Damon near ‘Ripley’ deal

In a move that could team him with Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella, actor Matt Damon — who stars in the upcoming “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker” and “Good Will Hunting” — is in talks for the lead in the Paramount/Miramax co-production “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

Sydney Pollack and Bill Horberg of Mirage Enterprises and Tom Sternberg will produce the film based on Minghella’s adaptation of Brit author Patricia Highsmith’s mystery novel.

Gwyneth Paltrow is the frontrunner for the film’s female lead, sources said.

The 1960 French pic “Purple Noon” also was based on the Highsmith novel about an opportunistic young man (Damon) hired by the father of his rich playboy friend to coax the prodigal young American back home from Italy. Coveting his friend’s opulent lifestyle and beautiful girlfriend (Paltrow), he transforms himself into the man he sought.

Pic is set in the 1950s and is expected to go before the cameras in Italy in May.

Since uttering his one line in the 1988 teen drama “Mystic Pizza,” Damon has emerged as one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood, ringing up credits in such films as “Chasing Amy,” “Courage Under Fire” and “School Ties.” He currently is shooting Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” and will soon shoot Kevin Smith’s “Dogma.” Damon co-wrote and co-stars with Ben Affleck in the upcoming Miramax release “Good Will Hunting,” which also stars Robin Williams.

When Minghella pacted to write the “Mr. Ripley” screenplay two years ago, he was also given a first-refusal option to direct, which sources said he plans to exercise. The winner of an Academy Award for “The English Patient,” Minghella also is attached to helm a feature version of his own radio play “Cigarettes and Chocolate” for Miramax. UA recently purchased the novel “Cold Mountain” for him to write and direct.

Damon is repped by Patrick Whitesell of CAA. Mike Peretzian of the William Morris Agency reps Minghella.

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