“Some people change your life forever”
— Tagline for Carol.
A sensitive treatment of the love that grows between two women during the conservative 1950s may have been too much for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ voters in 2015. It received six Oscar® nominations, but it was not up for Best Picture or Best Director, despite the fact that it was one of the most widely acclaimed films of its year. Even without that key nomination, however, Carol was a surprise box-office success, even attracting a cult following, and a triumph for its two leading ladies, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, and out director Todd Haynes.
Carol is the story of an aspiring photographer, Therese (Rooney Mara), who becomes infatuated with a New York socialite, Carol (Cate Blanchett), who she waits on while working the Christmas rush in a department store. When Carol leaves her gloves behind, Therese mails them to her, and, in gratitude, Carol takes her out to lunch. That’s the start of a friendship that soon blossoms into a love affair, a first for Therese, though Carol had had a similar relationship with her best friend, Abby (Sarah Paulson), years earlier. Carol is in the middle of a messy divorce, however, and the revelation of her relationship with Therese could cost her custody of her daughter.
Haynes paid tribute to 1950s women’s pictures in his earlier Far from Heaven (2002), a film modeled on such classic Douglas Sirk melodrama’s as All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written on the Wind (1956). Although he sought a similar period feel for Carol, the film eschews the melodramatics of those earlier pictures in favor of a subtle character study. The film was a breakthrough in its matter-of-fact depiction of a lesbian relationship. Guilt is not an issue for Carol and Therese. There’s none of the breast-beating about “the tragedy of homosexuality” common in earlier films about LGBTQ lives like The Children’s Hour (1961) or The Boys in the Band (1970). Physical love is simply a natural development from the close personal bond they establish. The only problems are with those outside the relationship, Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler) and the private eye (Cory Michael Smith) he sets on his wife, who stand to profit from society’s condemnation of homosexuality. The film’s approach echoes that of the 1952 novel on which it’s based.
The Price of Salt was based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1940s affair with a Philadelphia socialite who lost custody of her daughter when her lesbianism was revealed. Highsmith was not moved to write about it until a few years later, when she was working at Bloomingdale’s in New York and waited on a beautiful blonde woman in a mink coat. She went home and outlined the story in two hours, then realized she was suffering from chicken pox. She completed the novel in 1951 and published it a year later under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan,” so as not to mislead readers who knew her as a suspense writer. She also did not want to be pigeon-holed or have people trace the references to her own life. The book was a rarity at the time not just for dealing with a lesbian romance but also for giving the characters a happy ending, avoiding the butch stereotypes that usually dominated the depiction of lesbians and treating the characters’ sexuality in a matter-of-fact manner.
For years, Highsmith would not acknowledge she had written The Price of Salt. When a new edition came out in 1983 from the lesbian Naiad Press, Highsmith still insisted the book be published under a pseudonym. Finally, in 1990, Highsmith allowed Bloomsbury to print the book with her name and a new title, Carol. In its various forms, the book has sold about 1 million copies.
Because of its popularity, Hollywood came calling early. With the Production Code in force, however, the proposed film adaptation in the 1950s would have changed the title to Winter Journey and made one of the women a man. When Code restrictions relaxed in the 1960s to allow mentions of homosexuality on screen, producers tried developing the project as a vehicle for Lana Turner, but that fell through. It took until well after the Code had been replaced by the current ratings system for Hollywood to be ready to make a film version.
Producer Dorothy Berwin first obtained the rights in 1996 and signed playwright Phyllis Nagy, who had been a friend of Highsmith’s and would adapt her Strangers on a Train to the stage, to adapt the novel. Tessa Ross of Great Britain’s Film4 Productions provided development funds at that time and shepherded it through revisions as a series of directors and other investors were attached. Among those announced to direct at various times were Kenneth Branagh, Kimberly Peirce and Stephen Frears. At this stage, there were disagreements about the approach to adapting the novel. Nagy fought against efforts to pathologize the women’s sexuality by injecting an element of guilt that wasn’t in the original. The only major changes she made were to advance the story’s action by a few years, setting Carol and Therese’s first meeting in 1952, and turning Therese from an aspiring set designer into a photographer. Moving the story to the start of the Eisenhower era created subtle parallels to Hollywood’s anti-Communist witch hunts and the rise of anti-gay investigations in government and education. Making Therese a photographer was simply an easier profession to visualize, while also allowing her to photograph Carol as a reflection of her obsession with the woman.
Finding additional funding for a film with two female leads proved a problem, and the deal for the book’s film rights expired in 2010. While working with Nagy on the script for the television movie Mrs. Harris (2005), Elizabeth Karlsen of another British company, Number 9 Films, came across Nagy’s adaptation. She picked up the film rights in 2011. Cate Blanchett signed on to star as Carol, but Rooney Mara initially turned down the role of Therese because she was exhausted after finishing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). The part then went to Mia Wasikowska, with John Crowley set to direct. When he dropped out to direct Brooklyn (2015), Karlsen turned to frequent collaborator Christine Vachon of Killer Films for advice. Vachon, who had been working with Haynes since they made Poison (1991), knew he had just had another project fall through and suggested him. He came on board two days after reading the script, and Vachon agreed to co-produce. Three days after his involvement was announced, The Weinstein Company picked up U.S. distribution rights. Meanwhile, Wasikowska had dropped out to make Crimson Peak (2015). By that point, Mara felt ready to take on the role of Therese, spurred on by her desire to work with Haynes and Blanchett.
Haynes worked with Nagy on the final draft of the screenplay. He encouraged her to go back to earlier drafts to emphasize Therese’s earlier obsession with Carol and the initial tension between the two, so that the relationship would have somewhere to go. That also inspired the title change from The Price of Salt to Carol, emphasizing that Blanchett’s character was the object of Therese’s desire.
Haynes creates image books consisting of photographs, film stills and other period references to serve as a visual guide in making his films. The book he created for Carol consisted of 80 pages of photo montages, including stills from Brief Encounter (1945), Lovers and Lollipops (1956), Vertigo (1958) and The Pumpkin Eater (1964), along with photography by photojournalist Ernest Haas and street photographers Helen Levitt and Vivian Maier. The book served as a guide for costume and set design and cinematographer Edward Lachman. He shot the film in Super 16mm in an effort to capture the feeling of period photographs, particularly their muted colors. He also used 16mm to give a slight grain to the film image.
The film was shot in the spring of 2014, with Cincinnati, OH, standing in for New York City. The city was chosen partly because it looked more like 1950s New York than New York did by the early 21st century. In addition, Ohio offered very generous tax incentives to film companies. Some scenes were also shot in Alexandria, KY. For the department store scenes, the company used a store that had gone out of business. The only studio set constructed for the film was the Iowa motel room in which Blanchett and Mara stay. Abby’s car, a 1950 Packard Custom Eight convertible, had been President Dwight Eisenhower’s personal car and was on loan from the Packard Museum in Dayton, OH.
Carol was ready for release by late 2014, but producers decided to hold it back so they could build word of mouth through festival screenings. The picture was submitted to the Cannes Film Festival, where its world premiere was given a ten-minute standing ovation. It won the Queer Palm and brought Mara a Best Actress nod. From there it moved to the Telluride and New York Film Festivals. In Indiewire’s poll of critics attending the New York Festival, it was cited for Best Narrative Feature, Best Director, Best Lead Performance (both Blanchett and Mara), Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
On its November 2015 release, Carol became one of the year’s best-reviewed films, with special praise for Haynes and his two leading ladies. Writing in The Guardian, Mark Kermode enthused, “This superb adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel…doesn’t put a foot wrong. From Phyllis Nagy’s alluringly uncluttered script to Cate Blanchett’s sturdily tremulous performance as a society woman with everything to lose, this brilliantly captures the thrills, tears and fears of forbidden love.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, who ranked Carol among the year’s top films, called it “a romantic spellbinder that cuts deep.”
The film also did quite well at the box office, grossing $42.8 million on an investment of $11.8 million. It even developed a cult following. Dubbed “The Cult of Carol,” the film’s many fans have filled the internet with video edits of the picture’s scenes, compilations of interviews with the stars, memes, GIFs and fan art. Cult members view April 17 — the date on which Carol and Therese reunite and, by coincidence, Mara’s birthday and the date on which the stars’ big love scene was filmed — as a high holy day. One fan, filmmaker Allison Tate, even made a comedy short about the cult, “Carol Support Group” (2017), which premiered at the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival. The short’s tagline, “Some people are addicts forever,” is a takeoff on Carol’s original tagline.
Come awards season, Carol did very well, capturing the New York Film Critics Awards for Best Film, Director, Screenplay and Cinematography. It won Best Score from the Los Angeles Film Critics, Best Director and Cinematography from the National Society of Film Critics, the GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Award for Outstanding Film – Wide Release and the same award at the Independent Spirit Awards. The film’s Oscar campaign generated some controversy when producers decided to list Mara for Best Supporting Actress, even though she had more screen time than Blanchett. Nonetheless, she was nominated, as was Blanchett for Best Actress, the screenplay, cinematography, costumes and score. Its failure to win a Best Picture nomination triggered an outcry from critics, many of whom felt it had been snubbed because of its focus on women’s lives and LGBT issues. It lost in all six categories. A year after its release, however, the film was named the best LGBT film of all time in a critical survey conducted by the British Film Institute.
Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Christine Vachon, Stephen Woolley
Director: Todd Haynes
Screenplay: Phyllis Nagy
Adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Score: Carter Burwell
Cast: Cate Blanchett (Carol Aird), Rooney Mara (Therese Belivet), Kyle Chandler (Harge Aird), Sarah Paulson (Abby Gerhard), Jake Lacy (Richard Semco), John Magaro (Dannie McElroy), Cory Michael Smith (Tommy Tucker)