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In 'Carol,' 2 Women Leap Into An Unlikely Love Affair

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett (right) begin a love affair after meeting in a department store in <em>Carol</em>.
Weinstein Co.
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett (right) begin a love affair after meeting in a department store in Carol.

Director Todd Haynes believes love can blossom in the most improbable circumstances. Take his new movie, Carol. The film tells the story of an affair between the title character, a married 1950s socialite (played by Cate Blanchett), and Therese, an aspiring young photographer (played by Rooney Mara) who is working in the toy section of a New York City department store. They meet while Carol is buying a Christmas present for her daughter.

Haynes tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that the connection the women make in the store is a "curious leap" that takes them both "out of their worlds."

"I think there's something so lovely about that being the way love often begins — in the most irrational, inexplicable sort of circumstances where you put yourself out there and you keep going, 'What am I doing? Why am I here?' " Haynes says. "But you keep going back. Both women do it."

Phyllis Nagy adapted the screenplay for Carol from the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt. In her early 20s, Nagy met and befriended Highsmith, a lesbian writer who spent much of her adult life in Europe. Nagy says the story is extremely forward thinking, especially considering it was originally published in 1952.

"As far as I'm aware, it was the first relatively mainstream lesbian novel to be published that included not only a relatively happy ending, but it did not include the death of one of its lesbian heroines, or one of them going to an insane asylum or nunnery," Nagy says.

Nagy notes that Highsmith initially published The Price of Salt under a pseudonym, perhaps because the novel was so personal in nature. "It was difficult for her to take ownership of it as a writer for many years," Nagy says. "I was never sure if that meant she just didn't like it, or if she was so personally attached to the novel that she couldn't afford psychically, or psychologically, to claim ownership of it until the late '80s."

Interview Highlights

On Therese and Carol

Nagy: Therese Belivet ... is at a stage in her life, early 20s, where she is searching for the keys to her future. She's a bit reticent; she's immensely curious, a bit like a sponge, and responds to everything with an alarming honesty — much like Pat Highsmith herself, whom I knew. So Therese is her alter ego.

Carol Aird is older, married ... and she is a melancholy creature. She is not a happy-go-lucky socialite. The circumstances of her life don't sit well with her, or comfortably.

Patricia Highsmith initially published her novel <em>The Price of Salt </em>under the pseudonym "Claire Morgan."
Anonymous / AP
Patricia Highsmith initially published her novel The Price of Salt under the pseudonym "Claire Morgan."

On the elements of Highsmith's novel that Nagy most wanted to keep in the screen adaptation

Nagy: Two things. One was the radical way in which Patricia Highsmith addressed the sexuality of the protagonists in the novel as natural, as breathing — no particular thought given to what sexuality means to these women — but also an insistence on ignoring, more or less, the naysayers, which was another aspect of the novel that was profoundly radical. The second part of the things that I think makes the novel really resonate even today is Highsmith's particular view of motherhood and what makes a good mother.

On how The Price of Salt was received compared to Highsmith's other novels

Nagy: I think that Highsmith was very surprised by the impact that The Price of Salt had on publication. And even in the years, four or five years, following its publication, she would receive the most amazing letters from people — of course, they were addressed to [her pseudonym,] Claire Morgan — talking about how the book had touched them profoundly, changed their lives. She wasn't used to that. Certainly no one was going to say that [her 1950 book] Strangers on a Train changed their lives in quite that way, or even [her 1955 book] The Talented Mr. Ripley.

On what Nagy learned from Highsmith about being a lesbian in the '50s

Nagy: I think what I learned from Pat about being gay in the '50s, and from friends of hers that she introduced me to, it was a window on a very particular subset of lesbians. Pat herself, I always like to say, was like the studio boss of lesbians in that she was right there chasing women around couches and throwing them down onto beds. ... I thought at first that she was probably just pumping up her own reputation as a lesbian stud, but, in fact, her peers — the women that she chased, many of whom actually did remain friendly with her — confirmed those stories. And these women were all vaguely of the Carol Aird set.

So I felt as if I knew exactly who Carol Aird was. ... I think the married women suited Patricia Highsmith, who famously did not like to live with people or have that kind of attachment that most reasonable people after a time expect. ... With married women, that was rarely possible. So they were, I'd say, the Euro-[equivalent] of wealthy, suburban, mostly married and secretive; women who probably, in 1952, are on prototypes of antidepressants and drank a lot and smoked a lot, like Highsmith herself.

On Highsmith trying to date men at one point

Director Todd Haynes works with actress Cate Blanchett on the set of <em>Carol</em>.
/ Weinstein Co.
Weinstein Co.
Director Todd Haynes works with actress Cate Blanchett on the set of Carol.

Nagy: The unwholesome truth about Pat is she was a lesbian who did not very much enjoy being around other women. So the attempt to dabble with one man seriously, and perhaps a few others along the way, was to just see if she could be into men in that way, because she so much more preferred their company. Pat would've been a great member of [Mad Men's agency] Sterling-Cooper ... and really, I think, that was the formative psychological trait ... that she really didn't like women. She liked to have sex with them and she liked them to go home and shut up, but she much preferred the company of males.

On whether Haynes had reservations about being a man directing a movie about lesbians

Haynes: No, I did not. Or at least, what I felt was this was a tremendous, beautiful opportunity for me to explore this story as a gay man and as somebody who has been in love and who's been in Therese's shoes. ... I felt like I had that common and universal and poignant experience in my own history and my own memory and that's what's so unsentimentally and beautifully described in the novel to begin with. ... And I have to say, so many of my dearest, closest friends in the world are gay women and this, in many ways, was sort of like: "This one's for all those [women] who've meant so much in my life."

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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