Film criticism is facing renewed condemnation over a lack of diversity after a review deemed by many – including its subject – to be alarmingly sexist.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Carey Mulligan, who was judged by the veteran Variety reviewer Dennis Harvey to be insufficiently attractive to convince in her latest role.
“He was basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough,” Mulligan told the New York Times. “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?’”
Harvey’s review was published last January, when Mulligan’s new film, Promising Young Woman, premiered at the Sundance film festival. In the film, Mulligan plays a woman who pretends to be too drunk to consent to sex, then takes revenge on men who attempt to assault her.
After Mulligan’s comments, Variety added an apology for “insensitive language” to the top of the review, but Harvey’s comments, in which he likens Mulligan’s hair and makeup to “bad drag”, remain intact. The actor reiterated her discomfort earlier this week in a video conversation hosted by Variety.
Mulligan said that while she valued critical engagement with performances, “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”.
Blame for the error in judgment has fallen not only on Harvey himself, but on his employers. Variety is Hollywood’s key industry publication, its reviews regarded as a gold standard, which coolly assess a film’s commercial and critical prospects as well as its artistic merits.
“Where were his editors in the first place?” asked Stephanie Zacharek, the chief critic of Time magazine and chair of the New York Film Critics’ Circle.
For her, the apology – “wrested into being from an actor’s hurt feelings” – exposes Variety’s confusion and culpability.
“The initial review – positive or negative, badly written or not – needs to stand, or why have critics at all? Just have a press department.”
Melissa Silverstein, the founder and editor of Women and Hollywood, said Harvey’s words highlighted how little had changed, even post #MeToo.
“Thousands of film reviews written by men have focused needlessly on women’s looks. Harvey just articulated something that is so prevalent and normalised that when Mulligan pushed back an eruption happened.”
Anna Smith, a former chair of the London Critics’ Circle and host of feminist podcast Girls On Film, agreed there was “still a long way to go”.
“It’s on everyone in the industry – critics included – to push back on double standards around appearance and constantly question our own judgments as well as those presented to us,” she said.
“In a way, we’ve all been brainwashed by the male gaze, and trained to judge women by their looks – that’s the damage we have to undo.”
The fallout has reawakened debate over the role and range of critics in the social media age. After a 2018 study found that more than two-thirds of US critics were white men, many film festivals sought to further inclusion by funding underrepresented writers to cover their events.
Sundance’s 2020 edition marked the second year of its own scheme, launched by the festival’s director of outreach and inclusion, Karim Ahmad, to combat the “chilling effect on rich discourse and collective dialogue” that can result from a homogenous reviewer-base.
Given these efforts, Harvey’s review was disappointing and illuminating, said Ahmad.
“This kind of sexist commentary reinforces why so much progress is still needed to bring representation to film criticism. When the only perspective included in the narrative of record is that of the dominant culture, that sole perspective is what proliferates, and we all suffer.”
In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes – a widely-consulted website which aggregates reviews – added 600 independently verified critics as part of an ongoing inclusion drive. Of these, more than half were women, 60% freelance and 10% publish via video or audio review.
This came four years after a high-profile attack on the site by Meryl Streep, claiming that it had skewed audience appetite for Suffragette, in which she starred alongside Mulligan.
Streep said she had counted 168 female writers on the site and 760 men. “If the Tomatometer is tilted so completely to one set of tastes, it affects box office. The word isn’t ‘disheartening’, it’s ‘infuriating’. Because people accept this as received wisdom. It isn’t fair. We need inclusion. It has to be equal.”
Rotten Tomatoes’ embrace of freelancers is thought by many to be key. Few chief critics employed by national print newspapers in the UK and US are female or from a minority background.
Ahmad said: “As with many systemic problems, it’s undeniable that gatekeepers in traditional power structures hold a particular responsibility to deepen cultural abundance within their ranks.”
Yet Zacharek remains wary of the suggestion, popular on social media, that “male critics need to be replaced with women to offset the male impulse toward misogyny: I’m all for diversity in criticism, but get clear writers first.
“Sometimes I look at the critical landscape and think, OK, great, now we have a whole lot of boring writers who are never, ever misogynist. Was that the goal?
“And in the context of how we think about movies and actors, Harvey has the right to make the ‘bad drag’ comment – a woman critic would also have that right – but is that a component of the performing, or is it just thoughtless costuming?
“A critic has to think about where the blame should lie. If an actor looks bad in a movie, it’s nearly always the director’s fault. If he had made that distinction, maybe none of this would have happened.”
The apparent inertia in film criticism contrasts with efforts being made to redress inequality elsewhere in the industry.
Awards bodies have been particularly strenuous in their attempts to avoid another #OscarsSoWhite – a hashtag created in 2015 – with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) radically overhauling their membership in recent years.
For the first time this year, criteria for contention in key Bafta awards also depend on film-makers being able to demonstrate that they have boosted opportunities for minority-ethnic and socially disadvantaged film-makers.
Mulligan is likely to be nominated by both bodies for her role in Promising Young Woman. She has already won best actress at the National Board of Review and a raft of critics circle ceremonies, including those in Los Angeles and New York.