Carey Mulligan has said she was alarmed after a major publication ran a review of her new film questioning whether she was attractive enough for the role.
Variety magazine’s first review of Promising Young Woman, a black comedy in which Mulligan plays Cassie, a woman who fools men into believing she is too drunk to give consent for sex, read: “Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale – Margot Robbie is a producer here, and one can (perhaps too easily) imagine the role might once have been intended for her. Whereas with this star, Cassie wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blonde hair seems a put-on.”
Speaking this week as part of a Variety video series, Mulligan highlighted what she feels to be reductive and retrograde values informing cultural debate. She said: “I feel it’s important that criticism is constructive. I think it’s important that we are looking at the right things when it comes to work, and we’re looking at the art and we’re looking at the performance.
“And I don’t think that goes to the appearance of the actor or your personal preference for what an actor does or doesn’t look like – which it felt that that article did.
“I think in criticising or bemoaning a lack of attractiveness on my part in a character, it wasn’t a personal slight. It didn’t wound my ego, but it made me concerned that in such a big publication an actress’s appearance could be criticised and it could be accepted as completely reasonable criticism.”
The review, by Dennis Harvey, was published on 26 January 2020, when Promising Young Woman premiered at the Sundance film festival.
Mulligan first took issue with the article in an interview with the New York Times in December, after which Variety updated its review with an editor’s note, which reads: “Variety sincerely apologises to Carey Mulligan and regrets the insensitive language and insinuation in our review of Promising Young Woman that minimised her daring performance.” Harvey’s original point remains in the text.
The response from critics has largely sided with Mulligan, although Jeffrey Wells of the website Hollywood Elsewhere criticised Variety, saying: “They’ve completely washed their hands of Harvey in this instance and have more or less thrown him under the bus.”
The Guardian has asked Harvey for comment.
In the Guardian’s review from Sundance, Benjamin Lee praised Mulligan’s “sensationally good” acting, calling it: “The kind of performance that never relents, it just builds and builds until finally it explodes … it’s impossible to drag your eyes away from her, curious to know just what she’ll do next.”
Speaking to the New York Times last month, Mulligan said the Variety review “was basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse”.
She added: “It drove me so crazy. I was like, ‘Really? For this film, you’re going to write something that is so transparent? Now? In 2020?’ I just couldn’t believe it.”
Mulligan expanded on this when talking in Variety’s video series. “It’s important to call out those things, because they seem small and they seem insignificant,” she said. “People around me at the time said, ‘Oh, get over it. People love the film.’ But it stuck with me, because I think it’s these kind of everyday moments that add up.
“We start to edit the way that women appear on-screen, and we want them to look a certain way. We want to airbrush them, and we want to make them look perfect. Or we want to edit the way that they work, the way they move and the way that they think and behave. And I think we need to see real women portrayed on-screen in all of their complexity. I felt that it was one small thing to point out that could be helpful.”
Mulligan added that she had been gratified by the response. “I was really sort of surprised and thrilled and happy to have received an apology,” she said. “I kind of found it moving, in a way – to draw a line and know that had an impact.”
Promising Young Woman was written and directed by Emerald Fennell – whose portrayal of Camilla in The Crown has been much acclaimed – and widely tipped as one of the year’s key awards contenders, having won Mulligan best actress at the National Board of Review.
It opened in the US on Christmas Day but its UK release date is still uncertain, having originally been set for April 2020. In the UK, where cinemas can open in lower lockdown tiers, distributors have largely chosen to delay releases until a time when they can complement a digital release with a cinematic one, while in the US – where cinemas are broadly closed – a digital-only strategy has been more widely adopted.