The epic feud between Variety and actress Carey Mulligan, which has now passed its one-year anniversary, is one of those stories where just about everyone involved was, and is, wrong. This may sound like a bit of a copout, but that’s really what happened here.
The chronology, if you’re not familiar: Last January 26, during the Sundance Film Festival, pre-pandemic, and pre-everything,Variety ran a review of Promising Young Woman, which premiered at that festival, written by veteran critic Dennis Harvey.
In the eleventh paragraph of this mostly positive review, Harvey wrote that “Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale,” going on to wonder whether Margot Robbie, who was a producer of the film, might have been a better choice. “Whereas with this star, Cassie wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blonde hair seems a put-on. The flat American accent she delivers in her lowest voice register likewise seems a bit meta, though it’s not quite clear what the quote marks around this performance signify.” Harvey did go on to describe the Mulligan’s performance in the film as “skillful, entertaining and challenging.”
Harvey’s review went completely unremarked-upon for 11 months
What happened next? Absolutely nothing. At a time when “political correctness” and “cancel culture” are supposedly a problem of unprecedented gravity, Harvey’s review went completely unremarked-upon for 11 months. Probably because the movie wasn’t released until Christmastime, and very few people who weren’t at Sundance had seen it until then, and therefore had no reason to read a review of the film.
That is, until December, when Mulligan talked about it in an interview with The New York Times, around the time Promising Young Woman, which had been delayed by the pandemic, was finally released.
“I read the Variety review, because I’m a weak person,” Mulligan told the Times. “And I took issue with it. It felt like it was basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse.”
Around that time, Variety appended an editor’s note to Harvey’s review, stating that “Variety sincerely apologizes to Carey Mulligan and regrets the insensitive language and insinuation in our review of ‘Promising Young Woman’ that minimized her daring performance.”
About a month later, on January 28, Harvey spoke up in an interview with The Guardian, denying that he had suggested anything disparaging about Mulligan’s looks.
“I’m a 60-year-old gay man,” Harvey told the paper. “I don’t actually go around dwelling on the comparative hotnesses of young actresses, let alone writing about that.” He also revealed that the distributor of the film had asked to use pull-quotes from the review, and revealed that his status as a freelancer with Variety was in question.
It was very much wrong to throw their own writer under the bus to the degree that they did
“It’s left in question whether after 30 years of writing for Variety I will now be sacked because of review content no one found offensive until it became fodder for a viral trend piece,” he said. Variety has made no public statements about Harvey’s status with the publication, although Harvey’s most recent Variety byline was on January 9, and he did not file any reviews for Variety from this year’s Sundance.
And because major events in this story keep happening weeks and months apart, The National Society of Film Critics issued a statement February 9, to “register our alarm at Variety’s shabby treatment of our colleague Dennis Harvey.” The letter went on to reference Mulligan’s objection coming “in the thick of awards season.”
Wrong all around
So, why is everyone in this story wrong?
Harvey’s review of the film did include some ill-advised language, especially the line about “wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag.” No, it’s not nearly to the point where the response from different quarters has been proportionate, nor is it the sort of thing that should end anyone’s career. But still, that’s exactly the kind of thing where it may have behooved an editor to step in and say “you sure you want to say that?” And the editor, needless to say, was wrong to not do that.
That said, what Harvey wrote was far from the most ungallant thing ever said by a film critic about an actress’ appearance. In my hometown of Philadelphia back in 2018, some doofus decided to base his review of the Tomb Raider remake around his bizarre contention that Alicia Vikander wasn’t hot enough to play Lara Croft. The longtime critic John Simon, who died in 2019, was notorious for wildly vicious appraisals of actress’ looks in his reviews.
Mulligan, in turn, was wrong to put words in Harvey’s mouth, and of using the words “wasn’t hot enough” when Harvey’s actual words were nowhere close to that. And a famous performer intervening to affect the career status of a much-less famous freelance critic is the sort of thing that sets a not-so-great precedent.
As for Variety, it was very much wrong to throw their own writer under the bus to the degree that they did, and especially to apologize for the review, rather than handle it any other way. I would expect my own editors to have my back, at least more than Variety did this time, in any type of similar situation.
As for the critics’ letter, it’s good for them to come to the defense of a fellow critic, which the sort of thing that such groups are there for. But the “in the thick of awards season” line was a bit awkward. It’s part of this weird trend that vilifies actors for awards season campaigning, as if going all out to win an Oscar is something to be ashamed of.
What did we learn?
What lessons are there here, for critics, and for others who write in the crucible of awards season?
When you’re a critic, it can be a dicey thing to write about, anything that touches on the looks of a performer. Is this actor too beautiful for the role? Not beautiful enough? Do they not look the way the character should probably look, based on the source material? Are they the right age, or too old or too young?
This can be tough, but most critics who do this for long enough find a way to finesse it, and get their point across in a way that isn’t cruel or insulting. What’s important, especially if you’re a male critic, is to not be creepy about it, and especially not to make the hotness of the actresses your primary criteria. That, clearly, is not what Dennis Harvey did, but some critics certainly have.
It would be a shame if this were to go down as the main thing that’s remembered about the film
I also think that, while beggars can’t exactly be choosers these days, critics and other journalists should seek out editors who will have their back, but who also aren’t afraid to push them, to defend assertions in their work that they might want to rethink.
I happen to be very pro-Promising Young Woman — a movie that’s been quite polarizing among critics — and especially positive about Mulligan’s performance, enough that I voted for Best Actress in multiple critics polls. It didn’t occur to me, at any point while watching the film, that Mulligan didn’t have the right look for the role. The film was my favorite of the four December 2020 releases with the word “Woman” in the title.
It would be a shame if this long, protracted, slow controversy, in which everyone involved took months to respond to each other and talked past one another at every turn, were to go down as the main thing that’s remembered about the film itself.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.