A Long Way To Go: ‘Carol’ and The Oscars’ Aversion to Progressive Cinema
From the National Board of Review to the recent handing out of the Golden Globes, the 2016 Oscar season has been nothing short of unpredictable. Yet, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominations in the early morning of Thursday, January 14th, there were few shocks or notable omissions, except for the exclusion of critical darling Carol and its director Todd Haynes.
When the announcements started, the legion of Carol fans were given the chance to rest easy as it scored all of its expected nominations: cinematography, costumes, screenplay, score, best supporting actress and best actress. Yet, when surprise nominee Lenny Abrahamson was announced in Best Director and Carol was nowhere to be seen in Best Picture, it looked like a typical case of Oscar voters favoring the middlebrow over the high brow.
Not too long ago, pundits and insiders thought that Carol could surprise and win Best Picture after critical praise and an extensive stint on the festival circuit. Despite missing an important Producer’s Guild nomination, Carol was overperforming at many Oscar precursors, scoring a slew of nominations at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and BFCA Awards. Going into the morning of the 14th, it finally looked like one of America’s greatest auteurs working today could get support from The Academy, but why did the nominations come up short?
In a year with many female-driven projects as possible contenders, most were predicting at least one of these films to miss out on Oscar morning. Historically, The Academy, which features an alarming number of older, white men, have favored male-led films. In fact, of last year’s eight Best Picture nominees, every single film focused on the life of a male. So, for many, having films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Brooklyn, Room, and Carol in contention indicated a step forward for the Oscars. Yet, aside from Carol, all of these films embrace the plight of the male condition. Even though Mad Max: Fury Road is unflinchingly feminist in its commentary, the audience split was still heavily skewed in favor of the male. Brooklyn devolves into a typical love-triangle story with its leading men representing a woman torn between her family home in Ireland and new home in America. And even though Room tackles a woman’s struggle with media perception, it’s the son of Brie Larson’s character that ends up rescuing her from depression.
Carol never shies away from being a film about women and their strength in a time of repression. Carol and Therese are perceived as classy, intelligent and demure, whereas their male suitors are presented as bullish oafs. Before romance even begins to bud between Therese and Carol, the Todd Haynes film is already at a disadvantage in The Academy by displaying women as interesting and independent, especially at the expense of their men.
As diminutive as classifying Carol as a lesbian romance may be, at the heart of the film is the blossoming love between Carol and Therese. It’s easy to point to the 2006 Oscar ceremony, where Crash won Best Picture over projected favorite Brokeback Mountain, to create a narrative for The Academy’s aversion for homosexual films and performances, but in the past decade a handful of men portraying gay figures have been nominated or awarded. On the other hand, actresses portraying lesbians have had a much harder time breaking through, and it is especially hard when the characters are “just” lesbians rather than transgender, bisexual or queer. The films these women star in often have an even harder time scoring picture nominations.
In recent years, the only film driven by a lesbian couple to be nominated for Best Picture is The Kids Are All Right, a dramedy with a meaty supporting role by a well-respected male actor. In fact, The Kids Are All Right isn’t like Carol at all—it is a conservative film The Academy could have an easier time embracing. Its relative lightness paints a lesbian partnership as something less serious than a straight relationship, whereas Carol illustrates the heavy struggles of lesbians in the middle of the 20th century with dire conviction. By principle, The Kids Are All Right diminishes the family that the lesbian couple has made by putting a man in the middle of it—something The Academy members can get behind.
But the single biggest travesty of this year’s Oscar season might be Todd Haynes missing a Best Director nomination. Haynes has always been treasured by crowds of more refined taste, evident by his many directing mentions from critics’ groups in New York City and Los Angeles, but Carol had him primed for an academic breakout. Haynes’ work in Carol is marked with his usual excellence, manifested in every performance and the fully realized 1950s time period. In recent years, the directing branch has made left-field or highbrow choices compared to the Directors Guild or other committees; meditative and “artsy” films such as Amour and The Tree of Life have garnered nominations for auteurs Michael Haneke and Terrence Malick, respectively. Yet Todd Haynes, who has been making acclaimed films for more than two decades, missed a nomination for his most accessible film to date. Despite his huge influence in the important New Queer Cinema movement, he won’t be joining the ranks of the few openly gay directors to receive an Oscar nomination.
Perhaps Carol’s Oscar problems aren’t exclusive to its production in front of the camera. For the first time since 2008, The Weinstein Company missed out on a Best Picture nod after having two of the biggest front runners at the start of the season. The Weinstein Company has had a tumultuous year after laying off a few dozen staff members, along with box office flops like Burnt. TWC toned down its usual campaigning techniques and perhaps, due to this, not enough Academy members were properly convinced. But Carol has been campaigning for itself ever since its Cannes premiere. It deserved to be a film that could rest easily on its accolades and prestige.
Ultimately, Carol has ended up being The Academy’s biggest Best Picture oversight of the 21st century. Even though The Dark Knight‘s snub in 2009 signaled a need for an expanded picture category to give more genre films a chance, its support was exclusively guilds based, and the lack of picture or director nominations were all but determined after it missed those at BAFTA and the Golden Globes. Carol‘s snub is much more indicative of Hollywood and the AMPAS’ greatest aversions, whether that be the highbrow cinema, gay filmmakers, or women’s sexuality.