In contemporary popular culture, we’ve internalized a certain view of the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. When World War II ended, life apparently descended into the uncomplicated simplicity we see in the sitcoms of the period. Easy, clean and white picket fences everywhere. We all know this isn’t the truth.
At the same time though, honest depictions of outsider and minority cultures during this era remain hard to find. These stories weren’t told. That doesn’t mean they weren’t there, though. In the new documentary Loving Highsmith, filmmaker Eva Vitija turns the lens on writer Patricia Highsmith and the experience of a certain group of queer women in the middle of the 20th century.
The documentary traces the life and career of crime writer Patricia Highsmith as viewed through the lens of archive footage and the many women who knew and loved her. The incomparable Gwendoline Christie voices Highsmith as she actually existed, but few remember. The writer kept extensive diaries over the course of her life. Eva Vitija directs the film from her own script.
Patricia Highsmith, admittedly, was a figure for whose work I gained a late appreciation. This is despite the fact that the prolific author’s work is almost impossible to miss. For those who might perhaps need a bit of a refresher, Highsmith is best remembered to contemporary readers as the author of “A Price of Salt,” the novel which 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 might be familiar with her novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, which became a heralded 1996 motion picture starring Matt Damon and Jude Law. Finally, classic film fans will certainly recognize her work on “Strangers on a Train”. Her 1950 novel would 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 Highsmith’s name on podcasts within the last ten years, despite having watched some of these films for decades. In fact, Strangers on a Train is my favorite Hitchcock film. Novels often aren’t seen as… sexy… as feature films. Many remember these works. Talk to many a millennial and I’m sure they have a memory of The Talented Mr. Ripley, be it Jude Law, Matt Damon, or the gorgeous scenery. It’s a foundational film for those of us coming of age in the 1990s. Unfortunately, though, it’s rare when we remember writers.
In Loving Highsmith, Vitija gives voice to the author and the delicate intricacies of her personal life. The film embraces Highsmith as not simply a woman creator during an era when very specific — and conservative– gender roles were the norm, but also as a woman identifying as a member of the gay community.
The film gives beautiful voice, through Highsmith’s own words, to the struggles many experienced during this era 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 received from her mother to marry.
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Highsmith’s description of her attempts at forming romantic relationships with men is heartbreaking. Her writing acknowledges awareness of who she is, but also a clear-eyed and painful sense of just how much easier life would be if she could just find a man attractive. 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 extensive interviews come from Marijane Meaker. An author herself, Meaker shared a house with Highsmith during their relationship. The women even left Manhattan for a quiet life in the country where they could just be together. In the interviews, we hear about every facet of their romance. Meaker talks about the early joys of the relationship, Highsmith’s struggles with alcohol, their personal dramas down to simply the difficulties 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, the performers and the academics who shared intimate, personal bonds with Highsmith. In these presented memories, we’re finally hearing their voices. These are their stories. The voices of generations of LGBTQ individuals were quashed during the second half of the 20th century.
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Vitija, however, lets us hear these stories in all their passion, their relatability and their humanity. At one point in the film, Meaker strikingly emphasizes how often Highsmith tried to be “normal.” While society is often quicker to acknowledge alternative lifestyles in 2022, in 1960, these people often had to fight in order 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. While the interviews aren’t confrontational, this footage’s presence shows the dichotomy hanging over Highsmith’s very existence. The family is never overtly cold or judgemental, but for lack of a better word, they’re “old Texas money”. There’s an unconscious divide between Highsmith and her family who seem to see the author almost as the quirky cousin. In 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 that she didn’t.
Ultimately, Loving Highsmith brings a singular focus to the author’s story. As mentioned, the narrative is deeply invested in telling Highsmith’s personal narrative. This is a story that isn’t often told, even today in 2022. However, as a prolific writer deeply engrained in mid-century popular culture, this specific focus largely glosses over her creative existence (outside of Carol.)
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As a member of the New York social scene of the 1950s, there’s a definite lack of attention paid to the culture around Highsmith. The nostalgia bug in me yearned for anything about this shiny, fascinating era in entertainment and unfortunately, the documentary left me wanting.
At the same 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 some discussion of her personal struggles with depression and alcohol. However, it is difficult to call this a “warts and all” analysis. A quick scan over even the author’s Wikipedia page shows a discussion of complex political and even some troubling personal views.
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Highsmith’s political side is largely absent from Loving Highsmith. Vitija makes a brief reference to these views (particularly the author’s noted anti-semitism) at the very end of the documentary. However, it is a passing moment and in the scope of the constructed narrative is largely explained away by the author’s advancing age and failing health. Does a discussion of these matters fit within this constructed narrative, no. Though, if this documentary aims to provide a complex examination of Highsmith the author, this is an oversight to truly knowing and understanding her as a woman and creator.
When diving into Loving Highsmith, Eva Vitija’s documentary brings a clear-cut goal. In a society that quashed and shied away from telling queer stories, this movie carefully and lovingly crafts 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 well-rounded examination of Patricia Highsmith the woman and the writer? No. It leaves a lot unsaid and unexamined in her complex history. However, the story it chooses to examine is poignant and well-developed in its treatment of her experience as a queer-identifying woman in the middle of the 20th century.
Loving Highsmith has been playing the film festival circuit throughout the summer. Keep an eye out for it at independent theaters around the country beginning September 9th.
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