Over Christmas, my brother and I looked through photos of our late mother who came of age in the 1950s.
“She’s always smoking and in a dress,” I said. “Back then, ladies couldn’t wear slacks and they had to get married,” he said, adding, “to a man.” Recently, I thought of my Mom’s era as I watched “Carol,” the stunning movie directed by Todd Haynes and starring Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird and Rooney Mara as her lover, Therese Belivet, that’s received five Golden Globe nominations and generating Oscar buzz.
Though set in repressive, deeply closeted mid-century America, the film, based on Patricia Highsmith’s groundbreaking 1952 novel “The Price of Salt,” is a glamorous, and surprisingly hopeful story of same-sex love. Viewing “Carol,” I couldn’t help but wonder: who knew the old-school ‘50s were so sexy – between the movie-beautiful cigarette smoke, the stunning hats, the perfect scarves and Blanchett’s Lauren Bacall-like vibe?
Written when being openly queer would likely have derailed her career, Highsmith wrote “The Price of Salt,” under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. The title of the volume was changed to “Carol” in 1990 when the book was reissued with Highsmith’s real name.
“Carol” takes place in the early 1950s when the American Psychiatric Association declared homosexuality a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” same-sex love was illegal, the House Un-American Activities Committee targeted LGBT people and others it deemed subversive, and, in many cities, a man could be arrested for seeming too “feminine” or a woman jailed for appearing too “masculine.” Yet, remarkably “Carol” is a glam-filled same-sex romance.
Don’t get revved up for explicit lesbian sex, out and proud gay coupledom, or scenes of two queer moms raising a child in “Carol.” This movie is in the mode of a Douglas Sirk 1950s film where subversive acts – differences from the cultural norm – were viewed through the mask of style, taste and outward normality. This fits the movie’s time frame, when same-sex love, however passionate, had to invisibly and unobtrusively slide behind the veneer of respectability. Even so, Therese glancing at Carol from across a room, or Carol telling Therese, “I like the hat” are as, if not more, alluring than many contemporary depictions of queer sexuality.
In the movie, Carol, a 30-something New Jersey suburban housewife and mother, shops for a Christmas present for her young daughter in a New York City department store. There, she meets Therese, a 19-year-old photographer. (In the book, Therese is a set designer.) The two quickly develop a friendship (fostered by an Old-Fashioned infused lunch) that quickly becomes a love affair. The lovers can only talk about their love to a very few. Carol and Therese never say the word lesbian. They can’t breathe a word of their relationship to their friends, family or co-workers. Carol, who is in the process of divorcing her husband, must give up not only custody, but her right to visit her child, when her spouse learns of the affair.
Yet, the movie “Carol,” like the novel “The Price of Salt,” isn’t a tragedy. It’s not too big a reveal to say that, despite the restraint of being closeted, Carol and Therese aren’t shrouded by shadows or overcome by sadness. Though Carol knows she’ll have to sever ties with her child, she defiantly opts to stay together with Therese.
Four years before Allen Ginsberg wrote in his historic, openly queer poem “Howl,” of those “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,” Highsmith penned a novel where same-sex lovers didn’t go to prison, die, repent of their sins or become hetero. “The Price of Salt,” without being preachy, was one of a very few novels from that era to give queer characters love and hope.
Cheers to Highsmith and to “Carol.”
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.