illustration by Marc Aspinall

I love how Jude Law’s Dickie Greenleaf says, “I love Marge.” He punches the “o” in love— it’s an insistence, not a profession. “Marge” has a certain softness on the page, the lowercase serif “g” almost figure-eighting its way up to the “e.” You could imagine a French pronunciation, if you wanted. When said aloud, however, there is a kind of mouthiness to it. Marge. You can’t say it passively; it doesn’t slide out of the mouth. You push it out through your lips: “I love Marge.”

In Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Dickie doesn’t love Marge. Or at least, Dickie doesn’t say he loves Marge. In Anthony Minghella’s film of the same name, Marge is loved—maybe, probably, or at least she believes herself to be loved. Marge, as played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is cherubic, spritely. Sans Ripley’s scornful narration, she is granted room to flourish and laugh and be—yes, I think so—lovable.

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“Marge was in love with Dickie, Tom thought, but Dickie couldn’t have been more indifferent to her if she had been the fifty-year-old Italian maid sitting there,” Highsmith wrote.

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The Talented Mr. Ripley and general mythos of Highsmith’s conniving psychopath Tom Ripley dates back to the novel’s publication in 1955, but Ripley soon fell out of Highsmith’s narrative grasp and into others’. René Clement’s Purple Noon (1960) stars French dreamboat Alain Delon as the titular Ripley, a daring adaptation that imagines: “What if all the characters in the novel were brunette?” (Highsmith apparently hated it). A Netflix adaptation of the book is set to air in 2024. You can make the case that a film like Saltburn (2023), for all of its middle and upper class tensions and identity crises, is a type of adaptation of Ripley, down to the beautiful men tanning in the summer sun.

The legend goes: Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), a lower-class schemer and homosexual manages to attract the attention of shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf, who pays Tom to go to Italy and bring his son Dickie (Law) home to take his rightful place in the shipping industry and be good to his ailing, and possibly dying, mother. While we’ve perpetuated Ripley-as-type (conniving, charming, misogynist) and Dickie-as-type (handsome, dumb, misogynist), Marge is different each go-around. It’s not like Highsmith gives us much to go off. Marge is a “Girl Scout.” Marge is a Catholic. Marge is nothing—an obstacle in the way of it all.

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I’ve long been fascinated by Gwyneth Paltrow, in a way that thin and beautiful blonde actresses don’t often fascinate me. I don’t mention her looks to deride her; I mention her looks because they are so intrinsic to her screen presence. Her hair golden, her face dappled with freckles, just about every piece of clothing she’s ever worn looks good on her. You never see her in a role and think, I wish a person with brown hair was doing this instead. Paltrow skeptics, the types who throw the Goop vagina eggs and her Ryan Murphy collaborations at you when you insist upon her genius, ought to look no further than James Gray’s Two Lovers (2008) in which she is blonde, weaponized.

I talk about looks here because looks matter in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)—it’s a text about appearance, reflection, deception. It does not matter that Matt Damon and Jude Law don’t really look alike; they don’t need to look alike. They each embody a type, and Law’s Dickie is much more imitable than vice versa. For the upper-class, everything is a game of “seems so.” When Dickie shows Tom a ring that Marge got him, Marge mentions she haggled for it and Dickie gasps, feigning disgust. “I hope it wasn’t cheap,” he sneers. Saving a buck here or there is far more insulting than anything that could be said. 

Marge and Dickie don cotton, linen—light, buoyant fabrics, just see-through enough to know there’s a warm body beneath. Marge’s skin: tanned and freckled. Dickie’s: bronze. Tom’s, by comparison, is practically see-through, a ghost. They comment on this, Dickie and Marge—“a man so pale.” What little lightness there is in Tom fades sooner than anyone realizes.

The Talented Mr. Ripley was a who’s who of a new Hollywood—everyone who was anyone was there. Damon as Ripley, Law as Dickie, Paltrow as Marge, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Freddie, Jack Davenport as Peter, and Cate Blanchett as Meredith (an invention of the film). These actors are all smart and beautiful, even Hoffman’s lewd and bratty Freddie, but Paltrow feels the most at-home. Daughter of Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner, she grew up in the environment that Tom Ripley adopts such envy of. She is moneyed and easygoing; here on-screen she is moneyed and easygoing. It’s not hard to like Marge, which is why it feels so funny that Tom hates her as much as he does. 

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Relevant Marges: Marge Simpson (The Simpsons), Aunt Marge (Harry Potter), Marge Gunderson (Fargo), Aunt Marge (my own).

A few years ago I learned that Margaret means pearl—hence “margarine,” the butter substitute, for its pearlescent qualities when melted. We think of Marge as an old-fashioned name. Marge of Ripley—around twenty-five during the 1959 setting of the film—would be 90 years old now.

You see Marge through which you see Paltrow: milky, opaque, plain-stated but glowing. She is a writer, supposedly, but we never get a sense of her ideas. She is a romantic partner to Dickie, though it’s hard to see what they like about each other beyond their most basic appearances, a dilettante-ish preference for not being in America. They cling to each other like buoys in the sea, bouncing and floating along. When we meet Marge we do so alongside Dickie, lying around at the beach, her hand hovering over her brow to block out the sun. She’d glow too bright were it to hit her skin.

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The polish of Marge becomes especially apparent in the back half of the movie when set against Blanchett’s Meredith—another blonde, but much less easy going and smooth in her creature comforts. Meredith is embarrassed by her wealth, sexless and awkward, prone to an inappropriate giggle or sudden shyness. Like the many children of the wealthy, she appears trapped in a permanent adolescence, shameful of her parents but eager to defer to them when possible. She gawks and stammers. Blanchett, who pivots in her later career to figures of power and poise, milks the comedy in the film’s invention of Meredith. Her American accent is broad and wide, a little more mid-Atlantic (as she was in Carol) and a little less casual than her wealthy peers, who don’t seem to appreciate her even when she shares her family home with them. She is the Chanel (girlish, prim) to Marge’s The Row (sleek, loose). 

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The novel version of Tom has no love for Marge and makes this point certain a number of times over. Her book “must stink,” her butt is a “big bulge,” she had the “look of a mother or an older sisters […]—the older feminine disapproval of the destructive play of little boys and men.” In the film there is a scene in which Tom dresses up in Dickie’s clothes and does a little song-and-dance routine in the mirror, played for uncomfortable laughter when he’s interrupted. In the novel, however, there is a much more startling scene:

“Marge, you must understand that I don’t love you,” Tom said into the mirror in Dickie’s voice, with Dickie’s higher pitch on the emphasizes words, with the little growl in his throat at the end of the phrase that could be pleasant or unpleasant, intimate or cool, according to Dickie’s mood. “Marge, stop it!” Tom turned suddenly and made a grab in the air as if he were seizing Marge’s throat. He shook her, twisted her, while she sank lower and lower, until at last he left, her limp, on the floor.

Minghella, on the other hand, adapts with great affection for Marge, and his Tom, though no fonder of her than the novel’s counterpart, uses affection to win over Dickie. In arguments, Minghella’s Tom is quick to take Marge’s side, Paltrow shooting him a conspiratorial smirk. Without Highsmith’s poisonous narration, it’s easy to believe that Tom, while often irritated with Marge, knows how to cajole and woo her. He’s at least passively interested, so much as he can use her to get by.

Minghella’s soft spot for Marge kicks into gear in the second half of the film—Dickie dead and gone, an oar smashed through his head, as Marge and the comically incompetent Italian police try and fail to figure out what has happened: if Tom is Dickie, if Tom is Tom, where Dickie went, and then Freddie Miles winds up dead too, brains bashed in just like Dickie. 

Marge becomes, in the wake of all the film’s terror, something of a final girl. She’s onto Tom. She knows something is amiss. Paltrow begins to shine in this back half of the film, adopting a less beautiful but still glamorous look. Her eyes are frequently bloodshot, bagged. She is desperate, breathy and uncertain. It’s not only these people she knew—people she loved!—are gone, but also that their disappearance upsets her wellbeing and her status. Who is Marge without Dickie? Without Freddie? She holds no power when not surrounded by the powerful. 

The film’s most harrowing scene has no real violence to it, only the threat. After a long day, Marge and Tom retire to Tom’s new apartment—garish and ornate. As he sits in the tub to soak and plan the next move, she discovers Dickie’s rings, hidden away in Tom’s room. Immediately, she knows she has done something wrong. She snooped, despite her protestations. She knows now what she’s always suspected: Tom is up to no good. Tom knows where Dickie is. Tom killed Dickie. 

Marge blubbers, wimpers, angry and distraught and terrified all at once. Tom lies: he says he loves her, not Dickie. He bought her little gifts. The Marge of Highsmith’s novel might go along with it, but Minghella’s Marge doesn’t buy it for a second. She glares—dead-eyed, backing away. She’s a writer, maybe not a good one, but a writer nonetheless. Even bad writers can identify bad writing, and she knows in her heart that Tom is lying, a liar. 

As soon as she’s figured it out, however, Marge panics. She glances to the floor, afraid to see what is coming towards her. It is a beautiful turn in character, a complete upending of reality. Tom backs her into his front door, advancing with a piece of broken glass, and before the horror of the situation goes full-tilt, Marge says the thing Tom fears most: “I don’t believe you.”

Her realization decimates her, like she’s come from the battlefield. Though Tom falters, he advances nonetheless. A pause; the door opens. The moment between the two of them lingers. Marge knows the truth, which is that Tom lies. The shock of the door, the shock of the lie—it doesn’t matter. Marge shrieks, and Paltrow goes for it. A real horror movie moment: a woman, a door opening, a scream. It’s terror and resignation all at once. Marge doesn’t want to die.

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Highsmith’s Marge believes, with pathetic uncertainty, that Tom is probably telling the truth when he suggests Dickie has killed himself. The Marge of the book is an obstacle, but her fear does not take over. She resigns herself to that which is inevitable and false. Dickie didn’t love her. That’s the terror of the novel. 

Minghella and Paltrow’s Marge knows the truth up through the end of the film as she’s isolated and dare I say gaslit by the men around her. They believe Tom. Why shouldn’t they? He looks the part: neat sweaters, combed hair, fancy new loafers. Marge dissolves, like an alka-seltzer tablet in a cup of water. “She’s the only one that’s truthful, she’s the only one with really good insight into other people,” Paltrow said of the character. Marge’s goodness can take her so far. Marge’s truthfulness goes less far. In her final scene of the film, Tom’s violence shifts back to her for one brief moment. As made up and poised as she initially appears—dark red lipstick, hair curled—Marge buckles under her own awareness. She beats Tom with her fists, tears pouring down her face. She knows, she knows, she knows.

“Marge, please,” Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), Dickie’s father, says to her, mortified at her outburst. His request is for her to get into the boat, to quiet down, to forget this all ever happened. Even if Marge is truthful (which to the men of the film, she’s not), it’s embarrassing to be honest. It’s embarrassing to know oneself. It’s embarrassing and terrible—we learn from Ripley and we learn from Marge—to be yourself.