Oscar-nominated actress Carey Mulligan has begun to publicly air grievances with Variety film critic Dennis Harvey over his review of her newest film, Promising Young Woman. Mulligan has accused Harvey, a gay man with 30 years of experience in writing film criticism, of sexist attitudes. Harvey, for his part, has accused Mulligan of inciting social media backlash in hopes of scoring an Oscar nomination.
The controversy began with Harvey, 60, publishing his review in Variety, one of Hollywood’s leading trade newspapers, in January 2020 (the film debuted at Sundance last year). On the whole, Harvey praised the film–a satire about a woman taking revenge on misogynistic men–as well as Mulligan’s performance. His one reservation came as a critique of a series of silly disguises worn by Mulligan’s character, which seemed a bit too far-fetched.
“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,” Harvey wrote. “Whereas with this star, Cassie wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blonde hair seems a put-on.”
Mulligan, upon reading the review, began to bash Harvey publicly for what she referred to as “sexism.”
“It made me concerned that in such a big publication, an actress’ appearance could be criticized and that could be accepted as completely reasonable criticism,” Mulligan said in a subsequent interview. “It stuck with me, because I think it’s these kind of everyday moments that add up – that mean that we start to edit the way that women appear on screen, and we want them to look a certain way.”
Mulligan’s remarks sparked immediate attacks on Harvey on social media. In response, the critic pushed back against Mulligan’s accusations in UK newspaper The Guardian.
“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,” Harvey told the paper. He added he felt “appalled to be tarred as misogynist, which is something very alien to my personal beliefs or politics. This whole thing could not be more horrifying to me than if someone had claimed I was a gung-ho Trump supporter.”
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“What I was attempting to write about was the emphasis in the film and [Mulligan’s] performance on disguise, role-playing and deliberate narrative misdirection. Nor was bringing up Margot Robbie meant to be any comparison in ‘personal appearance,'” he added. “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 [Robbie’s Suicide Squad character] might raise very specific expectations, but Mulligan is a chameleon and her very stylized performance keeps the viewer uncertain where the story is heading.”
Interestingly enough, producer Margot Robbie herself discussed the very issue of Mulligan’s casting last December. Her remarks would appear to echo Dennis Harvey’s sentiments–that Mulligan’s casting adds to the surprise of the movie.
“I was like, ‘I think I’m who people would expect to be cast in this,'” Robbie told The Hollywood Reporter. “But the most delightful thing about Promising Young Woman is that it takes you by surprise, and I just felt like I wouldn’t be that surprising — me doing these kinds of things with people’s perception of who I am and the characters that I’ve played. Carey Mulligan, however, is an actress that has this air of prestige around her. She’s in period dramas. Throw her in Promising Young Woman, and people’s minds get blown.”
Harvey also took issue with the timing of Mulligan’s grievances, noting she said nothing “until the film was finally being released, promoted and Oscar-campaigned.” He seems to imply that Mulligan is using the “controversy” to generate interest in the film and her performance. He also further stated that the backlash has jeopardized his job with Variety.
“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,” Harvey said.
At the time of this writing, Variety has added an “apology” to Mulligan on Harvey’s review of Promising Young Woman. Mulligan has yet to respond to the change.