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: 10

THE CONTENDER: 10 (1979)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Original Score (Henry Mancini); Original Song (“Song from 10 (It’s Easy To Say)”, music by Henry Mancini, lyrics by Robert Wells)

Number of Wins: 0

Throughout film history, there have been a handful of brand-name filmmakers. These are directors who routinely received an ownership credit above the title and whose names meant something to audiences. You immediately had a pretty good idea of what sort of movie to expect when you saw these names. Alfred Hitchcock. Stanley Kubrick. Federico Fellini. John Carpenter. And, from the mid-1970s to the early 90s, Blake Edwards.

The possessory credit didn’t start appearing on posters for Edwards’ movies until 1975’s The Return Of The Pink Panther. Prior to that, Edwards had dabbled in a variety of genres, from the exquisite cool jazz noir of TV’s Peter Gunn to the issue-oriented drama of Days Of Wine And Roses to the throwback western Wild Rovers. But he had always excelled in comedy, whether it was the bittersweet variety of Breakfast At Tiffany’s or his broad, slapstick collaborations with Peter Sellers. So, from 1975 on, he focused almost exclusively on that genre, occasionally with ill-advised attempts to keep the Pink Panther franchise going but also with semi-autobiographical dramedies like That’s Life!, his remake of The Man Who Loved Women, and 10.

10 was a bona fide cultural phenomenon in its day. It was the 7th highest-grossing film of 1979, turned Dudley Moore into a Hollywood leading man, and made Bo Derek (and her culturally appropriating cornrow hairstyle) an internationally recognized celebrity. But, like a lot of Edwards’ movies, it has not had a lasting impact.

At first glance, one might assume this is simply because the movie hasn’t aged well. After all, Edwards’ filmography is dotted with elements that today would be considered problematic at best. If you’ve got a problem with white actors tackling other ethnicities, you’re not gonna have a good time with Blake Edwards. So if you don’t know anything about 10 other than what you see on the DVD case, it’s not unreasonable to expect that the movie’s depiction of sexual politics and feminism will be impossibly dated by 2019 standards.

Perhaps surprisingly, that’s not actually the case. Yes, this is a movie about a rich, straight, white man bumbling his way through a mid-life crisis. In fact, if Dudley Moore’s character is meant to be Edwards’ surrogate, it’s fair to assume there was more than a little wish fulfillment going on. George Webber is almost impossibly successful. He’s an internationally famous songwriter, a playwright, and the winner of 4 Academy Awards…all by the age of 42.

Despite his success, he still struggles with depression, drinks too much, argues with both his on-again/off-again girlfriend/muse Samantha Taylor (played by Edwards’ own wife, Julie Andrews) and his songwriting partner Hugh (Robert Webber), and is terrified by the specter of his own mortality. He lives vicariously through his neighbor’s swinging lifestyle, spying on him and his neverending parade of nude women through a telescope. (Incidentally, that neighbor is played by Return Of The Living Dead‘s Don Calfa, sporting a gloriously long head of hippie hair.)

George thinks he’s found the answer to his dissatisfaction when he randomly sees Bo Derek in the car next to his at a traffic stop. She is, as George later puts it, “a vision”, on her way to be married to sentient Ken doll and future Flash Gordon Sam J. Jones. Unable to get her out of his head, George finds out that her name is Jenny and eventually tracks her down to Mexico, where the newlyweds are honeymooning.

So yeah, he essentially turns into a bit of a stalker but no, none of this behavior comes across as creepy. Part of this is because Edwards turns this stretch of the film into a showcase for some of his broadest physical comedy. Every time George gets a little closer to his dream girl, he pays for it in pain or some other humiliation. Dudley Moore was an expert physical comedian and Blake Edwards was second to none at filming bits like these.

But Moore’s performance also helps keep our sympathies from turning against George. Even when his judgment isn’t clouded by booze and painkillers (which isn’t often), it’s clear that he’s going after this woman blindly with absolutely no idea what he’s going to do if or when he finds her. He repeatedly tries reaching out to Sam, desperately wanting her to “save him” from himself. But the movie is smart enough to recognize that isn’t her job. George pushes her too far and Sam rightly tells him to piss off. If they’re going to have a future together, it’s going to take work.

Eventually, George and Jenny do end up alone together, after a somewhat convoluted rescue (involving a shark, of course, since Jaws was still fresh in everyone’s mind) lands Jenny’s husband in the hospital. But here too, the reality of the situation fails to live up to George’s fantasy. He has idealized her so much that he can’t accept the fact that an encounter that’s momentous to him is really no big deal to her. He loses respect for her in that moment but significantly, he also loses a lot of respect for himself as he recognizes his own hypocrisy. If someone were to remake 10 today (note to filmmakers: please don’t), I’m sure this sequence would be handled much differently. But these are equally valid character choices, especially for 1979 but even today. George’s dream girl isn’t just a blank slate. She has her own wants, desires, thoughts and moral compass. And, when he really starts to think about it, George realizes they don’t align with his own.

Odds are that 10 was too big a commercial hit to register much with Oscar voters. It was nominated for five Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical) and the ever-popular Best New Star of the Year (you know, the category that was discontinued shortly after Pia Zadora won it…Bo Derek lost to Bette Midler, probably a wise choice by the Foreign Press). But at the Academy Awards, the best 10 could muster was a pair of music nominations.

Now, I’m never going to say a bad word against Henry Mancini. He is one of the all-time great composers for film and television with more awards and nominations than most people have had hot dinners. As far as I’m concerned, he’s earned them all. But, let me just suggest that perhaps his work on 10 is not his most memorable. There is a piece of music from 10 that everyone who’s seen the movie remembers. That would be Ravel’s Boléro. Boléro became so associated with the film that, a few years later, Bo Derek would attempt to ride its coattails yet again by making a movie CALLED Bolero (and if you’re a connoisseur of bad cinema, you should definitely see it…it’s jaw-droppingly terrible). But Mancini’s actual score is unobtrusive and altogether forgettable.

As for the song, nobody’s going to argue that music wasn’t an important part of the film. It’s about a songwriter, after all, and Mancini contributed a few original tunes, including the hilarious, intentionally bad “I Have An Ear For Love”. But when Jenny describes George’s work as “elevator music”, it’s hard to disagree. The nominated song, “It’s Easy To Say”, is performed by Moore and Andrews, both in the film and over the end credits. At one point, Moore plays an extended instrumental version of it on the piano that’s better than the later vocal rendition. Moore was an excellent pianist and he pours a lot of character into his performance of the song. But the final version is exactly the kind of nothing song that the Academy uses to pad out the category in weak years.

In the end, 10 won neither award. Original Score went to Georges Delerue’s A Little Romance, a pleasant enough choice but a far cry from my favorite Delerue score. Of the nominated films, I’d likely cast my vote for Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the original song category, “It’s Easy To Say” lost out to an even more unlikely choice: “It Goes Like It Goes” from Norma Rae. In retrospect, the obvious winner should have been “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie. But let’s face it. The actual “best original song” from a motion picture in 1979 wasn’t even nominated. That would be “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” from Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. I’d put that up against “It’s Easy To Say” any day of the week.

10 is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital from Warner Home Video.