middle of the 20th century.
The documentary has specific goals in mind and it certainly accomplishes what it sets out to do. Is this documentary a comprehensive review of Patricia Highsmith, the wife and writer? No. That leaves a lot unsaid and unexamined in its complex history. However, the story he chooses to examine is poignant and well-developed in its treatment of her experience as a queer-identifying woman in the mid-twentieth century.
Loving Highsmith played the film festival circuit throughout the summer. Keep an eye out for independent cinemas across the country from September 9.
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