In the years since Brokeback, we’ve seen Best Picture nominations for The Kids Are All Right and Dallas Buyers Club – though in both of those cases, the primary audience surrogate was arguably a straight man (Mark Ruffalo in Kids, Matthew McConaughey in Dallas) – and the slightly Sapphic Black Swan. And, of course, there were Milk and The Imitation Game, both stories about gay men who met with tragedy, which brings us to the next possibility.
2. It was a specific kind of gay love story.
Spoiler alert: Carol’s protagonists fall in love, consummate their passion, and encounter some difficulties – it’s the early ‘50s, after all – but do not die for/from being gay. Such a declaration sounds stark, but an astonishing number of films about gay life have seen their characters come to some sort of a tragic end, as if comporting to the old Hays Code, where characters must be “punished” for their “sins.” (Go read The Celluloid Closet; I’ll wait.) Ultimately, Carol’s most transgressive quality is its refusal to engage in such shenanigans; this is a film about full-blooded gay lives, not tragic gay deaths. Maybe Oscar voters weren’t sure how to deal with that?
3. It was “too cold.”
Over at Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson posits: “Maybe it’s that, yep, Carol is too gay. The film chronicles the beginnings and early stumbles of a lesbian relationship in repressed 1950s New York, and though its broader themes of passion and heartache may be universal, this is a film written by a gay woman (based on a book by a gay woman), directed by a gay man, that speaks in a vernacular that, I’d guess, only queer people are fully fluent in. Perhaps that was just too narrow, too restricting, too limited in scope for the Academy.”
But that’s letting straight people off the hook. One of the most striking things about Carol is, outside of its specific period and cultural trappings, how exquisitely it captures the first flush of infatuation and attraction, and the deepening of that feeling into genuine love. That’s a feeling any viewer can understand, and one put across by Phyllis Nagy’s script, Haynes’ direction, and Blanchett and Mara’s playing – done not only with skill, but with less understatement than the popular narrative would have it. Watch the way those two look at each other when the other’s not watching in that department store scene and the lunch that follows, the hunger with which they’re stealing glances, the electricity of that attraction.
That’s why the other popular explanation for Carol’s lack of connection to award bodies, its supposed “coldness” or “remove,” smells so bad. Is that just a nice way of saying, “Not enough hot girl-on-girl action”? Or maybe that claim of “coldness” is tied to the picture’s overall subtlety, and how it mostly avoids giant, blowout confrontations and soft-piano-accompanied confessions of one’s True Feelings for a story told in quiet conversations and the pauses between them. Which is to say….
4. It was too good.
The thing we must always bear in mind, when discussing the slights and oversights of our ol’ pal Oscar, is that he often just doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. Perhaps the closest mirror to Carol in modern popular moviemaking, as far as this particular mile of its journey into cinematic immortality goes, is Inside Llewyn Davis – another deeply felt yet surface-subtle, gray-of-winter period drama that was shut out of the major categories two years back. And guess what? It didn’t hurt that movie one little bit. It’s got a Criterion edition out next week, it launched one of our most successful new stars, and it stands as one of the most beloved of all recent movies. The Coens actually made a movie better than Oscar, better than the easy platitudes and push-button feel-THIS nonsense that voters went for that year, and most years; Carol did the same. It doesn’t subject us to 156 minutes of people howling in misery and wolfing down raw liver bison; it gives us 118 minutes of people longing to belong and (as a wiser soul than I notes) casually consuming creamed spinach, poached eggs, and a martini. Carol will be around forever. You’ll forget most of the movies that “beat” it this morning by the day after the Oscars. Maybe sooner.