The Carol Curse: Why Hollywood Still Can’t Take a Lesbian Love Story Seriously
Two of 2015’s most acclaimed films couldn’t be more different. One tells the story of two women in the 1950s whose love affair changes both of their lives. The other tells the story of a man braving endless disturbing elements in nature in order to track down and kill the man who killed his son. On a surface level, doors to the movie theaters playing these films could basically be respectively labeled with those retrogressive bathroom “Women” and “Men” signs.
Carol promises longing glances, slowly sipped martinis, a shoulder peeking out of a loosely-wrapped robe. The Revenant promises bears! Blood! Leo DiCaprio eating a live fish with his teeth! Certainly, we can all agree he could have used one of Carol Aird’s martinis.
Ah, but movies don’t have genders — though Rolling Stone invokes genatalia for one film, as the first sentence of its Revenant review declares the film is not for “movie pussies.” However, if movies were gendered, you bet the lesbian love story might just get the short end of the stick DiCaprio uses to crawl up a mountain. The Revenant won Best Picture, Drama and Best Director at the Golden Globes last Sunday, beating Carol in both categories. It was also nominated for Academy Awards in both categories as well, while Carol was overlooked.
In director Alejandro González Iñárritu's acceptance speech at the Globes, though he acknowledges the difficulty of all filmmaking, he specifically references the "struggle" and "pain" of making the film. Yes, The Revenant was undoubtedly painful to make. I’m sure everyone suffered immensely, and their struggle is obvious onscreen. Leo will probably finally win the Oscar for the amount of times his veins look like they're about to pop out of his face. Are Oscars given away because of how much of a bitch the movie was to make, though? Perhaps they are.
Let’s not hate on The Revenant, though. I've seen it, and Carol as well. Both are beautifully shot and expertly crafted. While The Revenant is intense, insane, and gorgeous, it’s not the best film of the year. And before the Golden Globes, it didn’t even seem as if it would be a major contender. Above all, Carol seemed like the likely front-runner and the first LGBT love story with a shot at Best Picture since Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash.
It’s been scoring nominations and even wins in just about all major festivals and award shows. It's a groundbreaking love story helmed by an openly gay director, Todd Haynes, who's carefully cultivated a visual and emotional aesthetic that finds new ways to take your breath away over the course of two hours. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara give performances that are some of the most acclaimed in their already highly lauded careers — as both their Globes and Oscars nominations reflect. It unfolds with spine-tingly delicacy, it’s paced to perfection, and its depiction of the 1950s is effortless.
Now, as we look at a future in which Carol might somehow get swept under the Academy’s rug altogether despite its six Oscars nominations in other categories, we are faced with a few questions. Is Carol too good? Is the film’s beauty too effortless? Was it so expertly crafted it seems "easy?" Are the performances too natural? Or is it simply that in 2016, we’ve reached a crossroads in how lesbian relationships are viewed onscreen?
"Well, it is 2016!" some would argue. Lesbian relationships aren’t groundbreaking, thus telling the story of one isn’t groundbreaking. And because no one gets eaten by a bear in Carol, perhaps you can slap the lens of ‘boring’ or 'simple' right over it. But perhaps those who write off Carol for those reasons have made the choice not to pay attention or have decided what their experience will be without letting the film take over. Or perhaps, for them a lingering stigma holds fast. There are those who simply do not want to see a lesbian love story on screen. Bring on the bears! But not the gay bears. The normal bears. You get it.
For others, lesbians as a group have too many stereotypes thrust upon them to ever crack that surface and see beyond. Flannel. U-Hauls. That carabiner joke in the Tina Fey and Amy Poehler film Sisters. Yeah, it’s funny, but there’s more. Lesbians spend so much time as a mere punch line or confined to our own little, cultish genre that always ends up on Netflix. Let all types of lesbian stories breathe. See the real-life pain. See the heartbreak. See the fulfilling joy of connection — or just see Sisters and all those carabiners. You'll laugh, but you'll never get it.
Labels aside for a moment, Carol is, above all, a beautifully explored love story. A tale as old as time. It’s based on a novel that made waves in the 1950s, and in many ways, is still revolutionary today. Just as it was a risk to write Carol back then, perhaps it was always going to be a risk to make a major Oscar contender starring two women. We haven’t had a female-oriented Best Picture victory since 2004 Million Dollar Baby, an even then Hilary Swank was flanked by Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. In the case of Carol: two female leads? Strike one. Lesbians? Yeegads, strike two. Love story? Hey, Titanic won, but remember how much all those characters were in pain? Say, maybe if Carol took place on Poseidon we’d have a fighting chance. And while we’re thinking about it, Chicago had two female leads and won Best Picture in 2002. So that’s that, folks. If Carol were a musical where everyone struggled, it might get the Oscar.
It is certainly worth awarding directors like Iñárritu who find such grand, visual magic in the worlds of their work. But there’s just as much magic in a story crafted with such a secure hook in reality that it latches on to you as well. I was a big Boyhood supporter this time last year, though I can see how one could find the story uninteresting. But what a feat to capture real life like that, and especially in real time. This year, the film Tangerine — about a trans woman seeking revenge on the woman who slept with her boyfriend — is getting pretty major buzz in the indie circuit but hasn’t touched big-time award shows. As much as the award circuit loves giving nominations to cis actors in trans roles, it’s a gut-twisting shame Hollywood isn’t able to handle trans actors telling trans stories at the moment. Tangerine is a delightful, emotional, highly entertaining film and its stars Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor gave two of the best performances of the year. You should definitely catch it... guess where? Netflix. Oh Netflix, it’s the most popular gay club in Hollywood.
We have come so close to winning with Carol. Not just the Academy Award, but the chance for a lesbian film to shine as brightly as any heterosexual love story ever has in Hollywood. Fun Home, the story of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, did it on Broadway this year when it won Best Musical at the Tonys, so it didn’t seem so far-fetched. But if the gay men couldn’t take the Oscar with Brokeback Mountain, who were we to have ever thought we had a fighting chance? Even now, Brokeback Mountain’s memory is often only invoked as a parody — a powerful, acclaimed film that now in the mainstream comes up for some “sex in the tent” chuckles. Likewise, Blue is the Warmest Color is often left distilled to “LOL, that sex scene!” in the words of the general public. So why are LGBT films reduced to sexual references while Titanic gets Jack holding Rose up on the edge of that doomed cruise ship? It’s not all just pain — it’s heterosexuality. It’s safe, even when the boat sinks.
Until the Globes, I had my hopes up for some big wins for Carol this year, and now with the Academy Awards nominations announced this morning I’m acclimating myself to the idea that Carol was overlooked as a contender for Best Film for the wrong reasons. As we grow more and more exhausted, maybe it all comes back to Carol Aird, who might simply say about this awards season: “No explanation I offer will satisfy you.” And if we can't get the Oscar, let's at least not let Carol get whittled down to just a sex scene reference in the future.
Let's see films like Tangerine get the recognition they deserve, and trans actors get cast in the roles they deserve to play. Hollywood needs to stop pretending it’s accepted us and instead fully allow our beautiful, bold, inspirational stories to be heard, recognized, and appreciated. We’ll be here when you’re ready. Until then, I guess I'll go see what's on Netflix.
REBEKAH ALLEN is an entertainment writer for SheWired, where this piece originally appeared. Follow her on Twitter @rebekahmallen.