On this day in 2008, the Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella dies at the age of 54 in a London hospital, one week after undergoing surgery to treat tonsil cancer.
Minghella grew up on the Isle of Wight, off the English coast; his parents were Italian immigrants who ran an ice cream factory. He wrote and directed his first film, Truly, Madly, Deeply, for television; it was released cinematically in 1990. The story of a woman (Juliet Stevenson) who wills her dead lover (Alan Rickman) to return to her as a ghost, the film earned Minghella worldwide attention. On the basis of its success, he signed on to direct his first Hollywood feature, the romantic comedy Mr. Wonderful (1993), starring Annabella Sciorra and Matt Dillon. It was the only directorial effort of Minghella’s career for which he did not write or co-write the screenplay.
After critics panned Mr. Wonderful, Minghella took 18 months to write the screenplay for his next film, an adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s acclaimed novel The English Patient. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas, the sweeping World War II-era romantic drama won nine Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Minghella, who was also nominated for his screenplay. Suddenly among Hollywood’s elite directors, Minghella worked with another talented cast of actors (including Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett and Philip Seymour Hoffman) on The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), based on Patricia Highsmith’s chilling mystery novel. The film was extremely well-received, and Minghella scored another Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
His next feature, Cold Mountain (2003), received mixed reviews despite Oscar-nominated performances by Jude Law and Renee Zellweger (who won for Best Supporting Actress). Cold Mountain’s $83 million budget was far more than that of any of Minghella’s previous movies. Celebrated for their extraordinary beauty and cinematic scope, Minghella’s films earned him increasing leverage in Hollywood, yet he continued to struggle with studio brass that got cold feet during his ambitious projects. As he told the Times of London in one of his last interviews, Miramax Films stepped in on all three of his biggest films–The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain–after other studios–20th Century Fox, Paramount and MGM, respectively–backed out. “Without [Miramax],” Minghella told the Times, “I would have no career.”
Miramax also co-produced Minghella’s next film, Breaking and Entering (2006), for which he wrote his first original screenplay since Truly, Madly, Deeply. Starring Jude Law and Robin Wright Penn, the haunting film received mostly positive reviews but faltered at the box office. Also in 2006, Minghella helmed a production of the opera Madama Butterfly. The Metropolitan Opera later commissioned him to direct and write the libretto for a new work by the composer Osvaldo Golijov, which had been scheduled for the 2011-12 season.
Early in 2008, Minghella’s production company, Mirage (which he formed with fellow director Sydney Pollack, who also passed away in 2008), signed a three-year first-look deal with the Weinstein Company. At the time of his death, Minghella had recently completed work on The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, an adaptation of an Alexander McCall Smith novel that was broadcast on HBO and the BBC.