Often pigeonholed as placid, the 1950s strike a dramatic chord for Oscar voters this year with four films that refract the decade through the experiences of women in love, an Irish immigrant, a Hollywood Communist and a Russian spy. Nominated collectively for 16 Academy Awards, "Carol," "Brooklyn," "Trumbo" and "Bridge of Spies" offer a group portrait of white midcentury America that goes beyond postcard-pretty visuals to depict a postwar era brimming with an optimism tinged with strict conformity and below-the-surface anxieties.
Oscar nominees Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star in "Carol" as a well-to-do housewife and an aspiring photographer who inch toward an affair after meeting in a Manhattan department store at Christmastime, 1952. Director Todd Haynes, acclaimed for his 2002 '50s-set melodrama "Far From Heaven," says, " 'Carol' takes place during this pre-Eisenhower moment that offers very specific restrictions and sets of highly coded behavior. Women had fewer social freedoms than men, and their very bodies reflected the times."
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To immerse his stars in period-correct behavior, Haynes showed Blanchett and Mara the 1956 drama "Lovers and Lollipops," centered on a New York City single mother. "There's this kind of formality and diction and restraint in the way this character carried herself that was utterly different from how women are today," says Haynes. "It was like having a little key to a lost femininity that was very much a product of midcentury America."
During preproduction, Blanchett and Mara came to understand the physical strictures of the period by getting into character from the outside in. "They went through the process of finding the clothes, the silhouettes, the girdles, the shoes, the wigs," Haynes says. "You might think of all those things as being external or superficial, but they were actually very helpful because Cate and Rooney literally put their bodies into this time and place where they could feel what those constraints do to the body, the voice, the gait."
Heterosexual conventions obstruct the lovers in "Carol," but in best picture nominee "Brooklyn," mainstream America proves to be positively empowering for homesick Irish immigrant Eilis, played by Oscar-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan. Director John Crowley notes, "This story represents a very uncomplicated welcome for Eilis. We don't wave the flag or anything but the assumption in this film is that America is not a threatening place. America is rather good."
Leaving behind her provincial hometown in the grip of postwar austerity measures, Eilis quickly finds her footing in 1951 Brooklyn, where she falls in love with folksy Italian American plumber Tony. During a day trip from the borough, they visit a vacant lot. There, like millions of other young couples at the time, Tony and Eilis imagine a bright future for themselves in the suburbs that have yet to be built. Crowley says, "Standing there in the countryside in their '50s clothes, Tony tells Eilis, 'Do you want to live with me out here on Long Island? There will be electricity and telephone cables.' In that scene, as Eilis and Tony stand there like two star-struck kids with a dream in their eyes, you get the sense that this huge economic powerhouse engine is awakening and that there's going to be a new middle class in America."
"Brooklyn's" generosity of spirit bears little resemblance to the nightmare experienced by Dalton Trumbo on the opposite coast during the same period in "Trumbo." Portrayed by Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston, the screenplay writer goes to jail in 1950 for contempt of Congress after a confrontational appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Out of prison, he moves his family to a Los Angeles suburb filled with tidy single-family houses. Production designer Mark Ricker says, "It's easy to think you can tie the '50s up with a little bow but it's our job as filmmakers to untie that package and look at all these different layers and varieties of experience. The '50s weren't just about picket fences and happy white people."
In the case of "Trumbo," Ricker points out, "The neighbors dumped garbage and oil and dead animals in Trumbo's pool and painted 'Commie' on the wall. In the 1950s, if you belonged to a fringe group of people there were ways to move through the world, but banging a loud drum could get you in trouble."
For Russian spy Rudolf Abel, portrayed by Oscar-nominated Mark Rylance in best picture nominee "Bridge of Spies," the trouble begins in sun-dappled Brooklyn during the late '50s, when men wore hats and women stayed home. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski says, "We start in this idyllic world of 1957. Based on Life magazine photos and all this stuff that we're reminded of through movies and paintings, our perception of the United States during that period is romanticized so we tend to think of it in a lyrical way."
But even before the story flashes forward to East Berlin circa 1962, the mood turns chilly. Much like with Trumbo, after attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) decides to defend the Soviet agent, a neighbor terrorizes his family by hurling a brick through the window of their cozy house.
"We tend to idealize postwar America," Kaminski says dryly. "Nobody talks about the agonies."