How ‘Carol’ Got Screwed

There’s one every year. Correction: there are plenty of movies every year whose absence at the announcement of the Academy Award nominations cause head-scratching, teeth-gnashing, and similar displays of displeasure, but every year there’s one whose snub (and I don’t use the word lightly) seems particularly egregious, and worthy of exploration. Last year it was Selma; this year, it’s Carol, Todd Haynes’ magnificent adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt.

Like Selma, Carol is a film whose Oscar triumph seemed like a no-brainer: period drama, accordant knockout costumes and production design, gorgeous cinematography, themes of oppression and forbidden love, crackerjack roles for its performers. And it netted nominations in some of those categories – Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costumes, and Best Score. But Todd Haynes was not among the five nominees for Best Director, and Carol was not among the eight films (and they could’ve nominated up to ten!) nominated for Best Picture. So, what happened? Some theories:

1. It was a gay love story.

It’s the easiest, knee-jerk reaction – but, y’know, sometimes the simplest explanation is the right one, and Occam’s razor and all that. Unsurprisingly, considering their preference for stories about straight white people, Oscar doesn’t have a sterling track record nominating, and awarding, films about gay people for Best Picture. Sure, there was Brokeback Mountain back in 2005 – but that frontrunner fell to surprise winner Crash on Oscar night, a result at least partially attributable to homophobia, since at least two high-profile voters (Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine) publicly announced their “gay cowboys, gross” opposition to it.

Capote was up for Best Picture (and won Best Actor) that same year, but before that, it’s pretty slim pickings; most Best Pictures that even included gay themes (like The Hours) put them firmly in the realm of subplots. What happens most frequently with LGBT narratives is what happened this morning with Carol: nominations for the actors – particularly if it’s a straight actor bravely playing gay – but not for the film. The examples are plentiful: Sunday Bloody Sunday, Philadelphia, Transamerica, Gods and Monsters, A Single Man, Before Night Falls, Boys Don’t Cry, Silkwood, Beginners, Longtime Companion, etc. etc.

Cate Blanchett in "Carol"

In the years since Brokeback, we’ve seen Best Picture nominations for The Kids Are All Right and Dallas Buyers Club – though in both of those cases, the primary audience surrogate was arguably a straight man (Mark Ruffalo in Kids, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas) – and the slightly Sapphic Black Swan. And, of course, there were Milk and The Imitation Game, both stories about gay men who met with tragedy, which brings us to the next possibility.

2. It was a specific kind of gay love story.

Spoiler alert: Carol’s protagonists fall in love, consummate their passion, and encounter some difficulties – it’s the early ‘50s, after all – but do not die for/from being gay. Such a declaration sounds stark, but an astonishing number of films about gay life have seen their characters come to some sort of a tragic end, as if comporting to the old Hays Code, where characters must be “punished” for their “sins.” (Go read The Celluloid Closet; I’ll wait.) Ultimately, Carol’s most transgressive quality is its refusal to engage in such shenanigans; this is a film about full-blooded gay lives, not tragic gay deaths. Maybe Oscar voters weren’t sure how to deal with that?

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in "Carol"

3. It was “too cold.”

Over at Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson posits: “Maybe it’s that, yep, Carol is too gay. The film chronicles the beginnings and early stumbles of a lesbian relationship in repressed 1950s New York, and though its broader themes of passion and heartache may be universal, this is a film written by a gay woman (based on a book by a gay woman), directed by a gay man, that speaks in a vernacular that, I’d guess, only queer people are fully fluent in. Perhaps that was just too narrow, too restricting, too limited in scope for the Academy.”

But that’s letting straight people off the hook. One of the most striking things about Carol is, outside of its specific period and cultural trappings, how exquisitely it captures the first flush of infatuation and attraction, and the deepening of that feeling into genuine love. That’s a feeling any viewer can understand, and one put across by Phyllis Nagy’s script, Haynes’ direction, and Blanchett and Mara’s playing – done not only with skill, but with less understatement than the popular narrative would have it. Watch the way those two look at each other when the other’s not watching in that department store scene and the lunch that follows, the hunger with which they’re stealing glances, the electricity of that attraction.

That’s why the other popular explanation for Carol’s lack of connection to award bodies, its supposed “coldness” or “remove,” smells so bad. Is that just a nice way of saying, “Not enough hot girl-on-girl action”? Or maybe that claim of “coldness” is tied to the picture’s overall subtlety, and how it mostly avoids giant, blowout confrontations and soft-piano-accompanied confessions of one’s True Feelings for a story told in quiet conversations and the pauses between them. Which is to say….

4. It was too good.

The thing we must always bear in mind, when discussing the slights and oversights of our ol’ pal Oscar, is that he often just doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. Perhaps the closest mirror to Carol in modern popular moviemaking, as far as this particular mile of its journey into cinematic immortality goes, is Inside Llewyn Davis – another deeply felt yet surface-subtle, gray-of-winter period drama that was shut out of the major categories two years back. And guess what? It didn’t hurt that movie one little bit. It’s got a Criterion edition out next week, it launched one of our most successful new stars, and it stands as one of the most beloved of all recent movies. The Coens actually made a movie better than Oscar, better than the easy platitudes and push-button feel-THIS nonsense that voters went for that year, and most years; Carol did the same. It doesn’t subject us to 156 minutes of people howling in misery and wolfing down raw liver bison; it gives us 118 minutes of people longing to belong and (as a wiser soul than I notes) casually consuming creamed spinach, poached eggs, and a martini. Carol will be around forever. You’ll forget most of the movies that “beat” it this morning by the day after the Oscars. Maybe sooner.