An Honor To Be Nominated: Carol

THE CONTENDER: Carol (2015)

Number of Nominations: 6 – Actress (Cate Blanchett); Supporting Actress (Rooney Mara); Adapted Screenplay (Phyllis Nagy); Cinematography (Edward Lachman); Costume Design (Sandy Powell); Original Score (Carter Burwell)

Number of Wins: 0

Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers On A Train, was published in 1950. Just one year later, before she’d even published her second book, Alfred Hitchcock’s movie adaptation premiered. Pretty impressive for a first-timer. Over the next forty-plus years, Highsmith would publish 22 novels and 9 collections of short stories, many of which would subsequently be adapted for film and television. Her work has attracted a diverse, international line-up of filmmakers, including Wim Wenders, Anthony Minghella, Claude Chabrol, and Liliana Cavani, and will likely continue to do so for as long as people make movies based on books. But despite her enduring popularity among filmmakers, it would be decades before anyone would even consider making a movie based on that second book. Indeed for many years, no one even realized she had written it.

In 1951, Highsmith published the novel The Price Of Salt under the name “Claire Morgan”. It had been rejected by her first publisher and strongly discouraged by her agent, who warned against following up a best-selling suspense novel with a novel about a lesbian relationship. For her part, Highsmith kind of agreed with that assessment. The Price Of Salt was highly personal and even a bit autobiographical. She knew she had more thrillers in her but she wasn’t entirely certain that she’d ever write another novel quite like this one. So it was published pseudonymously and went in and out of print over the years, despite being well-regarded, especially among the gay and lesbian community for its then-groundbreaking depiction of a same-sex relationship that doesn’t end in tragedy. It wasn’t until 1990 that Highsmith finally allowed the book, now retitled Carol, to be published under her own name.

It took a number of years for the movie version of Carol to make it to theatres, which is probably just as well. The extra development time allowed the project to attract the ideal creative team. Playwright Phyllis Nagy, a friend of Highsmith’s, wrote her first draft of the screenplay all the way back in 1997. The project then went through multiple stars, directors and financers, before finally attracting the attention of Cate Blanchett. Blanchett was the perfect choice to play Carol Aird, the sophisticated older woman who enters into an affair with young shopgirl Therese Belivet. Very few actresses are as effortlessly alluring as she. From the second Therese spots Carol across the crowded sales floor, you can completely understand why she caught her eye.

Scheduling conflicts continued to pose a problem for the production as various directors came and went. Finally, the script landed in front of Todd Haynes, which is really where it should have been in the first place. Haynes had already hit a home run with the 1950s-set Far From Heaven, a modern updating of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas. Carol, while certainly more grounded in realism than the earlier film, is still very much a spiritual cousin to the themes and ideas explored in Far From Heaven.

As Therese, Haynes cast Rooney Mara, stepping into the role after Mia Wasikowska had to bow out. Mara tends to bring a studied theater major intensity to everything she does and, depending on the role, I find that to be a little off-putting. But she’s great in this part, striking just the right balance of hunger for new experiences, naivete, strength, and passion. Carol isn’t exactly a coming-of-age movie but it’s definitely a story about Therese coming into her own, realizing who she is and what she wants out of life, and embracing it. Every step of that journey is reflected in Mara’s large, expressive eyes and her body language.

It’s also reflected in the subtle, meticulously detailed costumes designed by Sandy Powell. Despite going through a bitter divorce and custody battle, Carol already knows who she is. Her clothes are the elegant, luxurious dresses and furs you’d expect from a woman of means. But Therese’s look changes incrementally over the course of the film, going from plain, sensible, almost childlike outfits early on to more fashion-forward designs that are perhaps influenced by Carol’s tastes but are clearly Therese’s own. By film’s end, she takes ownership of her life, her identity and her look.

The attention to period detail shines in both Powell’s costumes and in the production design and set decoration by Judy Becker and Heather Loeffler. Becker and Loeffler weren’t nominated for their work but they certainly should have been. All of this is captured lovingly by Edward Lachman’s gorgeous cinematography. Lachman had previously been nominated for his work on Far From Heaven. While that film was all bright autumnal colors, Carol has a much grayer palette, highly suggestive of the dirty, cold winter months. But Lachman also makes great use of close-ups, resulting in remarkably tactile imagery. It truly feels as though you could reach into the screen and touch the cars, the fabrics, even the curls of Blanchett’s hair. It’s an extremely sensuous film and the desire between Carol and Therese radiates off the screen.

Carter Burwell’s lush score also contributes a great deal to the film’s sense of longing. Remarkably, this was Burwell’s first Oscar nomination, despite longtime collaborations with Oscar favorites like the Coen brothers and Spike Jonze. His work here ranks among his finest scores, with swirling, haunting strings that linger in the memory long after the film ends.

Carol racked up six Academy Award nominations, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at. However, it was almost certainly never going to win any. It’s unusual for a movie to score that many nominations, including two acting nods, and not be nominated for Best Picture. Carol‘s absence in the big category was a bit of a mystery. The Academy recognized 8 films that year. That’s two shy of the 10 allowable under current rules. Carol could have (and, I’d argue, should have) easily been included without knocking any of the other titles out of the race.

As great as she is in the film, Blanchett was not likely to win Best Actress. She’d already won twice, most recently just two years prior to Carol, so the Academy would want to give someone else a turn. It also wouldn’t be Rooney Mara’s year. This was her second nomination and she’d been pegged as someone who’d likely have plenty of other chances in the future. And so, with the movie squeezed out of the biggest categories and unlikely to win anything for its marquee names, Carol was relegated to also-ran status.

Fortunately, I think Carol will have a longer shelf-life than some of the other movies it was up against that year. Films like Spotlight and The Big Short seem very “of the moment”, movies that if you haven’t watched within about a year, you’re probably never going to. By expertly evoking a very specific time and place in the not-too-distant past, Todd Haynes was able to create a film that seems timeless. The boldest thing about it is how unassuming and matter-of-fact it is. Carol presents a relationship between two women that’s as universal and recognizable as any love story ever told. Afterward, the very idea that someone could find such a relationship controversial seems absurd. In its own way, I suppose that is a quietly revolutionary concept.

Carol is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from Anchor Bay Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: A Cry In The Dark

THE CONTENDER: A Cry In The Dark (1988)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Actress in a Leading Role (Meryl Streep)

Number of Wins: 0

As this column continues to wind its way through 90+ years of Oscar-nominated movies, we’re going to be seeing a lot of Meryl Streep. A lot. She’s been nominated for 21 Academy Awards, more than any other performer in film history. And assuming she remains healthy and doesn’t suddenly forget how to act for some reason, it’s reasonable to assume she’ll get a few more.

Because she’s such a fixture at the Dolby Theatre (and, prior to that, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Shrine Auditorium), it’s easy to take her work for granted. There have been occasions when her name has been read as a nominee and you can sense a sort of collective eye-roll in the room. It’s as if we all assume that it’s part of her contract whenever she signs on to a new project. As long as she shows up to work every day, she’ll get a nomination.

You can trace the origins of Streep Fatigue back to her 8th nomination, 1988’s A Cry In The Dark (known in its native Australia as Evil Angels). At the age of 39, she was already an Oscar favorite, having won twice. Certainly no one begrudged her any of those honors, but her nomination for the previous year’s Ironweed was the first time she (and co-star Jack Nicholson) was singled out for elevating a movie that was not unanimously praised. A Cry In The Dark would mark the first time (although not the last) that Meryl Streep would be the sole nominee representing her film.

Even at the time, A Cry In The Dark wasn’t a particularly popular movie. Today, it’s best remembered (when it’s remembered at all) for the episode of Seinfeld when Elaine, trapped at a hellish party, tells an annoying woman that “maybe the dingo ate your baby”. Even there, based on comments I’ve seen online, a surprisingly large number of people don’t realize that’s a deep-cut reference to a movie. They seem to think it’s just a non-sequitur.

None of this is to suggest that A Cry In The Dark isn’t a good movie. In fact, it’s an unusual and quite gripping movie, ably directed by Fred Schepisi. Based on a true story, Streep stars as Lindy Chamberlain, alongside Sam Neill as her husband, Richard. While on holiday at Ayers Rock, the Chamberlains’ nine-week-old daughter, Azaria, disappears, seemingly abducted by a dingo, although only Lindy actually saw the animal. Hope quickly fades that the girl will be found alive, so the police and coroner’s office begin searching for evidence to establish the cause of death. The case turns into a national cause célèbre, with members of the press tripping over each other to run wildly speculative stories and everything from Lindy’s aloof exterior to the Chamberlains’ Seventh-day Adventist religious beliefs scrutinized and judged in the court of public opinion.

Schepisi makes a number of interesting choices in his unfolding of the tale. The movie starts out somewhat languidly, taking its time to get to know not just the characters and their lives but also the surrounding environment and people. Australia itself is very much a character in the film. Within 15 minutes, we have a very clear sense of the place and its people.

Events continue to unfold leisurely through the initial search for Azaria and the Chamberlains’ return home. It isn’t until the press enters the picture that Schepisi picks up the pace. Suddenly, things start happening very quickly. The passage of time is barely remarked upon, even as the movie starts jumping ahead months at a time with only subtle visual cues like Streep’s changing hairstyle to cue us in. We see the rumor mill at work through a series of quick check-ins with random Australians discussing the case on the street, at work, and at dinner parties. They’re almost never the same people twice. These sequences are a little bit longer and meatier than your average montage but still more rapid-fire than the surrounding scenes. On occasion, Schepisi will even cut to or away from these brief scenes in mid-sentence, adding to the sense of dislocation.

Fred Schepisi came up through the so-called “golden age” of Australian cinema, alongside such figures as George Miller, Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong. But he never quite established his own identity as a filmmaker, remaining something of a journeyman throughout his career. Most of his films are good or very good, including Barbarosa, The Russia House, Six Degrees Of Separation and the HBO miniseries Empire Falls. But even when his films flirt with greatness, as in Steve Martin’s Cyrano update Roxanne, it’s because Schepisi is smart enough to get out of the way and let those elements really shine. Honestly, there’s something very refreshing about a filmmaker who puts himself in service to the story and not the other way around.

With A Cry In The Dark, Schepisi knows exactly how he wants to tell this particular story. It’s easy to imagine a version of this movie that casts doubt on Lindy Chamberlain’s explanation of events. But Schepisi presents everything in such a matter-of-fact way that we never doubt her for a second. We may, in hindsight, second-guess some of her later decisions, such as making herself available for interviews, especially when she’s so unbending in the way she presents herself publically. But we never think she’s guilty of murder.

Streep is outstanding in a complex role that somehow manages to be both sympathetic and unsympathetic at once. At the time, Streep’s reputation as the Queen of All Accents somewhat overshadowed the rest of what she accomplishes with the role (although, for the record, her Australian accent is impeccable). It’s impossible not to feel for a woman who has lost a child. But Lindy’s strict religious beliefs seem to make her recover far more quickly than most. For many people in the audience, and certainly for most Australians at the time, this makes her seem unfeeling. But Streep manages to open a window that allows us to see her real emotions. It’s a remarkable performance.

Sam Neill, a reliable and criminally undervalued actor who makes every performance seem effortless, is more than up to the challenge of playing opposite Streep. If his role hadn’t been quite so underwritten, he likely would have received an Oscar nod of his own (as of this writing, Neill has yet to receive a single nomination). But the script (co-written by Schepisi and Robert Caswell) isn’t nearly as concerned with Richard. He remains a bit of a cipher, never questioning his wife’s story and mostly just watching in disbelief as events happen around him. Neill gets a few good moments and he makes the most of them but everyone involved seems to agree that it’s Meryl Streep’s show.

I think it’s fair to say that Meryl Streep was considered the longshot at the 1989 ceremony. Her competition included Jodie Foster (who won for The Accused), Sigourney Weaver (a double nominee that year in both the Leading and Supporting categories), ingénue Melanie Griffith, and Glenn Close, probably Streep’s closest peer and contemporary. Up against that lineup, Streep’s work in a dark, kind of weird Australian docudrama never stood a chance. But don’t feel too badly for her. She won plenty of other accolades for this role, including Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, and we’d be seeing plenty more of her at the Oscars soon enough.

A Cry In The Dark is available on DVD and Digital from Warner Home Video.