WHO’S AFRAID OF A HOMOSEXUAL WOMAN?
Carol’s exclusion from this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominations is a reminder of a continuing Academy discomfort with LGBT-themed films
By Anna MM Vetticad
The Academy Awards are upon us, and not surprisingly, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign has risen to a crescendo. The blistering condemnation this year of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters’ apparent racial bias though, threatens to overshadow criticism of another of their persistent prejudices evident in the nominations: homophobia.
Director Todd Haynes’ Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as women who fall in love with each other in 1950s New York, has received nods in six categories: Best Actress (Blanchett), Supporting Actress (Mara), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score and Costume Design. It has not, however, been nominated for Best Director or the all-important Best Picture Oscar.
Now, it could well be argued that perhaps Academy voters genuinely did not consider Carol worthy. After all, our response to films is subjective and I may love a film (I did love Carol) that you may not like at all, without either of us being right or wrong. That being said, it is equally valid to ask these voters how it is possible that a film they deem well written, well acted, good looking and pleasing to the ear, is not good enough? They did not even need to drop any of the pictures in the present lot to acknowledge Carol. Academy rules permit 10 nominees for the Best Picture race, yet they chose to go with only eight picks this year.
Admittedly, it is possible for a film to have all its elements in place and yet not quite add up. In any cinematic venture, the director is the adder-uper (yes, grammar Nazis, I know that is not a word), the person who provides the glue that binds it all together, and it is no doubt possible that Academy voters genuinely believe Haynes’ cinematic mathematics was not right.
The greater likelihood though, if we are honest about it, is that an Academy which is 94 per cent white, 76 per cent male and an average of 63 years old (source: indiewire.com) was simply uncomfortable with Carol. I mean, c’mon! What did you expect in response to two lesbian women who are not dead or broken at the end of the film, who shrug off the men in their lives, yet are not callous, and who – spoiler alert – prioritise happiness, peace of mind and being true to who they are above even that perceived Holy Grail of womanhood: maternity?
Over the years, many films on LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) themes and/or with primary or important supporting LGBT characters have earned Oscar nominations. The tendency though has been to award actors who performed these roles (Tom Hanks for Philadelphia in 1994, Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote in 2006, Sean Penn for Milk in 2009, Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club in 2014) rather than the production in its entirety. Beautiful as these films are, it is important to point out that most possess features which might make them more acceptable and reassuring to an ultra-conservative viewer: an all-pervading sense of sadness and/or (supposed) degeneracy and in some cases, death for the LGBT character.
The Academy’s extreme aversion to homosexuality was never more evident than in 2006 when the eloquently heart-rending Brokeback Mountain was nominated for Best Picture but lost to the less deserving Crash. High-profile Academy member and veteran actor Tony Curtis said with undisguised disdain at the time: “This picture is not as important as we make it. It’s nothing unique. The only thing unique about it is they put it on the screen. And they make ’em (male gay lovers) cowboys… Howard Hughes and John Wayne wouldn’t like it.” Ernest Borgnine was too disgusted to even watch Brokeback. “I didn’t see it and I don’t care to see it,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I know they say it’s a good picture, but I don’t care to see it. If John Wayne were alive, he’d be rolling over in his grave!”
Five years on, the lines had edged forward marginally when The Kids Are All Right received four nominations including for Best Picture at the 83rd Academy Awards in 2011. The film’s protagonists were not gay men, they were lesbian women. Theirs was not a closeted relationship; they were married – to each other. It was not a depressing story; it was a comedy drama. The Annette Bening-Julianne Moore- starrer did not win in any category, but even its nominations were a baby step ahead.
You might expect the hesitation over LGBT themes to have diminished half a decade later, that too in the year after the legalisation of same-sex marriages across all American states by the US Supreme Court. It has not. Carol, as several American commentators have pointed out, is perhaps just too female, too positive and too life affirming for the notoriously conformist Academy to go all the way with it.
The film’s central characters, Carol Aird and Therese Belivet, could be disturbing to traditionalists who continue to see LGBT persons as “the other”. They are not filled with self-doubt, they are not ashamed about their sexual orientation despite encountering social opprobrium and confusion, and their parting shot to the viewer is optimistic.
Now if only they’d had the courtesy to be miserable, they might have had a shot at a Best Picture nomination. To be female and homosexual and sure of yourself, that too half a century back – now that’s going a bit too far, no?
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures Of An Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
(This column was published in The Hindu Businessline on February 27, 2016)
Previous instalment of Film Fatale: The Right To Offend
Anna MM Vetticad’s Oscar Predictions for 2016
Photo caption: Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in a poster of Carol
Poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carol_(film)