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Why “Carol” Failed to Become the Lesbian ‘Brokeback’

Why “Carol” Failed to Become the Lesbian 'Brokeback'

Well, that’s that. Lesbians will not have their “Brokeback Mountain” this year after all.

That’s because “Carol,” perhaps the most critically acclaimed mainstream film of all time featuring gay women, was not nominated for a Best Picture or Best Director Oscar. The period piece was shut out of those top Academy Award categories, but did score well-deserved nods for actress (Cate Blanchett), supporting actress (Rooney Mara) and adapted screenplay (Phyllis Nagy), which should be celebrated.

But then why the lack of love for “Carol” as a whole by the Academy? What the hell happened?

“Carol” has been luxuriously reviewed by critics, starting back in May when it premiered at Cannes. And then even more rapturous adoration was piled on when it opened in very, very, very (more on that later) limited release in November. Women and Hollywood’s own Melissa Silverstein said, “Unless I am totally bonkers, this film will be included in the (Best Picture Oscar) mix next year.”

But here we are, totally bonkers, and wondering why.

The answers, more than likely, are multifold. Let it first and foremost never be forgotten that Academy voters are 94% white, 76% male and an average of 63 years old. That also goes a long way to explain the equally unacceptable lack of diversity in the nominations this year. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was rightfully resurrected to describe yet another acting nominee list with no people of color. 

Films with LGBT themes and/or performances were largely given short shrift by the Oscars this year, too. “Carol” earned six nominations (though none in the two biggest categories), “The Danish Girl” four (again, none for best picture/director) and big goose eggs for “Grandma,” “Tangerine” and “Freeheld.”

While the best picture nominees weren’t solely for films centered on male characters like last year — “Brooklyn,” “Room” and in a spectacularly subversive way “Mad Fax: Fury Road” thankfully broke that trend — they were still predominantly about men doing man things. “The Revenant” — Leonardo DiCaprio’s man-against-the-wilderness movie — led all with a dozen nominations. “Carol,” in contrast, could be its polar opposite. It’s a quiet, sophisticated, urban drama about two women in love who have dismissed the men in their lives.

So then it’s easy to see how “Carol” was just too gay and too female for the largely old white male voting base to consider. I mean, how could they possibly connect with a mid-century romance focused entirely on the unstoppable attraction between two women where neither has the decency to sleep with a man, suffer tragically or die at the end?

But herein also lies the rub. Maybe “Carol” was both too gay and not gay enough to break out with mainstream audiences. The film has done modestly well during its limited box office run, netting about $7.5 million so far. But it has failed to bring in the numbers of mainstream releases centered on gay men like “Brokeback Mountain” ($83 million), “Philadelphia” ($77 million) and “Milk” ($31.8 million). It is also still well behind the highest-grossing lesbian-themed film of all time, “The Kids Are All Right” ($20.8 million), which actually did earn a best picture Oscar nomination.

In a strange way, perhaps the LGBT rights movement’s successes are also partially to blame for the film’s failure to break out. A decade ago, when “Brokeback” was released in 2005, it was still a progressive badge of honor to go see a “gay movie.” People could pat themselves on the back for sitting through “that movie where the cowboys do it.” Flash forward to today, when marriage equality was confirmed as the law of the land months prior to the film’s release and the political urgency of a film like “Carol” to outsiders appears to have waned. With public opinion and political momentum firmly on our side, the feel-good cachet that came with simply supporting an LGBT-themed project has faded in some circles.

That’s also how you can have gay male critics dismiss a film like “Carol,” calling it repeatedly “chilly” or musing out loud, “Why would anyone leave Kyle Chandler?”

So that left the loudest voices — besides discerning film critics — advocating for the movie as its queer female fanbase. But the film’s excruciatingly slow release schedule seemed to stymie that support. “Carol” opened back on November 20 in only four theaters — all in New York or Los Angeles. Then it stayed in those four theaters for three full weeks before expanding to — wowee — a whole 16 theaters, where it stayed for another two weeks. It did not open to more than 100 theaters until its sixth week. By contrast, “Brokeback,” “Milk” and “The Kids Are All Right” were all in more than 100 theaters by their third weekend.

Distributors clearly meant to build word-of-mouth on “Carol.” Which might have worked, but by the time more people could finally see it, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” had arrived and sucked all available movie news into its box-office black hole. Those glowing reviews are all nearly two months old by now, a distant memory in the pop-culture lifecycle.

Last weekend has been the largest release so far for “Carol,” expanding to 525 theaters nationwide. By comparison, “The Revenant” also debuted in four theaters (to achieve its Oscar eligibility over Christmas), and then opened wide last weekend in 3,375 theaters.

It’s hard to fathom the wisdom in withholding a film from the very people who want and need to see it most. Queer women have been waiting for a movie like “Carol” for so long. A movie where no one goes crazy, dies horribly or imitates a falcon. A movie of our own that celebrates the universality of yearning. A movie about the sublime ache of wanting someone and having her want you back. Now, if only the Academy had afforded us the same happy ending.

Dorothy Snarker is Women and Hollywood’s queer columnist. She writes at and is a regular contributor at Also find her @dorothysnarker.

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