Anthony Minghella, Bringing the Art House to the Mainstream

Anthony Minghella, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker of "The English Patient" and "Cold Mountain," has died at the age of 54.
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Anthony Minghella brought the art house to the multiplex without forcing anyone to squirm or read subtitles. In doing so, the filmmaker created a formula that has confounded so many moviemakers since Hollywood first erected that famous shingle in the hills.

With box office successes such as "The English Patient" and "Cold Mountain," he brought the piercing sensitivity of the literary tome into the hearts of audiences that may not have read the source material but want to feel like they did.

Alas, Minghella, who grew up in a noisy Italian immigrant's home on England's Isle of Wight, died far too early. He passed away in London yesterday of a brain hemorrhage, following surgery for cancer, according to his publicist. He was a youthful 54.

It was Minghella's canny knack for casting high-wattage stars in highbrow material that made his movies so special.

With 1996's "The English Patient," Minghella boiled down Michael Ondaatje's dauntingly idiosyncratic book to its emotional essentials. Audiences bought it -- the tragic love story of a badly burned air pilot, the nurse who takes care of him, those homemade candles, the downed plane, the African desert, the whole epic sweep. For many viewers, it was "Lawrence of Arabia" all over again -- with a pretty woman. Minghella won an Oscar for Best Director that year, and the picture took nine awards in all.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Minghella's screenplay for 1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley," but did not give him the prize. For a darkly defined movie about a murderous psychopath who gets away with his crimes, "Ripley" did some talented business of its own: a respectable $81 million. And if 2003's "Cold Mountain" didn't wow as many critics as the previous film, it certainly reached its audience, earning $96 million at the U.S. box office, as well as a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Ren┬┐e Zellweger.

Minghella, famously bald, genial and perpetually clad in black, set his professional destiny with 1990's critically lauded "Truly Madly Deeply," a "Ghost" for the cinephile set, in which a bereaved wife (Juliet Stevenson) finds love after death with her late beloved (Alan Rickman). From that point, he set out to create stories that tested, but also enchanted, the audience.

He accomplished this by tossing celebrities into the dramaturgical equivalent of white-water rapids. In "Cold Mountain," that was star-licious Nicole Kidman playing a city woman forced to live a hardscrabble existence in the Confederate South. And Matt Damon, best known to audiences as the adorable townie in "Good Will Hunting," was suddenly the coldly calculating manipulator in "The Talented Mr. Ripley." With this intentional disconnect, Minghella led mainstream audiences into terrain they might otherwise never have explored. Moviegoing suddenly felt as risky as it was glamorous. And the stark definitions of art and entertainment no longer really mattered.

(Of course, Minghella wasn't the only one in Hollywood successfully combining art house sensibilities with multiplex mojo. Ang Lee did it with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a foreign language film, packed with action and a watchable ensemble. Lee did it again with "Brokeback Mountain," taking a mostly indie topic -- homosexual love -- and casting mainstream heartthrobs Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger.)

For Minghella, the algebra didn't always work, of course. "Breaking and Entering," in which Jude Law plays an architect who falls for the mother of a boy who burglarizes his home, wandered a little too far into the esoteric zone, and didn't enjoy the same critical or commercial success of his better predecessors.

Arguably, the success of a cultural work can also be defined in the backlash it arouses. In which case, "The English Patient" hit the sweet spot. Last year, Minghella told The Washington Post about a puppet show on British television that "did a great job of capturing the movie's absurdities." And in a famous episode on "Seinfeld," Elaine rants and raves against the movie, which she dismisses as pseudo-artiness posing as meaningful romance.

"Quit telling your stupid story about your stupid desert and die already!" she howls in frustration. Now that flippant, humorous line suddenly rings with a sad poignancy.

With the forthcoming "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency," an HBO TV pilot based on the cult books about a female investigator in Botswana, it seems Minghella would work his trick again -- bring a commercially unlikely story into the mainstream. But this time, Minghella's work will emerge on its own, without its creative stepfather. But then again, that's the magic of Minghella's movies: Watching them we know we'll experience something dicey, out of the pale, or even dangerous. But because of the sureness of his hand, we know it's going to be an enjoyable, meaningful passage.

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