‘Promising Young Woman’ kerfuffle goes on: Critics condemn apology to Carey Mulligan

In "Promising Young Woman," Carey Mulligan stands in a roadway holding a crowbar.
Carey Mulligan stars in director Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman.”
(Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features)

After media coverage of a conversation between actresses Zendaya and Carey Mulligan, in which Mulligan delved into her qualms about a Variety review for “Promising Young Woman” and her appreciation for an apology that was later issued, the National Society of Film Critics published a statement Tuesday condemning the publication’s actions.

“We wish to register our alarm at Variety’s shabby treatment of our colleague,” the group said. It is also calling for the apology on freelance critic Dennis Harvey’s review to be taken down.

“If Variety felt the language in Harvey’s review was insensitive and insinuating, it had the option of working with him to fix that in the editing process before it ran,” the statement continued. Variety could have acknowledged and responded to Mulligan’s criticism, it said, “rather than simply capitulating to it and undermining its own critic.”


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Mulligan first spoke out against the review in an interview published by the New York Times in December. In his piece, Harvey described Mulligan, who plays the lead, as “a fine actress” before going on to say that she’s “a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale.”

After the NYT article was published, Variety updated its website with an editor’s note apologizing to Mulligan. The note said the publication “regrets the insensitive language and insinuation ... that minimized her daring performance.”

Controversy over the review reemerged in late January after Zendaya asked Mulligan about it during a conversation for Variety’s “Actors on Actors” series.

“I know, recently, you called out a movie review and their criticism and saying that it was sexist and they ended up apologizing for it,” Zendaya said. “And I just wanted to ask you to kind of speak to that and what that really meant for you.”

Mulligan obliged. Reports of the conversation then circulated online, and Harvey responded.

In an interview with the Guardian, the veteran film critic said he was “appalled to be tarred as misogynist, which is something very alien to my personal beliefs or politics.”

“I did not say or even mean to imply Mulligan is ‘not hot enough’ for the role,” he added. “I’m a 60-year-old gay man. I don’t actually go around dwelling on the comparative hotnesses of young actresses, let alone writing about that.”


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Harvey also addressed the part of his review that reads: “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.”

He told the Guardian, “Robbie is a producer on the film, and I mentioned her just to underline how casting contributes to the film’s subversive content — a star associated with a character like Harley Quinn might raise very specific expectations, but Mulligan is a chameleon and her very stylized performance keeps the viewer uncertain where the story is heading.”

He also acknowledged that he may not have made that sentiment clear in his review.

The film critics society said in its defense of Harvey that “Mulligan, like any artist, is within her rights to respond to criticism of her work, just as we are within our rights to assert that nothing in Harvey’s review — which focuses on the actor’s stylized presentation, not her attractiveness — supports her claim.”

But differences of opinion in the evaluation of a film “are not at issue here,” the group added. “What concerns us is Variety’s subsequent decision to place an editor’s note at the top of the review.”

Calling for the the editor’s note to be removed from the website, the group said: “Like any journalism, film criticism often displeases those being written about. And, like any journalists, film critics must have the support of their publications when that displeasure, usually coming from people far more powerful than any journalist, is made known — especially when that publication claims to report on the industry those powerful people inhabit. It is appalling that, in this instance, Variety chose to side with that power rather than supporting its writer.”

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