Carol and A Wee Bit of History

In 1952, Patricia Highsmith (best known as the author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley) wrote the romance novel, The Price of Salt, under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan. Over 60 years later, director Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven) and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy (Mrs. Harris) have adapted the novel into the film Carol, starring the regal Cate Blanchett and the gamine Mara Rooney. Taking place in the early 1950s, at the dawn of the Eisenhower administration and the ensuing conservative era – in which the “norm” was white picket fences, moms and dads with 2.1 children, and Leave It to Beaver – the film never could never have been made back then.

Carol traces the meeting and ensuing relationship between Carol Aird (Blanchett), an upper middle class New Jersey housewife in the midst of getting a divorce from her very whitebread husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler, continuing his move into non-sympathetic characters), and Therese Belivet (Rooney), a younger aspiring photographer relegated to working behind the doll counter at a New York department store.

What interests me about this movie is two-fold.

First, Haynes makes extraordinary films and is a highly disciplined filmmaker. His major release breakthrough film, 2002’s Far From Heaven, faithfully channeled the 1950s films of Douglas Sirk (Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life), which were at the time referred to as “woman’s films”. In Far From Heaven, Haynes was meticulous in recreating the era in which the film took place. Filmed in exploding autumnal tones, every element of story, performances and production design contributed to the audience’s experience.

In Carol, Haynes has done himself one better. Against a completely different color palette, but with no compromise in period details, the story unfolds as a flashback, and is bookended by a scene that both opens and closes the film. Without giving anything away, the scene as first presented seems like a throwaway. But, when it is repeated at the end of the film – and shot from different angles – the scene takes on much more weight and emotion. It is the cherry on top of a delicious sundae.

Much has been made of the performances of Blanchett and Rooney, both of whom are completely invested in the material and in each of their character’s emotional journeys. Neither of these extremely talented actors holds anything back. There is no winking at the camera; Blanchett and Mara play for keeps and the audience benefits immensely.

Carol
Mara Rooney and Cate Blanchett in Carol

The other point of interest for me is that, as I’ve already said, this film never would have been made in the 1950s. The American zeitgeist at that time simply wasn’t ready to accept or even understand this story. (As Carol says to Therese early in the film, “You’re flung from outer space” – which is how this movie and its lead characters would have been received: as aliens.) Ang Lee’s 2005 masterpiece, Brokeback Mountain, was met with much snickering and discomfort by segments of its audience, proving that even 10 years ago, American audiences weren’t quite ready to accept that film on its own terms. What a difference a decade makes.

Bridging the gap between 1952 and 2015 is the extraordinary pendulum swing in the push for LGBTQ equality. In 1952, almost non-existent and, in 2015, almost – but not quite – ho-hum, due to the astounding achievements by the LGBTQ community and its straight allies. There are many factors contributing to what I believe is the most successful campaign ever for equality in the relatively shortest amount of time.

One “parent” of the movement which began at the exact midpoint between Highsmith’s book and Haynes’ film was the establishment of an organization called glaad. Founded almost exactly 30 years ago at the height of the AIDS crisis (and the unprecedented amount of media scrutiny and homophobia), glaad’s original mission was to work in tandem with the media to insure fair, accurate and inclusive coverage of lesbian and gay stories and reporting in all forms of media. (The BT and Q hadn’t yet been added in 1985.)

I had the privilege and honor of working with glaad almost since its inception and was intimately affiliated with the organization for over 20 years. As a witness to and a participant in its work on a daily level, I was able to see how it was and is possible to change hearts and minds, sometimes one at a time.

The early years were mostly about reactive tactics and were very challenging for the organization. When Bill Buckley wrote that all HIV-positive people should have their backsides tattooed as a warning to unsuspecting sexual partners, glaad turned up on his doorstep to protest. When Bob Hope referred to gays as “fags” on the Johnny Carson show, glaad called him on it and, in response, Hope made a PSA on the Tonight Show set to talk about how harmful pejorative labels can be. Back then, persuading the New York Times to use the word “gay” instead of “homosexual” was, at the time, a major victory. Those were the early years.

glaad’s work continued undiminished and, by building respectful and collegial relationships with large segments of the media, our work became more proactive. Movies and television series began highlighting more and more gay characters and storylines. Print media started telling LGBTQ stories in a more honest and straightforward (no pun intended) way. Again, it was always about fairness, accuracy and inclusion. Because of glaad’s celebrated Media Guide (a kind of road-map on ways in which the media could cover the community, whether in terms of reportage or entertainment), the media in turn would reach out to glaad, knowing that it had a valuable resource.

Then, in the fall of 1998, came the tipping point. A new NBC series premiered on September 21st: it was Will & Grace and it was a sitcom. Considered very risky at the time, it was the I Love Lucy concept, but with a twist: Will was Ricky, but gay; Grace was Lucy, his best friend (but still had red hair). The 2nd bananas (Ethel and Fred, if you will), were Will’s best gay friend, Jack, and Jack’s best gal-pal, wacky and wealthy Karen. The show was an immediate hit: new, fast, funny and totally irreverent.

It also caused a tidal wave in terms of changing the conversation regarding the LGBTQ community. What The Mary Tyler Moore Show did for single, independent women and Julia and The Jeffersons did for African-American families, Will & Grace was now doing the same thing for the gays. Because all of these shows were, first: good entertainment and second: non-threatening, they became accessible to mainstream audiences. These shows became what we called at glaad “water cooler conversation” the day following each episode. It’s what people were talking about.

More significantly, Will & Grace became a flash point for thousands of lesbians and gay men who, through the show, were able to come out their families and friends. I remember at the time the volumes of phone calls and mail glaad received regarding Will & Grace and how sons and daughters were watching the show with their parents and having open and honest discussions about who they were, and thanking glaad for, in some small measure, making it possible.

While I will not claim that glaad was responsible for each and every victory that has been hard-fought and won over the past 30 years – there are many other significant LGBT organizations that worked in other arenas (legal, political and other fronts) – I think it’s fair to say that Carol and Far From Heaven and all the other wonderful LGBTQ stories that have been told are the direct descendants of Will & Grace and, for that, I am extremely grateful and, yes, proud.

But, listen, please feel free to forget the history lesson. Instead, buy yourself a ticket to Carol and be transported to another time and place and revel in what is, arguably, one of the best films of the year. You won’t be sorry.

Here is selection of reviews of Carol:

New Yorker Review

Variety Review

New York Magazine Review

Vulture Review

New York Times Review

 

For more information about glaad, please visit:

glaad

 

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