The True Love Story Behind the Making of 'Carol'

How a cult book based on a moment of romantic fantasy became the source of misguided shame for its author — and one hothouse flower of a movie

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Late in 1948, the author Patricia Highsmith took a job at the toy counter of Bloomingdale's in Midtown Manhattan, in part to offset the cost of psychoanalysis. She didn't like the job ("I saw no delighted child while I was there," she wrote in a diary), but money was money and she needed the therapy, or at least thought she did. Her fiancé, an author named Marc Brandel, thought so too. A fictionalized version of Highsmith that appeared in his novel The Choice is described as a distant girl with big hands whose desires were like a wound in her soul. In other words, she liked women, and the therapy, she later wrote, was to "get myself into a condition to be married."

One day, a woman came into Bloomingdale's to order a doll to be sent back to New Jersey. She was beautiful and alone and wore a mink coat, and reminded Highsmith of an alcoholic debutante with whom she had recently ended a volcanic affair. That night, Highsmith, best known for writing thrillers like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, went home and sketched out what became her second novel, The Price of Salt, the story of a shopgirl named Therese Belivet who falls in tense, cautious love with a melancholy housewife named Carol Aird.

Highsmith published the book in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. It went on to sell something north of a million copies, and is considered the first love story between two women wherein neither ends up crazy or dead. Therese, stifled and bored, lives in a stark apartment with a phone in the hall; Carol, in the midst of a fractious divorce, lives in a castle in the woods. Together, the women leave their lives and drive across a snow-blanketed America at Christmastime. Neither seem to find their feelings particularly remarkable or worthy of investigation, and for the most part do what comes naturally, the way men might.

Carol
Patricia Highsmith Will/ullstein bild via Getty Images

In diaries, Highsmith agonized that it was the most personal thing she ever wrote. It is a tight but dreamlike book that rumbles with emotional weather — her only major work that doesn't contain actual murder, though the language is stained with violence. "The metaphors are killers," says Joan Schenkar, who wrote a biography of Highsmith called The Talented Miss Highsmith. "There's always a bit of blood at the corner of a smile, if you smoke a cigarette, it's going to take a bit of the skin off your lips. Somebody is always bleeding in that book."

It has now been adapted into a movie called Carol, starring Rooney Mara as Therese and Cate Blanchett as Carol, with direction from Todd Haynes. The script was written by Phyllis Nagy, a screenwriter and playwright who worked on Carol in start-stop fashion for about 15 years. Nagy had known Highsmith; the women were friends, but she hadn't read The Price of Salt until Highsmith died in 1995. "I knew that it was so personal that it was probably better left unread," she says. What she found surprised her. "It was absolutely unique in that everyone around them had a problem with how [Carol and Therese] felt about other women, but they did not," she says. "It was as natural as breath. That's the thing that excited me most during the adaptation: It was a chance to do something more subtle and interesting, where no one dies or contemplates suicide or even has an agonizing moment about what it means to be gay. And that still is radical I think, in the culture."

Highsmith's fantasy was as political as it was personal. At the time The Price of Salt was written, it was illegal to publish or distribute content about gay people, though censors seemed to relax as long as the gay people in question were being punished. In New York, where the State Liquor Authority considered serving drinks to homosexuals "disorderly," gay bars were run by mafia who extorted customers and bribed police to look away; in a memoir about her relationship with Highsmith, the author Marijane Meaker describes how hard it was for two girls to get a table at a decent restaurant on a Saturday night, especially if they weren't wearing skirts. A couple of years after Highsmith first saw the elegant woman in Bloomingdale's, Senator Joseph McCarthy, invigorated by his progress with the Red Scare, managed to get 91 suspected homosexuals to resign from the State Department; the year The Price of Salt was published, the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders listed homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disturbance.

In that sense, the greatest mystery threatening Carol and Therese is what might happen to them if they fall in love. It feels right that the movie so sharply evokes winter, a season of death and stasis but also of pervasive magic, of snowflakes and toddies and fires in the hearth and that recalcitrant way people seem to insulate against the blackness. Driving across the dead plains of Ohio, Carol and Therese start to look like the last people on earth, a fantasy that might make both their lives a little easier. ("I could get used to having the whole city to myself," Carol says as they start their trip.) When a private detective commissioned by Carol's husband starts following the women, his presence feels allegorical: The proxy for a society that will expose people like Carol and Therese no matter where they go.

Even in movies, it's still difficult for women to get time alone at the wheel. More than half of Carol's thirteen producers are women, a ratio that, according to a couple of recent studies on the subject, is usually closer to one in five. Fewer than one in three women in the movies surveyed had speaking roles, and of those women, less than one tenth of one percent were gay. Eleven of the top 700 grossing films in 2014 had a female screenwriter; none of the year's top 100 grossing films featured a leading female performer over the age of 45. Blanchett celebrated her 46th birthday in May. Though the lines are less starkly drawn and don't carry quite the same voltage, Carol is about as unlikely to have been made in 2015 as The Price of Salt might've been in 1952.

But movies aren't arguments or legislation so much as corollaries to them, barometers of the pressure surrounding certain topics or narratives. Despite recent progress both real and perceived on the question of gay rights, Nagy's canniest changes to Highsmith's novel are ones calibrated not to show us how much the culture has changed, but how little. During a custody battle that transpires between Carol, her husband and their respective lawyers, we find out that Carol has seen a therapist, who chalks her homosexual adventure up to a temporary lapse in sanity. If she's willing to agree with the therapist's assessment, she would be on better terms for custody, but she doesn't — a nod both to Highsmith's own attempt to "cure" herself in 1948 and the way that homosexuality continues to be pathologized in places like Christian conversion camps, where young people go to "pray away the gay."

Carol
Director Todd Haynes (left) and Cate Blanchett on the set of 'Carol.' Wilson Webb/Weinstein Company

"We have this favorite idea that progress is always forward moving," says director Todd Haynes, "but that's always challenged by surprises when you look back in history." For as many constraints as Carol and Therese face, he sees their moment as one of instability and slippage. "It's a culture that's been crushed after the war years. Maybe that only strengthened the mores and prescriptions of social behavior, because they gave people something to hold on to, but there's a sense that the city and culture [Carol and Therese] are in at the time is really shifting." One of the movie's most surprising moments is when we see Blanchett step out of the car in Chicago wearing slacks and flats. (The dramatic temperature is so low that suddenly seeing a character wearing pants constitutes a major shift.) "Right," Haynes says. "But she's fully girdled and skirted and heeled by the time they go out later that night."

There had been one previous attempt at turning The Price of Salt into a movie. It was weak and short-lived and ended, according to Schenkar, with a story about two lovers on a sentimental road trip across America in which Carol becomes Carl and the snowbound Midwest becomes Texas. It was considered, of all things, too conventional.

Haynes' version arrives after a long purgatory of personnel changes, financial concerns and what Nagy describes as "everything you've always wanted to know about how people write screenplays and some things you didn't." When the rights for the book lapsed, a producer named Elizabeth Karlsen flew to Switzerland to try and convince Highsmith's European publisher, Diogenes Verlag, to sell them to her. "The estate thought it had exploitation value," she says. They were adamant about not selling to an independent producer, but Karlsen, a self-described "terrier," managed to convince them anyway.

The Price of Salt

Haynes came to the script while biding his time on the Oregon coast after losing an actor on another project. "I was an unread admirer of Highsmith's," he explains, and knew her best through film adaptations like Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. (Adaptations that, as he admits, Highsmith was almost universally critical of.) Like Haynes' other movies, which include the kaleidoscopic Bob Dylan myth I'm Not There and the old-Hollywood homage Far from Heaven, Carol is studied but elliptical, a story that swirls with context but thrives on negative space.

"Tension is usually quiet," he says, and describes the process of filming Carol as a steady winnowing down, replacing dialogue with gesture, "reducing and eliminating words." "I was always thrilled when it would come from [Mara or Blanchett]," he says. "Like, when Rooney would ask, 'Does she need to say that?' and I'd say, 'No.'" Several scenes consist of Mara sitting in pert stillness while Blanchett floats through the room like a ghost in pearls, swirling an endless glass of rye. It is the rare movie to make good posture seem erotic.

And whereas the book can make the men involved seem cruel, the movie presents them as well intentioned but frustrated, ambassadors from an incompatible planet trying to scratch out a little common ground. Carol's husband Harge (played by a well-meaning but tortured Kyle Chandler) can't read Carol's wordless glances; Carol doesn't understand his injunctions (a word Blanchett delivers with true bafflement); and the two spend most of the movie failing to get out of each others' way. "I think it's okay that people like Harge don't 'get it'," Nagy says. "Given who he is and the time he lives in, his reactions are perfectly justified. I'm speaking as a writer here." If Carol seems modern, it's primarily because the drama doesn't come from gay people agonizing over their gayness but from straight people trying to accept it. Neither Carol nor The Price of Salt uses any variation on the words "lesbian" or "homosexual."

Phyllis Nagy
Phyllis Nagy, a screenwriter and playwright, worked on the script of 'Carol' for 15 years. Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for BFI

Highsmith remained ambivalent about the book for the rest of her life. In 1983, a lesbian publishing company called Naiad Press offered her $2,000 to republish it under the name Claire Morgan or $5,000 to publish it under her own. She took the $2,000. When approached on the subject by someone writing for the alumni magazine of Barnard College, Highsmith's alma mater, Highsmith wrote back, "the less said about Claire Morgan, the better, esp. in print." By most accounts she was a magnetic but insensitive person, a habitual drinker who never kept a relationship for long but once made a chart of her many lovers' relative merits. She spent the end of her life in Switzerland in a fortress-like stone house of which she was very proud, and didn't claim ownership for The Price of Salt until five years before she died. In the end, the book fulfilled a fantasy that went unmatched in her life.

During our conversation, Haynes tells me that he thought it was "unhelpful" to consider the legacy and associations of The Price of Salt in trying to get to the book's "emotional core." His producer, Elizabeth Karlsen, on the other hand, describes the project of trying to "stay true" to what Highsmith had written.

The question becomes: Does staying true necessarily mean staying the same? Carol follows the letter of Highsmith's book, but the spirit hovers somewhere outside, the sum of a broader conversation between Highsmith's life and her work, between the history of what it means to be gay in America now and what it meant in 1952. Reading The Price of Salt, I couldn't help but think of a young Patricia Highsmith sitting nervously on a bus to New Jersey shortly after she had finished her draft, holding the mysterious woman's address in her hand. (Of course she saved it.) The real story of Carol is that Highsmith eventually found the house and stared at it from a distance but couldn't bring herself to knock.

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