It took six decades, and 11 years of dedicated development, to bring Patricia Highsmith’s novel Carol (or The Price of Salt) to the screen. The resulting film stars Cate Blanchett as the titular New Jersey housewife who embarks on a tentative love affair with a younger shopgirl (Rooney Mara) in 1950s New York City, with Blanchett’s beguiling turn all but guaranteed to nab her a seventh Academy Award nomination.
The tender love story from director Todd Haynes hits theaters just months after the United States Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in America. Still, Blanchett joked to The Daily Beast, “I don’t think this film will be opening the Uganda Film Festival.”
Carol might not play so well in Uganda, one of the globe’s most notoriously homophobic countries, but it certainly joins 2013’s Blue Is the Warmest Color in bringing more visibility to the multitudinous shades of gay-themed cinema that makes it onto mainstream Hollywood’s radar. Carol also enters an awards race during an election frenzy in which gay rights has sharply divided candidates along party lines.
“I think the environment in which the film is being released is political, but the film is not political,” said Blanchett. “[Screenwriter] Phyllis Nagy said she began writing it 18 years ago. And I think if it had been made all that time back, even if it had been the same frame by frame, it would have been viewed in a much more political context.”
Her Carol Aird, inspired in part by the experiences of Highsmith’s former socialite-lover, is a refined but lonely housewife in the midst of a divorce who floats one Christmas season into the department store where Therese (Mara) works. Their chance meeting leads to a tentative friendship fraught with longing as the two women grow close, and finally consummate their romance before circumstances of the era jeopardize their future together.
“She’s an object of desire, and it’s very much the subjective gaze of Therese,” said Blanchett, reflecting on her character. “Neither of them fit neatly into a subculture, nor do they have the language with which to process their relationship, which was very interesting to me. Carol’s a deeply private person. She’s not in turmoil about her sexuality; she’s more in turmoil about how to survive in a very arid, emotionally locked down environment. You’re not witnessing someone struggling with their sexuality. You’re more witnessing two people struggling to find the courage to be together.”
One touchstone Blanchett discussed with Haynes (who also directed her as a swaggering Bob Dylan in I’m Not There) was 1945’s Brief Encounter. “[In Carol] you’re watching two people falling in love for the first time, and the gender becomes almost immaterial.” But even as Carol’s custody battle with her ex-husband is complicated by the truth of her sexuality and her illicit relationships with women threatens her legal case, her sense of self remains resolutely confident.
“As confident and together and as clear and self-possessed as she might seem, you realize in fact that not only is she living in a quiet hell which Therese has no understanding, but she’s also completely out of her depth—not because of her sexuality, but because she’s falling in love,” said Blanchett.
To Blanchett, it’s a love story, plain and simple. “She’s got a swath of experience under her belt, but I don’t think she’s ever felt love—deep, passionate, adrift-at-sea, helpless and uncontrollable love—before. So something is being awakened in her in spite of herself. And I think that’s what happens when you fall in love. Seismically, for the first time… it’s volcanic. I think that she thought, ‘That’s not something I will ever experience,’ and she put that to one side.”
In the 1952 of the film, Carol and Therese face scrutiny from their social circles and the law, and they’d never have the chance to marry for decades even if they wanted to. Blanchett, who has been married to fellow stage and film veteran Andrew Upton for 17 years, considered the anti-LGBT discrimination faced by those denied same-sex marriage rights.
“Frankly, anyone wants to take the leap of getting married, it’s a rocky path,” she said. “There are many, many reasons why people get married and some people who have been together for many years realize they can’t leave their property to the person that they spent the majority of their life with because they don’t have a contract that’s recognized by the state. To say a same-sex couple who have spent their lives together can’t, in their death, leave or bequeath things to one another—who is the heterosexual world to say that they can’t have that?”
Blanchett weighed in on another issue of equality stirring debate in Hollywood: Equal pay for women, as put on blast recently by Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence. Unfair salaries, Blanchett says, are only part of the problem.
“Everyone, the media, talks about actors’ wages. I don’t know a single actor who got involved in this to make money,” she said. “If you’re good at your job and you continually work, and you work on different sizes of films, you can eke a living out of it, and that’s fantastic. But you don’t want that conversation to eclipse the creative conversation, which is at the heart of what we do.”
It’s not just equal wages but equal opportunities that aren’t being extended to women filmmakers and performers by producers, studios, and financiers, she said.
“A film like Carol is wonderful and Todd Haynes, because of his endless creativity and the fact that he’s been an artist for so long, can make films on a shoestring and still make them extraordinary,” she explained. “But women want access to different sizes of projects and want their work to be seen in the multiplex.”
Female directors, for example, are simply not getting the same shots that are being granted to their male counterparts.
“Oftentimes you’ll get a script from a director—fully financed, a male director—but they haven’t got a body of work behind them so you’re taking a risk because you like the material, because you like the other actors,” said Blanchett, whose other awards contender this season, the political news drama Truth, was directed by first-timer James Vanderbilt. “It’s very rare that a woman will be given a fully-funded film when she doesn’t have a big track record, because people don’t want to take that risk.”
Days after attending the Academy’s Governors Awards, where the black tie Oscar season kickoff was held with increased security and began with a remembrance for those killed Friday night in Paris, Blanchett also assessed Hollywood’s reaction to the terror attacks in France and around the world.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but also on my mind are the people in Beirut, and the millions of people who are fleeing out of Syria and around the world,” she said. “It’s a very complicated global issue, and I think the situation with the millions of refugees has become even more complicated. Here we are, talking about a film, and sometimes you’re given the opportunity to make something that, dare I say, is about an important subject, and make a film that lasts. But I’m not in Beirut, I’m not in Paris, and I’m not in a leaky boat on the Mediterranean. Those are the real issues.”