Though I admire Todd Haynes’ carefully modulated brand of filmmaking, I can’t say that I’m a big fan of his current film, Carol. Frankly, although I thought the two central characters in this Lesbian love story were absolutely beautiful to look at, I found myself not all that interested in their passion. Perhaps that shows the limitations of my own sexuality. Listening to a Fresh Air interview with Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy (who has just been nominated for a Writers’ Guild award for her adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel), I realized that they are part of a world I have personally not entered.
Patricia Highsmith, as readers of her fiction are well aware, was best known for psychological thrillers marked by a homoerotic subtext. Her Strangers on a Train was adapted into one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best works, and her Ripley novels have been filmed many times, notably in 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Matt Damon in the title role. Curiously, Highsmith was a gay woman who vastly preferred the company of men. But she had an experience as a young shop clerk that led directly into the writing of the pseudonymous novel The Price of Salt, from which Carol is adapted.
It seems Highsmith was working at Bloomingdale’s, trying to earn money to finance her sessions with a therapist. Suddenly she looked up and noticed a customer, whom she later described as “a Hitchcock blonde with a heart of ice.” Absolutely nothing happened. But she replicated the scene, in a sense, when writing The Price of Salt, turning herself into the innocent young woman (played by Rooney Mara in the film) who encounters the love of her life when the elegant Carol comes up to her department store sales counter to buy a Christmas gift.
This fascinating anecdote comes from Phyllis Nagy, who met and befriended a much older Highsmith (by then a famous author) when she was a very young woman in a lowly position at the New York Times. The fact that Nagy is also gay might seem like the source of a natural bond between the two women. But the truth is slightly more complicated. Highsmith at that point in her life was known for aggressively chasing after younger women. One day, when she and Nagy were lunching, she pulled out an old-fashioned wallet and unfurled a series of plastic photo-sleeves. Each one contained a shot of a young woman in skimpy S&M style attire (Nagy compares these photos to Charlotte Rampling’s wardrobe in The Night Porter). Highsmith queried, “I don’t suppose? . . .” But it was plain to both of them that Nagy was definitely not the type. They were, and remained, simply friends.
As a gay woman, Nagy was determined to get at the truth of love between females in her Carol screenplay. She didn’t want to show anyone wallowing in guilt; she did want to show real conversation between women in love. As a gay man, Todd Haynes respected her script and brought to it his own feelings about passion. For whatever reason, the connection between Carol and Therese just didn’t strike me as terribly interesting. (I did not feel the same way about the two male lovers in Brokeback Mountain. Maybe an analyst could explain why.)
At any rate, I love the story about Highsmith turning a very brief encounter into a fantasy, then making it a novel. Curiously, the same thing happened to a young man named Charles Webb. He saw a sexy older woman playing cards in his parents’ living room. Then he wrote The Graduate.