Director won an Oscar for ‘The English Patient’

Times Staff Writer

Anthony Minghella, the Academy Award-winning director of “The English Patient” whose other acclaimed films include “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Cold Mountain,” died Tuesday in London. He was 54.

Minghella died in a London hospital from complications of surgery for tonsil cancer a week earlier, Leslee Dart, his spokeswoman, told The Times.

He had not been ill before the surgery, she said.

The London-based writer-director’s death came as a shock to friends and colleagues, who remembered him as a gentle, caring and intelligent man and an inspiring leader on a film set.


“The grace, joy and tenderness he brought to his films were symbolic of his life and the many people he touched,” Harvey Weinstein, an executive producer of “The English Patient” and “Cold Mountain,” said in a statement.

Producer-director Sydney Pollack, Minghella’s partner in the production company Mirage Enterprises, described him in a statement as a “realistic romanticist” and “a sunny soul who exuded a gentleness that should never have been mistaken for lack of tenacity and resolve.”

Minghella was a critically acclaimed playwright and a successful TV writer in England when he wrote and directed his first film, “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” a 1991 British romance starring Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman that Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers called “the thinking man’s ‘Ghost.’ ”

That was followed by “Mr. Wonderful,” a 1993 comedy romance starring Matt Dillon and Annabella Sciorra.

Then came “The English Patient,” the World War II romantic epic that, as a London Independent writer once observed, “opened every door in Hollywood to Minghella.”

The 1996 film dominated the Academy Awards for that year, winning in nine of the 12 categories it was nominated in, including director, picture and supporting actress for Juliette Binoche.

“Anthony possessed a sensitivity and alertness to the actor’s process that very few directors have,” Ralph Fiennes, who co-starred in the movie, said in a statement. “He directed most of ‘The English Patient’ with an ankle in plaster, never losing his gentle humor and precision. He delighted in the contribution of everyone -- he was a true collaborator.”

Minghella received Oscar nominations for two screenplays: “The English Patient” (adapted from the Michael Ondaatje novel) and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel), a 1999 drama starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law.


“He was a brilliantly talented writer and director who wrote dialogue that was a joy to speak and then put it onto the screen in a way that always looked effortless,” Law said in a statement. Law also starred in 2003’s “Cold Mountain” and Minghella’s 2006 film “Breaking and Entering.”

Directors Guild of America President Michael Apted said in a statement that he “truly admired” the director’s “ability to take a world of epic proportions and make it intimate and personal.”

“His films had grandeur and scale and big subject matter, yet there was always an emotion and an intimacy that served as the backbone of his work.”

As a director, Minghella made an unusual professional departure in recent years: opera, a longtime passion.


At the invitation of the head of the English National Opera, who thought Minghella’s talents as a writer, director and musician were well-suited for opera, he staged a successful production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” in 2005 and directed it again a year later as the season opener of New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Minghella recently wrote and directed “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” an adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s novel about a Botswanan private eye. It is to be shown Sunday on the BBC and later on HBO.

“He was one of Britain’s greatest creative talents, one of our finest screenwriters and directors, a great champion of the British film industry and an expert on literature and opera,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in a statement Tuesday.

The son of parents of Italian descent who owned an ice cream factory, Minghella was born Jan. 6, 1954, in Ryde on England’s Isle of Wight. As a child, he acted in school plays.


He majored in drama at the University of Hull in England in the 1970s. After graduating, he stayed on as a drama lecturer for several years before quitting in 1981 and spending the next decade writing for radio, TV and the theater. For British TV, he wrote for “Grange Hill,” “The Storyteller” and the miniseries “Inspector Morse.”

In 1984, the London Theatre Critics named him the most promising playwright of the year for three plays: “A Little Like Drowning,” “Love Bites” and “Two Planks and a Passion.”

Two years later, the London Theatre Critics selected his “Made in Bangkok,” which marked his West End debut, as best play of the year.

“He was a brilliant writer and a lovely guy,” British director Danny Boyle, who met Minghella when they were working on “Inspector Morse” and directed “Two Planks and a Passion,” told The Times.


Like screenwriters Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist”) and Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”), Boyle said, Minghella was able to write emotional, moving stories that never felt calculated and cloying. “That was what set him apart,” he said.

Minghella is survived by his wife, choreographer Carolyn Choa; his son Max, an actor; his daughter Hannah, who was recently named president of production at Sony Pictures Animation; his parents, Gloria and Eddie; his brother Dominic; and his sisters Gioia, Lauretta and Edana.