Lesbian Love Blossoms in New Screen Dramas


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Julianne Moore, left, and Ellen Page as a couple in “Freeheld.”

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Phil Caruso/Toronto International Film Festival, via Associated Press

TORONTO — Loud and proud, “Freeheld” wears its politics on its working-class sleeve. Subtle and sophisticated, “Carol” wraps its message in meticulous period costumes and clouds of cigarette smoke.

Two radically different films.

Yet both dramas, centering on older-younger lesbian romances, converge on points that are remarkably similar: Be true to yourself, and demand your place at the table.

The films — “Carol” pairs Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara; “Freeheld” stars Julianne Moore and Ellen Page — also try to take a cinematic step forward by depicting female same-sex relationships as fulfilling, romantic and, above all, natural.

“We haven’t had our ‘Brokeback Mountain’ moment yet, and these films could really give that to us,” said Trish Bendix, editor in chief of AfterEllen.com, a lesbian-focused pop culture site. “These are unabashed love stories at their center, and we really haven’t seen that before, at least not in mainstream movies.”

In other words, “Freeheld” and “Carol” are much less outré than “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” the French same-sex romance that received an NC-17 rating in 2013, and they exhibit none of the dysfunction on display in “The Kids Are All Right,” Lisa Cholodenko’s 2010 lesbian dramedy. “Freeheld” will have its premiere on Sunday here at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Cate Blanchett, whose character loves a department store clerk, in “Carol.”

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Wilson Webb/Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Both movies are vying for Oscar attention just a few months after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. The Weinstein Company, which will release “Carol” on Nov. 20, believes it has a serious best picture contender. “Freeheld” may have an easier time in the acting races, but its producers are conceding nothing in an awards season that will have no shortage of L.G.B.T. hopefuls.

Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall,” which will debut in Toronto on Friday, dramatizes the beginnings of the gay rights movement. Eddie Redmayne plays the title role in “The Danish Girl,” about an artist who undergoes sex reassignment surgery, while Elle Fanning stars in “About Ray” as a transgender teenager. (“About Ray,” with Susan Sarandon playing a lesbian grandmother, will also debut here on Saturday.)

Meanwhile, supporters of Lily Tomlin, who plays an acerbic lesbian in “Grandma,” are already pushing her as an Oscar candidate. A short film, “She Knows,” about a love affair between two black women, has also generated chatter among tastemakers.

The confluence of lesbian-themed films does not appear to be entirely happenstance.

“There’s an element of ‘wait a second, these stories aren’t getting told,’ ” said Christine Vachon, a “Carol” producer. “The cultural pendulum also swings around, and, for whatever reason, certain movies seem more makable than they were.”

Mr. Emmerich and Roadside Attractions, which will release “Stonewall” in theaters on Sept. 25, have already stumbled over politics; they released a poorly received trailer that put a fictionalized man — young, good-looking and white — at the center of the 1969 riot at the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, a multiracial event that had transgender activists at its core. In a Facebook post, Mr. Emmerich promised that the full film would be more inclusive; Roadside subsequently released a clip of a black transgender character.

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Eddie Redmayne stars as the transgender title character in “The Danish Girl.”

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Universal Pictures

So far, “Freeheld” and “Carol” have arrived with steadier footing.

Directed by Todd Haynes, “Carol” followed its rapturous response at the Cannes Film Festival in the spring with a solid showing at the recent Telluride Film Festival. Both Ms. Mara and Ms. Blanchett have been tipped for Oscar nominations, as has the film’s meticulous 1950s costuming by Sandy Powell.

Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from “The Price of Salt,” a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith, “Carol” is about a wealthy woman (Ms. Blanchett) who falls head over heels for a young clerk (Ms. Rooney) at a Manhattan department store. But when Ms. Blanchett’s Carol tries to divorce her husband, he attempts to use her sexuality — in a carefully cloaked way — to force her to stay in the marriage.

“Morality clause, for God’s sake!” Carol shouts, as she fights for custody of her daughter, Rindy. “There’s nothing moral about keeping Rindy from me.”

Ms. Vachon, noting that “Carol” had been in the works in different forms for more than a decade, said that Ms. Nagy’s version stood out as “something freeing and radical” in part because the two women at its center do not treat their attraction to each other as shameful or even particularly remarkable.

While “Carol,” reflecting its intolerant era, mostly takes place in shadows — or at least behind closed doors — “Freeheld,” set in 2005 and based on a true story, finds its characters arguing their politics on television and at community meetings.

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Ms. Blanchett, right, with Rooney Mara, in “Carol.”

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Wilson Webb/The Weinstein Company

Stacie Andree, a young auto mechanic played by Ms. Page, romantically pursues Laurel Hester (Ms. Moore), a tough New Jersey detective. After Laurel learns she has cancer, the women, prodded by a flamboyant gay activist (Steve Carell), fight for rights afforded them under a state domestic partnership law but denied by bigoted small-town politicians.

Speaking during an appearance in Toronto on Friday, Ms. Moore said the film represented political and legal triumphs of the last year. “I feel like the film is a celebration of how far we’ve come,” she said.

“Freeheld” got its start as a documentary short, which won an Academy Award in 2008. The story caught the attention of Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, then a producing team with a bent for issues-oriented films like “Erin Brockovich.”

They persuaded James Stern to finance the development of a script by Ron Nyswaner, whose screenplay for “Philadelphia,” a gay-themed plea for social justice, was nominated for an Oscar in 1994. Ms. Page, whose publicist and manager, Kelly Bush Novak, is also a producer, had already committed to playing Stacie.

“I had tears in my eyes,” Mr. Stern said of his reaction to the documentary.

He said he was hooked by the movie’s potential as a tool in what was then a building fight for gay marriage rights. “I am from a political environment,” he said. “This stuff is very important to me.”

Lionsgate, Mr. Stern acknowledged, is more inclined to position “Freeheld” as an audience-friendly tear-jerker. Lesbian dramas like “The Kids Are All Right” have not been particularly strong box office performers in the past. (Some lesbians had problems with “The Kids Are All Right,” Ms. Bendix noted, because one character — coincidentally played by Ms. Moore — has an affair with a man.)

But Mr. Stern said he is at one with any effort by Ms. Page and others to use the movie in a fight for hearts and minds.

“When you can do something to increase consciousness, and increase the conversation, and make people aware, you’ve hit the mother lode,” he said. “I’m all for that.”

Correction: September 11, 2015

An earlier version of this article misstated the day “Freeheld” is to have its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is scheduled for Sunday, not Saturday.



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