A group of film critics defends a critic for his remarks about Carey Mulligan

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Carey Mulligan in Promising young woman (2019 Targeted Features)

Better late than never, so kudos to the National Society of Film Critics. Almost two months after a film critic wrote for Variety got bombarded by a hypersensitive actress, the critics group has just released a strong defense of the critic, Dennis Harvey. Harvey did nothing wrong but his career was in jeopardy nonetheless. It turns out that Harvey’s review was edited by another reviewer, Peter Debruge, who is a member of the National Society of Film Critics. Harvey isn’t, but if film critics don’t stand for the principle of asserting the right to criticize, they don’t stand for much. Doing so these days, however, requires courage enough to sustain attacks from social media mobs, and for all their comparisons of themselves to D-Day troops and firefighters, journalists these days are suffering from a cruel lack of courage. Sonny Bunch noted the other day that only he and I and maybe a few other writers mustered up the courage to speak on behalf of an unjustly maligned fellow critic. (I don’t know Harvey, by the way.)

To briefly recap this story, which I’ve covered here: Harvey wrote a review for Variety last january of the movie Promising young woman. No one blamed him until late December, when his star, Carey Mulligan, was interviewed for a New York Times profile, misinterpreted the criticism and said she was hurt by it. Using a fairly typical bully who wants to portray themselves as a victim technique, the actress, who has been written about thousands of times, claimed to have been hurt by something no one had said in the first place. She claimed Harvey criticized her for being ‘not hot enough’ for the role she played in the film and linked this to long-standing complaints that women are unfairly judged on their looks . In doing so, Mulligan lit up a dumb hell of hot takes on social media.

Variety then took a step with little or no precedent and attached a creeping apology to Harvey’s criticism. Harvey, a 60-year-old gay man, was shocked to be widely denounced as a ‘misogynist’ and puzzled to see his job on the line for writing that Mulligan, ‘a beautiful actress, seems a bit of an odd choice’ for the role of the film and that Margot Robbie (one of the film’s producers) might have been a better fit “whereas with this star, Cassie wears her scoop-bait gear like a bad drag; even her long blonde hair looks like it’s been highlighted.

Today, the National Society of Film Critics is properly defend Harvey:

Mulligan, like any artist, is within his rights to respond to criticism of his work, just as we are within our right to assert that nothing in Harvey’s review – which focuses on the actor’s stylized presentation, not its attractiveness – only supports its claim. But differences of opinion in the evaluation of a film or a performance are not at issue here. What concerns us is Varietylater decision to place an editor’s note at the top of the review: “Variety sincerely apologizes to Carey Mulligan and regrets the insensitive language and innuendo in our review of Promising young woman this downplayed his bold performance.

Yes Variety felt that the language of Harvey’s review was insensitive and insinuating, he had the opportunity to work with him to resolve this issue in the editing process before it aired. There are also ways Variety could have recognized and responded to Mulligan’s criticism, rather than simply capitulating to it and undermining his own criticism in the process. The imposition of a subjective value judgment (“his audacious performance”) as a flat editorial perspective, as if it were indisputable fact rather than opinion, is particularly inappropriate. We think the editor’s note should be removed.

Like all journalism, film criticism often displeases those we are talking about. And, like all journalists, film critics must have the backing of their publications when that discontent, usually coming from people far more powerful than any one journalist, comes to light – especially when that publication claims to report on the industry that these powerful people inhabit. It is appalling that, in this case, Variety chose to side with this power rather than support its author.

Just so. I commend the National Society of Film Critics and challenge all other film critic groups in the United States to issue a similar statement of support for Harvey.

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