Unpromising Old Reviewer

‘Variety’ apologizes for ‘Promising Young Woman’ review, but the Internet demands blood

A year-old Promising Young Woman film review by veteran Variety freelance film critic Dennis Harvey that the publication apologized for in Dec. 2020 is making the rounds again after star Carey Mulligan mentioned the review in a discussion with Zendaya this week.

Harvey’s review was mostly glowing, calling Promising Young Woman an “unclassifiable, somewhat uneven but always compelling mix of thriller, black comedy and a whole lot of whatnot.” And most of the review is a fine, spoiler-free Sundance review, written on a tight deadline.

His final paragraph, though, insinuated that producer Margot Robbie may have been better suited as Cassie, the role played by Mulligan. Now people on Twitter are calling for his resignation and/or firing.

Promising Young Woman

The debacle surrounding the review and its backlash echoes one of the themes of Promising Young Woman: Women’s stories often become stories about men by default.

Here’s Harvey’s full final paragraph:

“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. The flat American accent she delivers in her lowest voice register likewise seems a bit meta, though it’s not quite clear what the quote marks around this performance signify. Still, like everything here, this turn is skillful, entertaining and challenging, even when the eccentric method obscures the precise message. ‘Promising Young Woman’ is often at its most inspired when contradicting itself — one of the grimmest scenes here is accompanied by something utterly incongruous from ‘The King and I,’ and the frisson between image and song is so flummoxing it’s rather brilliant.”

You could remove Harvey’s whole final paragraph except for the final sentence which praises Mulligan’s performance, keep the bit about “The King and I,” and the review would have made its point and stuck the landing. But this review is for the Sundance premiere of the film, which means this was probably one of many reviews Harvey filed in quick succession, and one of many his Variety editor approved for publishing. Nonetheless, the paragraph stayed, and it stays unaltered to this day, even after Mulligan mentioned the review in an interview with the New York Times nearly a year after the film’s Sundance premiere.

NYT profile

In December 2020, almost a year after the film’s debut, Kyle Buchanan profiled Mulligan in the Times, where she brought up Harvey’s review, saying she felt it was saying she “wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse”:

“Mulligan can still recite some of the lines from that review. But she said, ‘It wasn’t some sort of ego-wounding thing — like, I fully can see that Margot Robbie is a goddess.’ What bothered Mulligan most was that people might read a high-profile critique of any actress’s physical appearance and blithely accept it: ‘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.’”

Buchanan also talked to Promising Young Woman director and writer Emerald Fennell for the profile, who said she cast Mulligan on purpose:

“By casting Mulligan, Fennell sought to steer clear of a more stereotypical presentation of female revenge, which would portray Cassie as ‘a woman walking down the street in slow-mo with a fire burning behind her,’ as Fennell put it.”

Variety put up the following apology note after the Times published the profile:

“EDITOR’S NOTE: Variety sincerely apologizes to Carey Mulligan and regrets the insensitive language and insinuation in our review of “Promising Young Woman” that minimized her daring performance.”

At that point, the review had been up for almost a year.

Now, it’s back in the news after Mulligan responded to the apology in an interview with Zendaya at one of Variety’s Actors on actors interviews.

Mulligan’s response

Zendaya asked Mulligan about the review. Mulligan’s response was long and thought-out, and ultimately accepting of Variety’s apology:

“I feel it’s important that criticism is constructive,” she said. “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 the way that a film is made. And I don’t think that goes to the appearance of an actor or your personal preference for what an actor does or doesn’t look like, which it felt that that article did…So I was really, really surprised and thrilled, and happy to have received an apology.”

So far, there’s no record of any statement from Robbie about the review. No Variety editors have come forward and talked about their editorial process or why they saw no objections to Harvey’s review, either.

Nothing satisfies Twitter

Twitter retribution against Harvey has been swift in the past few days, with many users calling him a misogynist. One tweet said it wouldn’t take much to imagine Harvey as a rapist.

Many accusatory tweets came from people who seemed to either not have read the original review or seen the movie, with at least one taking Mulligan’s response to mean that Harvey thought “Margot Robbie is hotter and thus a more believable rape victim than Carrie [sic] Mulligan.”

Harvey speaks

Harvey spoke about his reaction to everything on Jan. 28, 2021 in The Guardian. He said he was “appalled to be tarred as misogynist, which is something very alien to my personal beliefs or politics” and said since he was a “60-year-old gay man,” he doesn’t “go around dwelling on the comparative hotnesses of young actresses, let alone writing about that.”

Harvey clarified his intentions with the review, saying he wanted to write about Promising Young Woman’s emphasis on “disguise, role-playing and deliberate narrative misdirection. Nor was bringing up Margot Robbie meant to be any comparison in ‘personal appearance.’”

At this point, the drama surrounding one review has drowned out any actual discourse about Promising Young Woman, which is a difficult, tough, layered and contradictory film sure to spark more conversation. A lot of ink has been spilled about the film’s controversial ending, the way the film uses its “nice-guy” actors to its advantage, the film’s misanthropy, the film’s “exhausting” usage of female suffering as entertainment and its place in the rape-revenge genre.

Harvey doesn’t deserve the comments accusing him of being a rapist or the tweets calling for him to lose his job. But he’s not making it easier on himself either. Variety hasn’t published him for three weeks. He told The Guardian he didn’t know if he would be able to continue working for 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,” he said.

This year’s virtual Sundance festival started last night. There are many articles to be filed. So we’ll soon see.

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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