The sudden death yesterday in London of Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella is, of course, a grievous loss to the film world. At 54, with only seven features to his credit, including The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain, Minghella had so much more to show us about ourselves and the curves life throws at us. But the loss is greater for his family and friends. Minghella, to paraphrase the author John O'Hara, was "a gentleman in a world that has no more use for gentleman." To know him was to be in the presence of a man with an elegant regard for the romance of film. Talking to me, a critic, he'd want to know what I didn't like about a movie, his or someone else's. His arguments, fiery but never hostile, were filled with joy in the discussion. Joy, however, was the last thing he was feeling on the day we first met. It was the first New York screening of The English Patient in 1996. The room was small, but packed with critics waiting to see what Minghella had done with his first epic, the screen version of the novel by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje. Ten minutes into the screening, the film broke. Five minutes later, the film broke gain. The lights came up. Technicians were called in. During the unwanted intermission, I trudged off to the john, only to find Minghella leaning his head on a wall of cold tile, softly muttering to himself.
"Don't worry," I stupidly told him, "these things happen. They'll fix it. It'll be fine."
"It won't be fine," he said, finally, but composing himself.
A few months later, when The English Patient won the Oscar as Best Picture and Minghella took the statuette as Best Director, I wrote him a four word note: "See, it was fine."
And fine it stayed for twelve more years of creativity. Minghella wrote and directed movies. He produced others, some with his partner and friend Sydney Pollack, including this year's Best Picture nominee Michael Clayton. He even acted in Atonement, as the TV journalist who interviews Vanessa Redgrave in the last scene. Minghella's final feature, No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, will air on HBO, a throwback to his early days on such British TV shows as Inspector Morse. Now I keep thinking of moments from Minghella's films that reflected this thoughtful, literate man whose need for romance never lost its grounding in reality. You probably have your own favorite Minghella moments. Here are a few of mine.
The English Patient 1996
Elaine on Seinfeld couldn't understand what audiences and Oscar saw in Minghella's three-hour epic ("It's so looooong," she said). Try again Elaine. I can't forget the shimmering, startling opening shot: Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian count, desert explorer and pilot, is flying Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), the married Englishwoman he loves, over the Sahara in a small plane during World War II. German fire sends them parachuting to the desert in flames, his body clinging to hers in a paradigm of love and death. And there's that flashback to their first meeting when Almasy is told by a friend: "She's charming, and she's read everything." The come-on is pure Minghella. No other filmmaker made intellect and carnality fuse so combustibly.
The Talented Mr. Ripley 1999
You can see it as a story of a closeted gay hustler who turns serial killer. But Minghella sees something else in this tale of seduction as Matt Damon's poorboy Ripley is sent to Europe to fetch home a tycoon's son — Jude Law, never sleeker or more privileged. In the process, Ripley becomes obsessed with the culture of Europe, something he aches to have in his bones. The scene of Damon staring at the sun-kissed Law on a beach indelibly sexualizes money and class.
Cold Mountain 2003
Written off because it didn't live up to its Best Picture Oscar expectations, Minghella's Civil War epic seems even more pertinent today for how it probes what it takes for a divided America to heal its wounds. Once again what stays with you are words, the words Nicole Kidman writes to Jude Law's wounded soldier in a hospital: "If you are fighting, stop fighting. If you are marching, stop marching. Come back to me."
Truly, Madly, Deeply 1991
Minghella wrote and directed his first feature on the theme of undying love. Juliet Stevenson plays an interpreter whose musician boyfriend (Alan Rickman) dies and then comes back as an adoring but increasingly annoying ghost with dead friends who like to choose what videos to watch: Five Easy Pieces, " asks one spirit, "or Fitzcarraldo?" How Minghella is that? It's impossible not to think of Minghella as Rickman speaks about dying: "It was like standing behind a glass wall," he says, "while everybody got on with missing me."