By Gerald Peary
Variety is wrong and cowardly to give in to Cary Mulligan’s misguided, damaging accusations.
If you are a male, be wary of asking any feminist friend, my wife included, if another woman is attractive. She will bristle at your question and say, “Of course, she’s beautiful.” Sisterhood is extremely powerful here: ALL females are comely. But declaring so is strictly the province of other women. In this era, if a man describes a woman as attractive for other reasons than her wit and mind, he’s often courting censure. But even more unacceptable: what if a man insinuates that a woman is NOT attractive? And in print?
Which brings us to film critic Dennis Harvey’s now notorious comments about actress Carey Mulligan in his Variety review of Promising Young Woman.
If you haven’t yet seen this movie, here’s the setup: Mulligan plays a character, Cassie, deeply troubled by the irredeemable sexual sufferings brought on a female friend. Think the Brett Kavanaugh case. While others have covered up the ignoble past event, Cassie takes self-conscious action. She goes out each night to bars, allows herself to be picked up by men wanting to score, and then seeks revenge on them for the horrors that befell her friend.
Harvey’s review was mostly favorable —he called Mulligan’s performance “skillful, entertaining, and challenging”—but these are the words that got him into deep trouble. While a “fine actress,” Mulligan “seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale…. Cassie wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blonde hair seems a put-on.”
Harvey’s review came out at Sundance in January 2020 at Promising Young Woman’s world premiere. At the time, nobody said anything publicly about it. But in December 2020, when the film finally was released, Mulligan railed against Harvey in an interview with The New York Times: “I couldn’t believe it…. He was basically saying I’m not hot enough to pull off this ruse. 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?’” (And she continues firing back in the January 28 The Guardian.)
At that point, all exploded. The Internet filled with protestation, citing Harvey’s review to show that there are just too many male critics to female critics. Karim Ahmad, Sundance’s Director of Outreach and Inclusion, complained, “This kind of sexist commentary reinforces why so much progress is still needed to bring representation to film criticism.” And Variety, while leaving the review as written on its website, partially capitulated, placing at the top of the review an apology for “insensitive language. “Where were his editors in the first place?” wondered Stephanie Zacharek, critic of Time Magazine.
But I wonder why Dennis Harvey, someone whom I’ve never met, got in trouble in the first place. To me: unfair, unfair. When I saw the movie, I had the same reaction that he did. Carey Mulligan has been wonderful playing genteel, classy, intelligent young women, the closest we have to an Audrey Hepburn. What if Hepburn, living today, had tried to act the boozy, trampy pickup of Promising Young Woman? It would’ve been as appropriate to interrogate the casting as Harvey observes about Mulligan: “She seems a bit of an odd choice…as this femme fatale.”
Again, Harvey lauded the performance of Mulligan who, playing against type, is “skillful, entertaining and challenging.” Translation: Mulligan succeeds in being as “hot” as required. What Harvey didn’t like was Mulligan’s “bad drag” costume and impossible hairdo. That’s not an attack on the actress but on the costume and makeup departments, and for the film’s director not intervening.
Variety is wrong and cowardly to give in to Cary Mulligan’s misguided, damaging accusations. Dennis Harvey did not use “insensitive language” at all, only accurate words. I’m pleased that Harvey, a 30-year Variety veteran, is unapologetic. He fought back in a spirited interview in The Guardian, saying “I was appalled to be tarred as a misogynist.” He explained, “I’m a 60-year-old gay man. I don’t actually go around dwelling on the comparative hotness of young actresses, let alone writing about that.”
Arts Fuse review of Promising Young Woman
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.