"Carol" arrives at the New York Film Festival on October 9 after successful bows at the Cannes Film Festival in May and the Telluride fest in September. Already boasting rave reviews – as of this writing, it has a 98 score on MetaCritic based on 10 reviews and 96% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes – it looks like it could be a serious Oscar contender. But if the film itself isn't enough to convince voters, its writer-director Todd Haynes has been waiting years to cash in his Oscar IOU after the academy snubbed another critical darling of his: "Far From Heaven" (2002).
"Heaven" earned four Oscar bids, including Best Actress for Julianne Moore and Best Original Screenplay for Haynes, but after winning Best Picture from the New York Film Critics Circle and earning a nom in that top category from the Critics' Choice Awards, the academy left it out of their Best Picture and Best Director contests, and it didn't win any of its nominations.
Moore starred in "Heaven" as a 1950s housewife who falls in love with a black man and discovers that her husband is gay. Like that film, "Carol" also focuses on characters transgressing against the rigid social mores of 1950s America. In this case, it features Cate Blanchett as the title socialite, who risks her family after falling in love with a female shop clerk (Rooney Mara).
It's been 10 years since the academy rejected another groundbreaking film about same-sex romance: "Brokeback Mountain." American culture has dramatically shifted since them – gay marriage is now legal in all 50 states – but has the academy also become more progressive since then?
The film also has to contend against the academy's usual bias against women. Though movies have won Best Picture with female leads, no movie since "Terms of Endearment" (1983) has won without a male co-lead; you could argue that Anthony Hopkins was supporting Jodie Foster in "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991) or that Richard Gere really played second fiddle to Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Chicago" (2002), but those men nevertheless competed as lead actors on the awards scene.
Last year's Oscars were especially poor for female representation: all eight Best Picture nominees revolved around men, and only one of them had a woman in a co-leading role (Felicity Jones in "The Theory of Everything"). So it's not just Haynes who has an Oscar IOU. The academy also needs to play catch-up when it comes awarding female-driven stories.
Stylistically, "Carol" is an understated, character-driven drama without showy directorial flourishes or a biographical or historical subject at its center like the academy often prefers (e.g. "The King's Speech," "Argo," "12 Years a Slave"). But small-scale stories can break through if they inspire enough emotional passion: consider Best Picture-nominees "Boyhood" (2014) and "Amour" (2012), which seemed like unlikely contenders on paper, or other female-driven indie films like "The Kids Are All Right," "Black Swan" and "Winter's Bone" (all 2010), which also contended in the top race. Judging from its early reviews, "Carol" has the kind of passion it needs to break through.
"Carol" also has the benefit of Blanchett and Mara. Both actresses have been academy favorites in the past – Blanchett is a six-time nominee and two-time champ, while Mara earned one past Best Actress bid for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" – and both of them seem likely to be nominated again. As of this writing, Blanchett is on top of our Best Actress predictions with 10/3 odds, while Mara, who won Best Actress at Cannes (the French fest doesn't separate lead and supporting performances), leads Best Supporting Actress with 2/1 odds.
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