For 'Carol,' did Cincy shine on the big screen?

Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 17, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-21 15:55:21-05

Editor's note: The film will open to the public with an advanced screening on Christmas Eve at the Esquire Theatre, at 320 Ludlow Ave. in Clifton. Regular screenings begin Christmas Day. 

CINCINNATI -- Accolades for “Carol,” the movie shot in Cincinnati starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, have been pouring in since it first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

The film, based on the novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, details a love affair between an unhappily married wealthy woman (Blanchett) and a retail clerk (Mara). With awards season bearing down, new honors pile up weekly for the performances, direction, screenplay and general awesomeness. Both stars have been nominated for Independent Spirit and Screen Actors Guild awards, among other prizes.

There are no awards, however, for the places where movies are filmed. If there were, though, the Queen City would be on the list.

In “Carol,” Cincinnati portrays 1952 New York City, its boroughs and suburbs, as well as locations as far away as Chicago and Waterloo, Iowa.

How did we do?

All in all, very well. New Yorkers will not be fooled, but the celluloid canvas is painted with such care and artistry that telltale details do not break its delicate mood. For instance, director Todd Haynes often allows the background to fade into a blur as he focuses on the emotions playing out on the faces of the actors.

Still, this is a movie where place matters, and Haynes and production designer Judy Becker used Cincinnati to great effect. The city's appeal as a filming location is closely tied to its wealth of vintage architecture, from Italianate structures in Over-the-Rhine that once were crowded tenements, to grand mansions built by wealthy families in the 19th century, humble diners and roadside motels.

Mary Hanna hired architects Elzner & Anderson to design her Bedford limestone home on Grandin Road in 1905. Alex Avery photo courtesy of the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati

Most dramatic among the “Carol” locations is the Hanna mansion on Grandin Road in Hyde Park. Many scenes used its limestone entrance and elegant interior rooms, which are decorated in elegant 1950s style. Its lush comfort contrasts sharply with the pain of Carol's collapsing marriage.

Outside and Inside

Many of the exterior locations look familiar. Locals will recognize the exterior of the Cincinnati Bell building, 209 W. Seventh St., with its elegant Art Deco details. It appears several times, as does the exterior of the former Shillito's Department Store at 151 W. Seventh St.

So do a number of Over-the-Rhine storefronts and apartment buildings. Eden Park serves as the backdrop for a Christmas-tree stand and Central Park.

An external view of Shillito's building near the intersection of Race and Shillito Place downtown.

There are several outdoor shots of streets in Over-the-Rhine and downtown, softened by rain or snow and old-style lighting, which was dimmer than modern streetlights. (While streetlights and other details were dressed to mimic 1950s looks, a few modern parking meters did sneak into the movie.) Downtown regulars also will recognize the unadorned backside view of buildings and parking lots that represent low-rent parts of 1950s New York.

When the characters travel to Chicago, they check into the “Drake Hotel,” which Cincinnatians will immediately recognize as the Hilton Netherland Plaza, 35 W. Fifth St., which looks gorgeous on film. Likewise, Cheviot landmark Maury's Tiny Cove, 3908 Harrison Ave., looks exactly like itself.

The Spare Time Grill, 7807 Alexandria Pike in Northern Kentucky, with its striking retro appearance, also is one of the few spots allowed to look just like it always does, both inside and out.

Interior spaces are harder to recognize, since they were dressed up to look like somewhere else. Visitors to the Cincinnati Club, at 30 Garfield Place, and Queen City Club, 331 E. Fourth St., may well recognize some of the elegant interior spaces on film. 

Another former department store, Oskamp Nolting at 26 W. Seventh St., was transformed into the fictional Frankenberg's, where the lead characters meet. A vacant building on the western edge of Downtown provided a believable set for an old, glass-walled office at The New York Times. The inside of a former police station off Fourth Street was dressed up to look like an employee cafeteria.

In the end, of course, the quality of a movie derives mostly from the story, the performances and the skill of the filmmakers. The setting helps, and in “Carol” it helps a great deal. The movie serves a testament to the creative powers of resourceful artists as well as the value of preserving special parts of our man-made environment.