Before “Carol”: 6 Sapphic-themed films set in the 1950s


The world is going wild for Carol, but the film is not the first one to tell the story of lesbian-leaning women in the 1950s. From movies filled with subtext in the infamously homophobic era, to more recent recreations of the time, here are six movies set during the same time period as Patricia Highsmith‘s The Price of Salt.

Between Two Womenbetween

Steven Woodcock‘s 2000 film followed unhappily married mother Ellen Hardy (Barbara Marten) as she falls for her 10-year-old son’s teacher, Kathy Thompson (Andrina Carroll). Set in Northern England during the 1950s, Ellen struggles not only with her sexuality but the differences of class. Despite being a fairly modern film, Between Two Women relies heavily on subtext rather than lavish confessions or romantic situations, although there is a happy ending.


Before Orange is the New Black, there was Caged. The film noir (which was nominated for three Oscars) follows 19-year-old Marie (Eleanor Parker) who is put in prison for attempted robbery. Inside, she meets Kitty (Betty Garde), who shows her the ropes and makes comments like, “When you’re in here too long, you don’t think of guys at all.” Lines like this caused Bette Davis to say she didn’t want to be in a “dyke movie.” Take that as an endorsement.

Girl with HyacinthsGirl-with-Hyacinths

Movies like this are why Patricia Highsmith wrote a lesbian film with a happy ending. A young woman, Dagmar Brink, commits suicide by hanging. Her neighbor tries to investigate and meets people who have had experiences with her, including a woman she spent some time sharing a room with. This is 1950 Sweden, so her lesbianism is inferred more than announced.


French filmmaker Jacqueline Audry adapted the plot of this schoolgirl/headmistress romance from Dorothy Bussy‘s autobiographical novel, which was said to have been inspired by the 1931 film Mädchen in Uniform. This 1951 version of boarding school debauchery is explicitly lesbian, although it ends (of course) rather unhappily.


Reaching for the Moon

Poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) and architect 	 Lota de Macedo Soaresin (Gloria Pires) in "Reaching for the Moon," screening at the Cinema Q Film Fest offerings. Provided by Wolfe Releasing.

Poet Elizabeth Bishop and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares embark on a bittersweet romance in 1951, which is where Reaching for the Moon begins. The film follows the couple up through Lota’s death in 1967, but it is their initial meeting and courtship that speaks to the time period as they live in a remote Rio de Janeiro estate.

Desert Heartsdesert-hearts

Set at the very end of the decade—1959—Desert Hearts highlights the slow progress made (women in pants!) in a few years’ time. Donna Deitch‘s 1985 film tells the story of a new divorcee, Vivian, and Cay, the woman she meets at a ranch house in Reno. Romantic, sexy and with an ambiguous but hopeful ending, this movie remains one of the classics of the canon.