Film criticism faces new condemnation for lack of diversity after criticism deemed by many – including its subject – to be alarming sexist.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Carey Mulligan, who felt she was judged by veteran Variety critic Dennis Harvey as insufficiently attractive to convince in her last role.
“He was basically saying I wasn’t warm enough,” Mulligan told The New York Times. “It made me so crazy. I was like, ‘Really? For this film, are you going to write something so transparent? Now? In 2020? ‘ “
Harvey’s review was released last January, when Mulligan’s new film, Promising Young Woman, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. In the film, Mulligan plays a woman who claims to be too drunk to consent to sex, and then takes revenge on the men who attempt to assault her.
After Mulligan’s comments, Variety added an apology for “callous language” at the top of the review, but Harvey’s comments, in which he likens Mulligan’s hair and makeup to “bad streak,” remain intact. The actor reiterated his discomfort earlier this week in a video chat hosted by Variety.
Mulligan said that while she valued critical engagement with performances, “I don’t think it comes from the actor’s appearance or your personal preference for what an actor does or doesn’t look like.”
The blame for the error in judgment fell not only on Harvey himself, but on his employers. Variety is the leading publication of the Hollywood industry, its reviews are considered a gold standard, which coldly assesses a film’s commercial and critical prospects as well as its artistic merits.
“Where were his publishers in the first place? ”Asked Stéphanie Zacharek, chief critic of Time magazine and president of the New York Film Critics’ Circle.
For her, the apology – “torn from the hurt feelings of an actor” – exposes Variety’s confusion and guilt.
“The initial criticism – positive or negative, poorly written or not – must stand, or why have criticism? Just have a press service.
Melissa Silverstein, founder and editor-in-chief of Women and Hollywood, said Harvey’s comments showed how little has changed, even after #MeToo.
“Thousands of male movie reviews have focused unnecessarily on female looks. Harvey has just articulated something that is so prevalent and standardized that when Mulligan pushed back a rash occurred.
Anna Smith, former chair of the London Critics’ Circle and host of the feminist Girls On Film podcast, agreed there was “still a long way to go.”
“It’s up to everyone in the industry – including critics – to push back against double standards in appearance and to constantly question our own judgments as well as those presented to us,” she said. declared.
“In a way, we have all been brainwashed by the male gaze and trained to judge women by their appearance – this is the damage we need to make good.”
The fallout has reignited debate over the role and range of criticism in the age of social media. After a 2018 study found that more than two-thirds of American critics were white males, many film festivals sought to increase their inclusion by funding underrepresented writers to cover their events.
The 2020 edition of Sundance marked the second year of its own program, launched by the festival’s director of outreach and inclusion, Karim Ahmad, to combat “the chilling effect on rich speech and collective dialogue Which can result from a homogeneous base of criticism.
Given these efforts, Harvey’s review has been disappointing and enlightening, Ahmad said.
“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 recording’s narrative is that of the dominant culture, that one perspective is what proliferates, and we all suffer. “
In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes – a widely accessed website that aggregates reviews – added 600 independently verified reviews as part of an ongoing inclusion campaign. 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 it had distorted the public’s appetite for Suffragette, in which she starred alongside Mulligan.
Streep said she counted 168 female writers on the site and 760 male writers. “If the tomatometer is tilted so completely towards a set of tastes, it affects the box office. The word is not “disheartening”, it is “infuriating”. Because people accept it as received wisdom. It is not fair. We need to be included. It must be equal.
Rotten Tomatoes’ embrace of freelance writers is seen by many to be key. Few of the chief critics employed by national print newspapers in the UK and US are female or minority.
Ahmad said: “As with many systemic issues, it is undeniable that the custodians of traditional power structures have a special responsibility for deepening cultural abundance within their ranks.
Yet Zacharek is wary of the suggestion, popular on social media, that “male critics should be replaced by women to offset the male impulse toward misogyny: I’m for diversity in criticism, but get writers clear. first.
“Sometimes I look at the critical landscape and I think, OK, great, now we have a lot of boring writers who are never, ever misogynistic. 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 female reviewer would have that right as well – but is that a component of the performance, or is it? it just thoughtless in costumed?
“A reviewer needs to think about the fault to blame. If an actor looks bad in a movie, it’s almost always the director’s fault. If he had made that distinction, perhaps none of this would have happened.
The apparent inertia of film criticism contrasts with efforts to correct inequalities elsewhere in the industry.
The award bodies have been particularly fierce in their attempts to avoid yet 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 overhauled their members in recent years.
For the first time this year, the eligibility criteria for the main Bafta Awards also depend on the ability of filmmakers to demonstrate that they have boosted opportunities for ethnic minority and socially disadvantaged filmmakers.
Mulligan is likely to be nominated by both instances for her role in Promising Young Woman. She has already won Best Actress at the National Board of Review and numerous Critics’ Circle ceremonies, including those in Los Angeles and New York.