Struggle for Gender Equality, LGBT Rights Surfaces in Awards Season Fare

Carol Cate Blanchett Rooney Mara
Courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of statuettes are among the inalienable rights of those who toil in Hollywood. But it wouldn’t be entirely alien if certain other freedoms — to determine one’s destiny, or assert one’s identity — wind up center stage during the current awards season.

The subjects of rights and selves are certainly circulating in the zeitgeist. Transgender actress Laverne Cox (“Orange Is the New Black”) graced the cover of Time; Kardashian-by-association Caitlin Jenner adorned the July issue of Vanity Fair. Jeffrey Tambor earned multiple awards this year for his transsexual turn in “Transparent.” E! has “I am Cait,” TLC has “I am Jazz”; publisher Little, Brown and Co. has “I Am Malala.”

Given the inseparable nature of gender issues and civil rights, there’s been a flurry of films that deal with the feminist and LGBT experience: Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall,” for instance, which presents a perhaps bowdlerized version of the birth of the gay rights movement; “Freeheld,” about a New Jersey policewoman battling for same-sex partner benefits; and “Viva,” Ireland’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar, was shot in Havana and involves a drag performer’s reconciliation with his father.

Almost uniformly, the way filmmakers get at the issues involved — even if the issues aren’t necessary what their story is all about — is by looking backward. The historical prism does, on one hand, offer a patina of escape for the viewer. On the other, it often provides a reassuring hug — that these are sins of the past, not of today.

“I do think that sometimes a look to the past can be a pat on the back to the present,” says Todd Haynes, whose “Carol” — written by Phyllis Nagy, from the Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt” — stars Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as lesbian lovers in 1952 New York.

It’s also a reminder that we live in very different, if not more permissive, times. “Setting the story in a period allows us to do things in a more delicate way,” says Nagy. “Today, we want to blurt out a 24-hour expression of ourselves, but there was a different cultural protocol then, a different etiquette.”

Much more deliberately political is “Suffragette,” which, like “Carol,” has two awards-friendly performances at its center (Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter), as well as a cameo of sorts by Meryl Streep as the incendiary suffrage movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst. A dramatized account of the women’s fight for the vote in early 20th Century Britain, “Suffragette” is directed by Sarah Gavron (“Brick Lane”), who says the movie is intended to remind audiences of the sacrifices their great-grandmothers’ generation made. And how the fight for rights crossed boundaries, especially those of class.

“We researched the historical events of 1912-13, went through the archives, read the diaries and drew on the stories of a few working women; Maud is a composite,” Gavron says, referring to Mulligan’s character, Maud Watts, who seems to suffer every indignity imaginable in a place and time when women were viewed, legally, as property.

“The idea wasn’t to tell the story of well-known figures like Mrs. Pankhurst or her two daughters,” adds Gavron. “If we went that route, it would have been an examination of power rather than contending with problems relevant to today,” which include the continued denial of women’s right to vote in certain countries, economic disparity and sexual harassment.

Also among the topical issues touched upon by “Suffragette,” says its director, was the existence of a surveillance state: Archives that were opened only in 2003 showed what are probably the earliest U.K. spy photographs: clandestine pictures of members of the suffrage movement, and one of the original cases of government surveillance. (In the film, Brendan Gleeson plays a detective with covert photography being one of his principal investigative tools). Photographs — of a more salacious nature — play a part in “Carol,” which is based on the work of the same writer who gave us “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”

“The only agenda I had when writing ‘Carol’ was to be faithful to the tone of the book and to allow every character to inhabit a real world,” Nagy says.

Highsmith wrote much about the criminal mind, and both Nagy and Haynes say people in love think the same way.
“The characters may behave in ways you wish they wouldn’t, but they are human and it’s understandable, as long as you create three-dimensional humans,” Nagy says.

Regarding the historical aspects of “Carol,” she says, “It doesn’t matter that the film is set in 1952; the actual fight for recognition is still going on.”

Director Tom Hooper, whose “The Danish Girl” stars Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, one of the earliest recipients of gender reassignment surgery, says, “History recently tends to be written from the viewpoint of existing prejudices.”

In 2008 when he first read the Lucinda Coxon script (which was based on David Ebershoff’s novel), Hooper says he was woefully ignorant of the story. What he could find to read about it turned out to be, for the most part, inaccurate.

“It’s as if this story was erased from the record and I thought maybe the fact this kind of story was pushed out of history was a reflection of the closed-mindedness to trans people and trans history,” he says.
Part of Hooper’s attraction to “The Danish Girl’ lay partly in its love story, which he describes as “the portrait of a marriage going through profound transformation and how it’s negotiating with such kindness and unconditional love.” (Alicia Vikander plays Gerda Wegener, wife to Elbe’s birth self, Einar Wegener.)
But he also hopes the film can play at least a small role in opening people’s minds up, since transgender people are “actively negotiating pretty tough territory right now.” And the record has yet to be written about how they will be viewed by posterity.

“One of the things we do with these stories is correct the biases and prejudices in how history is made,” says Hooper.