In 'Carol,' 2 Women Leap Into An Unlikely Love Affair
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The movie "Carol," about two women who fall in love in the early ‘50s, earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Adapted Screenplay, which was written by our guest, Phyllis Nagy. Our the guest is the film’s director, Todd Haynes. “Carol” is now out on DVD and available for streaming. Todd Haynes' other films include “I’m Not There,” “Far From Heaven” and the HBO adaptation of “Mildred Pierce."
Nagy is an American-born playwright who's done most of most of her work in England. She adapted the screenplay for "Carol" from the novel "The Price Of Salt," by Patricia Highsmith, who's best known for her novels "Strangers On A Train," and "The Talented Mr. Ripley." The movie “Carol” is set in New York where a young woman, an aspiring photographer named Therese is working in the toy section of a department store. She sells a train set to a beautiful, elegantly-dressed, affluent woman, Carol. After Carol leaves her gloves on the counter, Therese tracks her down to return the gloves, and they slowly begin an affair.
Therese has never been with a woman, but Carol has and is divorcing her husband. Carol’s played by Cate Blanchett, Therese by Rooney Mara. Terry spoke to Todd Haynes and Phyllis Nagy in January, and they began with a scene from “Carol.” The two women are meeting for lunch and have their first real conversation.
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ROONEY MARA: (As Therese Belivet) So I'm sure you thought it was a man who sent you back your gloves.
CATE BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) I did - thought it might've been a man in the ski department.
MARA: (As Therese Belivet) I'm sorry.
BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) No, I'm delighted. I doubt very much I would have gone to lunch with him.
MARA: (As Therese Belivet) Your perfume.
BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) Yes?
MARA: (As Therese Belivet) It's nice.
BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) Thank you. Harge bought me a bottle years ago before we were married, and I've been wearing it ever since.
MARA: (As Therese Belivet) Harge is your husband?
BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) Mhmm. Well, technically. We're divorcing.
MARA: (As Therese Belivet) I'm sorry.
BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) Don't be. And you live alone, Therese Belivet?
MARA: (As Therese Belivet) I do. Well, there's Richard. He'd like to live with me. Oh, no, it's nothing like that. I mean, he'd like to marry me.
BLANCHETT: (As Carol Aird) I see. And would you like to marry him?
MARA: (As Therese Belivet) Well, I barely even know what to order for lunch.
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TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: That's Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. Todd Haynes and Phyllis Nagy, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the film. Phyllis, let me start with you since the story of this adaptation starts with you. What is the importance of the novel that "Carol's" adapted from? What's its importance in the history of gay and lesbian fiction? And it was written by Patricia Highsmith under a pseudonym and published in 1952.
PHYLLIS NAGY: Yes, and as far as I am 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. And it fully embraced the notion that sexuality was a thing that did not in and of itself cause guilt to the people who were experiencing sexuality, as opposed to contemplating it, which a lot of prior lesbian fiction had done. So it was extremely forward-thinking in that way.
GROSS: So before I bring Todd into the conversation, Phyllis, I'm going to ask you to describe the two main characters in "Carol."
NAGY: Well, the two main characters in "Carol" are Therese Belivet, a young aspiring photographer in the film, an aspiring theatrical set designer in the novel. She 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.
GROSS: Todd Haynes, let me bring you into the conversation. You directed the new film, "Carol." Cate Blanchett is Carol, the older, more affluent woman. Rooney Mara is the young woman who's, like, working-class. Carol dresses, like, elegantly. Rooney Mara's character, Therese, doesn't really care much about clothes and doesn't dress particularly fashionably at all. They also, it seems to me, have really different acting styles in the movie. The Cate Blanchett character of Carol, she has this really, like, modulated, breathy kind of voice and speaks in a way that actresses speak, especially in '50s movies. You know, in this, like, musical way. And Rooney Mara's character is much more, like, naturalistic, almost like Natalie Wood just stepped into the movie in the 1950s, (laughter), you know? So what advice did you give each of the actresses about how you wanted them to portray these characters?
TODD HAYNES: Well, you know, this is largely seen through Therese's point of view. So I think both actresses had to sort of have as much awareness of sort of whose point of view was being favored at what time in the story. And I find that to be such a remarkable part of what Cate does in this performance because she's - there are times in the film where she can't give away too much. She still knows she's portraying sort of Therese's image of her, and she has to see sort of be very careful and thoughtful about how she reveals the Carol of different layers beneath that. And I just find that to be a phenomenal, nuanced part of that performance. So I think they both knew that. They understood that. That said, I think Carol's neuroses and disquiet as a woman is quite clear early in the film, where she's nervous about smoking in the department store; she's nervous about not finding her compact in her purse when she pulls up to the party and she's nervous about going to the party with - you know, there are - we see clues that this facade is not everything it seems to be.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Phyllis Nagy. She wrote the screen adaptation for the new movie "Carol," which is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel. Also with us is Todd Haynes, who directed the film. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Todd Haynes, the director of the new film "Carol," and Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the screen adaptation from the Patricia Highsmith novel. "Carol" was written under a pseudonym. Patricia Highsmith wrote it under the name Claire Morgan. Patricia Highsmith was not out when she wrote this novel in the early 1950s. Was Highsmith afraid that if she used her own name that she would be outed and that it would ruin her career? Phyllis, this one's for you.
NAGY: No, she actually was about as out as anyone could be at that time. It was a well-known that she was a lesbian. In fact, she wouldn't have minded publishing it under her own name. But first her publisher of "Strangers on a Train," they asked her to consider getting another publisher for "The Price Of Salt." Though they wouldn't have used this word then, it was not the brand. It was not the Highsmith brand. She agreed to do it. And then...
GROSS: The Highsmith brand was a crime novel at that point?
NAGY: Crime novel, which of course "Carol" is not a crime novel, but it does have elements of criminal in it. So it was still a Highsmith novel had they thought about it.
GROSS: There is a gun.
NAGY: There is a gun. There is an air of menace. There is paranoia - all of those things.
GROSS: So what impact did it have on her career to have this book published under a pseudonym? And I know from Marijane Meaker's book, who wrote a memoir about having had a two-year affair with Patricia Highsmith, you know, in the gay bar that they went to and the lesbian bar they went to, everybody knew that she had written "The Price of Salt" under the pseudonym. And that's what she was famous for in this bar, not for, you know, "Strangers on a Train" (laughter).
NAGY: Yeah (laughter). Well, I think that Highsmith was very surprised by the impact that "The Price of Salt" had on publication and even in the four or five years following its publication. She would receive the most amazing letters from people - of course, they were addressed to Claire Morgan - but 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 "Strangers on a Train" changed their lives in quite that way - or even "The Talented Mr. Ripley." So she was quite gratified by that. But honestly, she felt that "The Price of Salt" was such a personal novel to her that it was difficult for her to take ownership of it as a writer for many years. I don't think she would publicly say she didn't rate it as one of her better efforts, but 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.
GROSS: So when she finally did come out as the author of "The Price of Salt" - which also I think meant coming out in a more public way. People who knew her probably knew she was out. I'm not sure the reading public knew that she was out. I interviewed her in 1987. Judging from the questions I asked her, I didn't know she was out. Or maybe I knew that she was a lesbian but thought it was something that she wouldn't want to talk about at that time on the air. So what was the impact of claiming this novel as her own on her life?
NAGY: Well, by that time, she knew that she was ill. It was the beginnings of the illness that eventually claimed her life in the mid-'90s. So I don't think she felt she had anything left to hide, to lose. She had everything to gain. She was gaining more respect and recognition in the United States, which was something that had eluded her to a large degree until around the time you interviewed her. And that must have been for the publication of "Found In The Street."
GROSS: It was.
NAGY: Yes, and that was around the time that I met her and got to know her. And she was very happy to finally have what she felt were mainstream literary critics saying that she was actually a pretty good writer. And so crowning that at the end of the '80s was claiming "Carol" - "A Price Of Salt" and renaming it "Carol." You know, it was the end of a very long road towards gaining respect, which was what I think she felt had happened.
GROSS: Phyllis, how did you get to know Patricia Highsmith?
NAGY: Well, I was working as a fact checker, researcher at The New York Times at the end of the '80s for what were then the Part Two magazines - World of New York, Sophisticated Traveler. And the editors of World of New York wanted to commission a crime writer or a mystery writer to do a walking tour of Green-Wood Cemetery. And one of the names that I suggested was Pat Highsmith, who happened to be in New York on that tour for "Found In The Street," I guess.
And she agreed to go. So the editors sent me to accompany Pat Highsmith to the cemetery, which was quite a strange trip through, you know, the rain and Pat being reticent and very Therese-like, poking sticks at graves and only exclaiming when she saw the grave of Lola Montez. I guess that was one of her faves. And this trip culminated in a gruesome tour of the crematorium at Green-Wood, where we were repeatedly asked to put our hands in warm ovens and look at blenders full of bones. And at the end of this horrible tour - it was about 11 a.m.
And we went outside, and Pat produced a hip flask from her trenchcoat and said, I don't know about you but I need a drink. And she held this flask out to me like a challenge. And I thought, well, what the hell? And I took it, and it was scotch at 11 a.m., which led to an invitation to lunch which also consisted mostly of alcohol. And from then on in, we became first incredible correspondents - no email then, and so we wrote letters. Later, when I moved to Europe, I saw her much more frequently. But that's how it all came about.
GROSS: So did Patricia Highsmith know that you were a lesbian? And you were about 22 at this time. Did you know?
NAGY: You know, Pat seemed to know an awful lot about me when I picked her up in the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel, so I'm sure that was one of the things that she did know. She was very good at research herself. And I knew from - probably from the cradle, so it was not a secret. So, yes, she did know, and I knew fairly early myself.
GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Phyllis Nagy. She wrote the screen adaptation for the new movie “Carol,” which is based on the Patricia Highsmith. Also with us is Todd Haynes, who directed the film. Let’s take a short break, then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Todd Haynes, the director of the new film "Carol," and Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the screen adaptation from the Patricia Highsmith novel. Were there things you were able to learn during your ten-year friendship with Patricia Highsmith about what it was like to be gay in the early 1950s, which is when "Carol" is set, things that you could later use in your adaptation of the novel?
NAGY: Yeah, that's an interesting question. 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...
NAGY: ...In that she was right there chasing women around couches and throwing them down onto beds and four-posters and gauzy things. And I thought at first that she was probably just, you know, 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. These women were vaguely of the Carol Aird set. So I felt as if I knew exactly who Carol Aird was in "The Price Of Salt."
GROSS: You've said that Highsmith liked to collect young women and be their mentor. Did she want to cast you in that role? You were 22 when you met.
NAGY: Yeah, it's a funny thing. She - there was a moment when we were out in a restaurant together and she took out this billfold - like an old-fashioned wallet billfold full of plastic pictures that kind of flipped down accordion-style - and she said, look at this. And I did, and they were pictures of women - young women dressed sort of like Charlotte Rampling in "The Night Porter," in sort of S-&-M leathers and studs and peaked caps and gloves and posing on chairs ala Dietrich and "The Blue Angel." And so I said to Pat, oh, who are these? Are these your relatives or...
NAGY: And she said, no, they're the young women I send books to. I said, oh, that must be nice for them, or some idiotic thing like that. And she looked at me and she said, I don't suppose you're one of these, are you? And I said, no, I don't suppose I am. And that was the end of that. I think - I think she knew that I was not somebody who was looking to be showered with gifts or to make a bargain that included - not sex. I think, by this time in her life, she was not sexual anymore, nor was she sexual with these other young women. But I think the bargain struck was respect me, respect me, and in turn I will provide you with my reading list of essential material. She knew that I already respected her, that there was no need to buy that in any way, shape or form. And plus, I would've - it was just all too ridiculous to contemplate me dressed up as...
HAYNES: But that was not an audition for some sort of provocation? I mean, that is an amazing story. I never heard this before.
NAGY: (Laughter). Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: I mean, it sounds like a very coded way of saying, like, I might be too old to actually engage in sex with you, but I wouldn't mind gazing at you, so are you the kind of woman who would dress this way for my gazing pleasure or not - without having to directly ask you about that.
NAGY: Yeah, absolutely. But I think we both knew that, you know, I would've looked like Darla from "The Little Rascals..."
NAGY: ...In high-heels and a fur coat.
GROSS: Phyllis, Patricia Highsmith's novel, "The Price Of Salt," which you adapted into the film "Carol," has some autobiographical aspects for her. In the story, Therese is a young woman working in a department store when Carol, the older, more affluent woman, walks in, buys a toy from her for her young daughter and leaves her gloves - Carol leaves her gloves on the counter. And Therese has Carol's address because she needed to write it down to have the train set that she was buying shipped to her home. Therese sends the gloves back to Carol. Carol calls Therese to thank her for sending the gloves and invites her out to lunch, and that's how they really get to know each other. A similar thing happened to Patricia Highsmith in a department store. Phyllis, what was the similar incident?
NAGY: Pat was working at Bloomingdale's, I think, as a temp over Christmas holiday and she...
HAYNES: In order to pay for her therapy.
HAYNES: A psychiatrist...
NAGY: (Laughter). Yes.
HAYNES: ...Because of a heterosexual relationship she was in.
NAGY: Yeah, she had dabbled.
NAGY: Yeah, and the dabbling was really not going very well, hence the therapist. Anyway, this blonde woman, as Pat once described her to me and made her sound like a Hitchcock blonde with a heart of ice and a dirtiness about her. And I thought, wow, you just saw that across the department store floor. They did not in fact meet for lunch or have any real human interaction following that meeting except that Pat did research her, as she did research many people. And I suppose you could even say that she stalked her a little bit without this woman knowing it, and that was that.
GROSS: So Patricia Highsmith was in therapy at about this time. Was this an attempt to convert herself to heterosexuality or to just understand why she had briefly gotten into a heterosexual relationship?
NAGY: Well, I don't think we can know that. But having known Pat I bit, I could - I think she was quite logical. Again, a bit like Therese, trying to fully understand why her nature warred within herself. The unwholesome truth about Pat is that 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 Sterling Cooper - "Mad Men."
NAGY: And really, I think that was the formative psychological trait, and she carried this with her throughout her life, 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.
GROSS: It sounds like some men of the period. (Laughter).
NAGY: Yeah, absolutely.
HAYNES: And so interestingly, too - I mean, her - so much of what she really is known for, better known for, are these male criminal subjects in "Ripley," Bruno in "Strangers On A Train," where homoeroticism is sort of the unspoken engine that the criminal act is the manifestation of. And so there's this real questionable, fascinating sort of pathology of around gay male homosexuality as the sort of underpinning of criminal activity, and it drives so many of these stories. It's almost - you know, almost in every one I've read, you feel that. And so this is the only book she wrote, "Price Of Salt," that's about homosexuality from a non - that it's not a pathological depiction, and it's between women.
GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.
HAYNES: Thank you, Terry, it was such a pleasure.
NAGY: Thank you, Terry, very much.
DAVIES: Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, recorded in January. The film “Carol” is now out on DVD and online.
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DAVIES: On Monday’s FRESH AIR, we hear about a brigade of volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War and the surprising story of an American oil executive who secretly aided Spain’s dictator, Francisco Franco, during the conflict. We talk with Adam Hochschild, author of “Spain In Our Hearts: Americans In The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.” I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical direction is and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I’m Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.