Carol’s Happy Ending

The screenwriter—and friend of Patricia Highsmith’s—who spent almost 20 years struggling to bring The Price of Salt to theaters.

Phyllis Nagy.
Phyllis Nagy, pictured on Nov. 16, 2015, in New York City.

Photo by Juliana Jiménez

Todd Haynes’ new film Carol arrives in theaters this week an Oscar front-runner thanks to rapturous reviews. But the film, adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, had a long, hard fight to get to screens. For almost two decades, the film simmered in various circles of development hell. At times, even its most devoted champions didn’t believe it would be made. That it did is thanks to a group of women, filmmakers all, who struggled against sexism and bad luck to keep Carol alive.

The one constant presence throughout the film’s long development has been its screenwriter, Phyllis Nagy. As a playwright, Nagy made a name on the London stage with plays like Disappeared, The Strip, and Never Land. She also adapted Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley for the stage. Her affinity for Highsmith’s books comes in part because Nagy and Highsmith were friends throughout the final decade or so of the novelist’s life.

In 1987, Highsmith, nearing the end of her career, was hired by the New York Times to write an article about Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. Nagy worked for the Times as a fact-checker and was assigned to accompany the author on her research trip. Their cemetery tour was silent and grim, but afterward Highsmith invited Nagy back to her hotel for a drink, and a platonic friendship bloomed. After Highsmith returned to her home in Switzerland, the two exchanged weekly letters, and later phone calls and visits, in which they “discussed most everything.”

Nagy told me she particularly loved Highsmith’s sense of humor, which was “quite dark, and the slightest bit broad.” Highsmith was famous for her prickly, taciturn manner—she was “perpetually on guard with people she did not trust, like, or made some negative judgment about.” However, Nagy also found that she could be sensitive, vulnerable, and kind. The novelist encouraged Nagy’s burgeoning playwriting career, though “she never gave advice. She wasn’t a dramatist and felt unqualified to do so. She was humble in interesting ways.”

That humbleness played out in Highsmith’s unusual relationship with The Price of Salt, her second novel, published in 1952. The lesbian romance, spun off from experiences in Highsmith’s own life, was originally published under a pseudonym, “Claire Morgan,” and for 40 years, Highsmith refused to claim credit. Though it’s widely considered a landmark lesbian novel, Highsmith felt “diffident” about the book, Nagy said. At the time the book was first published, Nagy pointed out, she was an Edgar award–nominated mystery writer “who had one successful film of her work made already,” Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. “So a lesbian romance was a no-go.” It wasn’t until 1990, only five years before her death at age 74, that she agreed to republish it under her own name, retitling the book Carol.

Most lesbian stories published during the 1950s were pulp paperbacks that conformed to the moral code of the era by sentencing their characters to suicide or heterosexual conversion in the final chapter. Salt is often cited as the first lesbian novel with a happy ending. It tells the story of a New York City shopgirl, Therese Belivet (played in the film by Rooney Mara), who floats passively through life until she meets Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a beautiful housewife going through a divorce. Their initial attraction grows into an obsessive love that they consummate during a road trip across America. The affair is put in jeopardy when they discover a private detective hired by Carol’s husband is following them.

The story was inspired by a chance encounter a 27-year-old Highsmith, still a struggling writer, had while working at the toy counter at Bloomingdale’s near Christmas of 1948. The event is chronicled in detail in Andrew Wilson’s biography Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith. Though Highsmith was a lesbian, she’d become engaged to a man, novelist Marc Brandel, and took the job to afford psychotherapy that promised to “cure” her homosexuality. One day an elegant blond woman in a mink coat walked up to Highsmith’s counter, looking for a doll for her daughter. The woman gave Highsmith her name and address—Mrs. E.R. Senn of Ridgewood, New Jersey—and asked her to send the doll to her house, then left. The encounter lasted only a few minutes, but its effect was powerful. Highsmith later remembered she’d felt “near to fainting and yet uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.” That night, Highsmith sketched out a story that later developed into her second novel. “I see her the same instant she sees me,” she wrote in her journal, “and instantly, I love her.”

Highsmith soon broke off her engagement and started an affair with Kathryn Cohen. She based much of the book’s plot on her relationship with Cohen and another lover, Virginia Kent Catherwood. However, she remained fixated on Mrs. Senn and traveled twice to her address in New Jersey, hoping to catch another glimpse. Ultimately, The Price of Salt was a hit—the 1953 paperback edition sold more than 1 million copies. Lesbians from all over the country sent hundreds of fan letters to “Claire Morgan.” Mrs. Senn, who’d suffered from depression and alcoholism, committed suicide a year before the book was published.

In late 1996, Nagy, who was then the writer in residence at the Royal Court Theatre in London, got a call from film producer Dorothy Berwin, who’d bought the film rights to the novel. She was looking for a playwright to adapt it and had heard about Nagy’s friendship with Highsmith. The book resonated with Berwin—like Carol she’d married a man, had a child, then had an affair with a woman. Berwin had then only produced one film, and Nagy had never been paid to write a screenplay before, but she agreed to take the job.

Carol, as written by Highsmith, was “a ghost, the object of desire.” Nagy invented a more complex character, finding inspiration from Grace Kelly in Rear Window: outwardly cool, but smoldering underneath. In the role of Therese, she imagined a young Highsmith. “My relationship with Pat,” said Nagy, “influenced everything Therese said and did.” She referenced one of Therese’s defining lines in the film: “I started taking pictures of people because my friend says I have to be more interested in humans.” “That’s Pat,” she said, “that ability to step outside of life and comment on it before participating in it.”

Director after director expressed interest in the script, worked on the project for a while, and then dropped out: Hettie Macdonald (Beautiful Thing), Kenneth Branagh, John Maybury (The Edge of Love), Stephen Frears, and others. “The good thing about working with all these people was that I had to write drafts based on what aspects of the story interested them,” Nagy said. “It was a crash course in screenwriting. Even when the ideas were terrible, I had to figure out how to take those changes and somehow make it work.” Her final script, she said, contains “residue from all those drafts.”

Despite her flexibility, Nagy held fast to certain principles. It was important to her that the script remained authentic to the early 1950s. “There was a different protocol then, a different etiquette, a different way people related to each other physically,” she said. “It does you no service to spoon-feed a contemporary audience their own emotional codes and value systems.” Also, she rejected frequent suggestions that Carol or Therese should feel guilty about being gay and suffer some kind of breakdown scene about it. “Have you ever had a breakdown about being straight?” she would reply.

While looking for financing for the film, Nagy and Berwin found that the main characters’ sexuality wasn’t as much of a problem for investors as their gender. “That it was a lesbian love story was actually cool with them,” she said. “It was around the time of movies like Bound, you know, ‘hot lezzies in wet T-shirts.’ It was in vogue! Having two women leads was the issue.” She feels that Hollywood in the 1950s was a better place for female-driven movies than it is today. The “women’s pictures” of that era were “more interesting and sophisticated than a lot of films targeted at women are now. I’d rather watch a movie like The Best of Everything.”

By 2005, Nagy had written and directed the HBO film Mrs. Harris, which was nominated for 12 Emmys. Her producers Elizabeth Karlsen and Killer Films’ Christine Vachon knew of Carol but chose not to join the project. In 2010, Berwin’s rights to the book lapsed, and the script went into turnaround. Deeply disappointed, Nagy gave up on ever seeing Carol produced. She still loved the script but accepted that it would remain tucked away in her desk drawer for the rest of her life.

But in late 2011, Karlsen acquired the rights herself and convinced an initially reluctant Nagy to come back aboard. They found Irish director John Crowley (Brooklyn), who secured Cate Blanchett and Mia Wasikowska for the lead roles. Carol was finally set to start filming in early 2013 when Crowley left the project because of a scheduling conflict.

“That was a real low point,” remembered Karlsen. “Suddenly, the energy starts to dissipate. You go from having a project that has the phenomenal Cate Blanchett attached, to one that doesn’t have a director. And obviously, it takes a certain kind of director for Cate to want to do the film.”

Karlsen called her friend Christine Vachon to vent about losing Crowley. Vachon commiserated that it looked as though Todd Haynes’ next film, which she was producing, wasn’t going to happen because the star had dropped out.

“There was this fortuitous silence,” said Karlsen, “and then a light bulb went off.”

Haynes had never directed a film he hadn’t written. Still, Vachon sent him the script. Within 48 hours, he was on board, and Vachon joined the project as a producer. At first Nagy was wary of working with Haynes, nervous that he would want to rewrite her script entirely. However, Nagy says that after her many collaborations on the script over the years, “working for Todd was easy and quick. We both have an interest in restraint.” Haynes often draws inspiration from classic films—his most significant change to the script was the addition of a framing device that mirrored the one used in David Lean’s 1945 romance Brief Encounter.

There was yet one more setback. The new shooting schedule conflicted with Mia Wasikowska’s role in Crimson Peak, and she had to bow out of Carol. Haynes approached Rooney Mara, who had turned down the role before, and this time she accepted. The film was shot in Cincinnati during March of 2014.

Even with a star cast and director, when Karlsen began looking for distributors, she ran into the same block Carol had encountered since the project began: the idea that women-centered films didn’t make money. “They look at [the box office of] other similar films,” said Karlsen, “and that’s always a problem” because there are so few women-led films to use as comparison. Fortunately, Cate Blanchett had just picked up an Oscar for Blue Jasmine, which had performed well. It gave Karlsen a woman-led model to satisfy the “number crunchers.”

“I really hope the film is successful,” said Nagy. “It’s already successful critically, but it needs to be financially successful to encourage more female-driven movies to be made. But when Brokeback Mountain made a lot of money, did it have an effect on the kinds of gay movies that were being made? I don’t know, but I don’t think so.” Nagy wondered whether Brokeback’s success was tied to the fact that the film played into “a particular trope,” the gay romance with a tragic ending. “Could Carol have that kind of success?”

In 1952, The Price of Salt was a hit because it eschewed the tragic ending so many gay stories were saddled with. Now, more than 60 years later, Nagy hopes the film that she and Haynes have crafted from her friend’s most personal book will have as enlightened a reception. Would Highsmith have liked it? “I don’t know,” said Nagy. “As a rule, Pat didn’t like films of her books. There was always some problem.” However, she’s sure that Highsmith would have loved Cate Blanchett. “She was her type,” she said. “That would have gone a long way.”