There hasn’t been that much fuss over the lesbian romance depicted in the movie Carol. Good: This is progress. The lack of reaction probably isn’t from the normalizing of its same-sex theme, though. The movie is not actually about lesbianism, love, or sex in any form — it’s about status.
Cate Blanchett’s Carol is a stylish matron who patronizes the department store where salesgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) is unhappily working. Her sophistication and poise scream (decorously) from across the room; what they scream is superiority. The unflappable Carol’s self-assured style offers Therese a vision of beauty and safety. Carol’s bright red lipstick and fingernails shout, “Look at me,” and people should: She is glorious. She wears mink to go shopping, and gloves, of course; it is circa 1950.
A familiar fantasy
Carol is the fantasy of an uncertain young woman being taken under the wing of a handsome, knowing older adult. An older adult with a lot of m-o-n-e-y.
It’s a familiar formula, but here the older person happens to be another woman, not a man. She functions more as a mother than as a lover — a protector, an educator, a mentor. And a good fit for the confused but hungry Therese.
These characterizations soon sag into contradictions. Carol knows everything but takes a huge risk in the midst of her divorce, driving off to Chicago with Therese in a pre-Lolita (but curiously parallel) road trip of depressing motels and bungalows.
As for men, there is little to their characterization at all. Carol’s husband Harge — as in barge, as in Sarge — may be supplying the money for her status, but he is strictly a lout and a creep. Therese’s boyfriend wants her to go to Paris with him and get married; when he discovers she is going away with Carol, he has the nerve to get angry.
By the time Cate Blanchett goes to bed with moony Rooney, she had long since seduced the audience. She’s terrific and almost makes the flaws in the characterization disappear. This is supposedly almost new to her — one brief affair with an old girlfriend — but she could teach most men about assertiveness. Cate’s eyes glitter like a cobra’s as she lines up her romantic prey.
Traveling and time-traveling
I went to see the movie because of how much the poster photos of Cate reminded me of my mother’s friends from the ’50s: the wavy hairdos, the lipstick and nail polish — they didn’t disappoint. Then there were those sexy gloves and, oh my God, all the cigarettes. Blanchett must have smoked away several months of her life shooting this picture.
Imagine my surprise, then, to hear the conductor on the train that will carry Therese back to her dreary apartment from Carol’s mansion deep in the New Jersey woods rattle off the next stops: “Glen Rock, Hawthorne, Paterson. . . .” That meant Carol had just deposited Therese on the train in my hometown of Ridgewood.
Sure enough, Patricia Highsmith, author of the source novel, worked as a salesclerk at Bloomingdale’s. She was inspired by a specific woman, whose name and address she saved from the sales receipt. A New Yorker article confirms that the woman lived at one of the fanciest addresses in Ridgewood — but, an alcoholic with some history of institutionalization, died a suicide in 1951. She was the mother of three girls, from what I have dug up, rather than the single daughter mentioned in the book and shown in the movie. So a safe harbor she was not, in real life, unfortunately.
What would the neighbors say?
How would Ridgewood’s actual 1950s suburban society have reacted to the fictional Carol? Obviously, I speculate, but call it informed speculation. The lesbianism alone wouldn’t have put her out of the bridge club, but an affair with such a younger woman would have, probably by tacit mutual agreement. She might have become notorious in her circle around town, but I think she’d still have been tolerated. Lesbianism was hardly unknown, no matter how people today try to turn the ’50s into the dark ages. Others would simply not have believed it — a different kind of tolerance.
However, the wife-and-mother part of the fictional Carol’s equation would have cost her. After a divorce for that kind of betrayal, she would have been a goner. The judgment would have been harsh in a community that still practiced shunning for social control.
“Still practiced”— hmm, I had to pause after typing that. Those words suggest shunning is a thing of the past. But shunning hasn’t vanished even in our oh-so-enlightened present day, has it? It has simply shifted in many places to different criteria, sometimes an offshoot of political correctness.
The movie, which satisfied my nostalgia more than I’d expected, also looks great (shot, somewhat unexpectedly, in Cincinnati), and Blanchett is impossible to take your eyes off of. Otherwise, though, Carol is a forgettable shopgirl’s fantasy. Too bad, because one of the questions it asks is a worthy one: When will gloves make a comeback in women’s fashion?