Saturday, September 17, 2016

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Carol" (2015)

Scene from Carol
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Carol (2015)
Directed By: Todd Haynes
Written By: Phyllis Nagy (Screenplay), Patricia Highsmith (Novel)
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running Time: 110 minutes
Summary: An aspiring photographer develops an intimate relationship with an older woman in 1950s New York.

The Movie

While not the most financially successful film of 2016, director Todd Haynes' Carol quickly became a critical darling that has continued to resonate in the months since its release. The story itself is simple: photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) falls in love with high society woman Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). With conflicting male significant others who disapprove of their behavior, the story is itself one of the most powerful love stories period of the decade so far. It could be that Haynes' cinematography and costume design are so elegantly displayed. However, it is also largely because the love story has something that not all LGBT love stories have: a happy ending. Carol beat the odds by having something more universal in its heart, and the results more than speak for themselves.

The film itself is a masterclass in film making. Mara's acting is very reserved, forcing the audience to pay attention to the tics in her face as she notices Carol for the first time. Her smile grows as the story progresses from the first date to a full on embrace. Expanding on Patricia Highsmith's depiction in the original novel "The Price of Salt," Blanchett gives Carol a more rounded character with her own conflicted emotions involving family and the struggles of what true love actually means. It helps that Haynes' direction is rich with symbolism and recurring motifs that draw the viewer in as the romance becomes more elevated; eventually making a story of forbidden love from a time where lesbianism was frowned upon into something more passionate. The film may end with the familiar silence, but like Mara before, Blanchett's face says it all.

It's a film that has quickly been considered one of the greatest LGBT movies not only of the year, but of the decade and possibly ever. The fact that it's still under a year since general audiences had a chance to see it, it does seem premature to lump so much praise onto the film. Even then, it's a feat that is almost unprecedented, save for Brokeback Mountain over 10 years ago. Even as gay culture becomes more accepted and the quest to understand their struggles remains somewhat ambiguous, it is exciting to know that there's cinema that can transcend the taboo. Even then, the film had to compete in 2015 against other controversially depicted LGBT subjects such as the first transgender woman in The Danish Girl. It's an uphill struggle, but one in large part with awards season itself, which refuses to award gay culture for being anything but the victims. 

Who knows where Carol will wind up in the canon of film culture in 20 years. Maybe it will be just as revered. Maybe the criticisms will begin to pile on about two straight women playing homosexuals. Whatever the case may be, the film has hit an initial impact that seems unprecedented. The only question now is whether or not its lack of attention during awards season will prove to be justified, or met with an overwhelming bafflement; of which has already fueled most of its post-Oscar nominations existence. Even then, Carol is one of the decade's most revered films, and that is something that will be impossible to take away from it.

The Campaign

Despite the film being released in late 2015, the story of Carol actually goes back to 2013 when Mara's role was to be done by Mia Wasikowska. Having worked with Haynes before, Weinstein approved the film and production was underway. Haynes had heard about the film from costume designer Sandy Powell, though it was in 2012 set to be made by John Crowley (Phyllis Nagy's screenplay was also discovered in 2004: a few years after it was written). The road from there included unveiling first actual footage of Mara an Blanchett in the film for the London Evening Standard in May of 2014. From there, Haynes claimed to have "deliverables" by the end of the year, though the film needed seven months of editing and CGI work to perfect the look. It would be done in time for the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, where it became a critical sensation. The film won the Queer Palm, and Mara tied for the Best Actress award.

Following a North American premiere at Telluride, it was time for Weinstein to get going with the campaign. Of course, 2015 presented a cautionary tale for the famed producer. By September, his first major Oscar push (Southpaw) had bombed at the box office. By the end of the month, his second major Oscar push (Burnt) would have a schedule shift that may or may not have contributed to its box office follies, even with back-to-back-to-back Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper in the lead. Considering how much praise it had received in the various film festivals leading up to it, Weinstein gave Carol a familiar late November release with the intent to do like he did with Silver Linings Playbook before (and later The Hateful Eight): have a slow roll-out that was reliant on word of mouth.

Then the campaigns began to get confusing. Despite Mara being the central character in Carol (and winner of Cannes' Best Actress award), it was Blanchett who was scheduled for the lead acting nomination. While this may in part be due to being the titular character, Weinstein also did it to avoid category competition with another Blanchett film: Truth. While overlooked by most, it did upset those like The Film Experience who yelled "category fraud." Up next was Carol's November 20 limited release date (itself moved back from an earlier date), where it would be going up against one of the year's most anticipated movies, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2. While these films targeted different audiences, it's easy to see it as a metaphor for Carol's unfortunate collapse under the battleground that would be December's nonstop Oscar contender releases, most of whom had a better marketing presence than the financially struggling Weinstein Company.

The film did well in small markets, but found the expansion to be difficult. From a marketing standpoint, the trailers were controversial for featuring brief moments involving an intimate sex scene. Weinstein edited around the problem. However, later editions - most notably with airline versions - the aforementioned sex scene would be removed entirely due to its LGBT-themed content. Russia would ban the film entirely due in part to its laws against gay culture. By the time that the Golden Globes came around, the film had garnered a handful of nominations, including Best Drama, but walked away empty handed. This caused the speech around its potential Oscar chances to become questionable with many blaming Weinstein's marketing and slow roll-out, which backfired by failing to spread awareness to the extent that the producer had done before with films like Silver Linings Playbook and The King's Speech.

The final component is one that many considered sunk Selma's chances the year before: screeners. The studio sent out screeners of Carol with a trustworthy regularity. With the film receiving high praise for its gorgeous cinematography and direction, the quality of the screeners can be considered a massive disservice. It became a joke because what ended up making it onto the discs was fairly shoddy work. Most of the images were blurry, and the subtle facial cues would be missed even for someone watching closely. While it's no excuse for not sending voters to go see it on the big screen, the impact that screeners have made in the past does suggest that by cutting corners with a botched production likely hurt its chances by a significant margin.

The Payoff

To some extent, the campaign was a success. The film received six Oscar nominations, including the predicted Blanchett in Best Actress and Mara in Best Supporting Actress. The film however missed the Best Picture field, changing its legacy to being the most nominated film in Oscar history without a Best Picture nomination. Even then, it got buried in another form of backlash that was imminent. While many were still reveling over the "Oscars So White" dilemma that contested the lack of non-white filmmakers being nominated, there was a small portion that stood up for Carol, and more specifically LGBT cinema in general.

Nate Scott of USA called it "The standout snub." Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair would suggest that its lack of "gushing melodrama" was also to blame, citing The Revenant's bear attack or Matt Damon in The Martian as being more exciting to watch. However, the conversation always came back to the simpler truth: gay culture is just as underrepresented as ethnic and women stories. Those that were represented tended to fall in a more conventional line-up. This includes Brooklyn, which saw Saoirse Ronan fall in love with a man; or Room, which saw Brie Larson overcome spousal abuse. Women were being represented more clearly than they had the year before, but Carol's focus of independent women who didn't need men can be seen as an anomaly compared to these. 

Most of all, Carol was a different kind of gay picture. It didn't have a victim. It didn't have a sad ending (commonly referenced as "the celluloid closet"). The Danish Girl won Alicia Vikander a Best Supporting Actress award over Mara. While that film was about transgender themes, Vikander's character was herself cisgender and spent the film learning the joys of life from the tragic and Uncle Tom-like figure (played by Eddie Redmayne, nominated for Best Actor). There were victims in that story, and that's why it likely appealed to the more traditional old white male voting staff that The Academy often gets accused of being. Still, The Academy received deserved flack for not recognizing more diverse cinema; a concept that President Cheryl Boone Isaacs is said to be working on.

Carol is one of the most acclaimed films in recent years, yet its Oscar count is not nearly as impressive. While many can just play that up to popular films winning over smaller titles, there's largely a conversation about changing the narrative of gay cinema by way of Oscars that needs to be had along with the lack of blacks and female stories currently available. In a perfect world, all stories would be represented equally. Instead, there's a sense of exclusion and the only way to get in is to bleed a little. Carol's Failed Oscar Campaign may in part be due to Weinstein's somewhat misshapen roll-out, but it's also indicative of other big issues. There's great cinema annually from any corner of the market. This is one of those prime examples.

1 comment:

  1. "The film however missed the Best Picture field, changing its legacy to being the most nominated film in Oscar history without a Best Picture nomination."

    For the 88th ceremony, yes, but for all time, that record belongs to They Shoot Horses, Don't They? with (9) nominations.