‘Not hot enough’: Why has Variety apologised to Carey Mulligan?

Donald Clarke: A genuinely offensive remark is one thing. But don’t hang critics out to dry

An American might describe the dispute around Variety's review of Promising Young Woman as a supreme "inside baseball" moment. It matters a great deal to critics, publicists, editors and publishers. The rest reasonably wonder what all the fuss is about.

That busy publication, the most respected of the trade papers, has added an apology to Dennis Harvey's notice from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. "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," the note reads.

It is almost unheard of to append an apology to a review. Corrections of factual errors are (alas) common enough. If a genuinely offensive remark passes the gatekeepers, then a follow-up article may be commissioned. But this feels like a shift in convention.

The addition followed Mulligan’s allegation that Harvey had implied she wasn’t good-looking enough for the role in Promising Young Woman. Emerald Fennell’s firecracker of a movie – certain to generate Oscar nominations in a few months’ time – casts the English actor as a modern-day Medea (without the filicide) exacting terrible revenge on the men who abused her friend years earlier.


The mounting retribution involves the donning of costumes, the priming of cons and some eye-watering evisceration. "I read the Variety review, because I'm a weak person," Mulligan told the New York Times. "It felt like it was basically saying that I wasn't hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse."

It is worth quoting the offending paragraph in full. "Mulligan, a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale," Harvey wrote. "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."

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.

Speaking to the Guardian, Harvey offered some clarification. "I did not say or even mean to imply Mulligan is 'not hot enough' for the role," he said. "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." He further explained that his issue was with a "very stylised performance" that keeps "the viewer uncertain where the story is heading".

I don’t agree with Harvey’s argument. Mulligan threads angular vulnerability through a raging performance that deserves the Academy Award nomination it is nearly certain to receive. Whether one agrees is barely pertinent. This remains the critic’s opinion, and, with certain qualifications, he is entitled to express those views without the heavens opening and a divine editorial voice clarifying that Mulligan’s performance was “daring”.

About those qualifications. Some sort of editorial process intervenes between the words being written and them appearing online. It is not uncommon for editors – eager, as much as anything else, to protect writers from themselves – to suggest judicious redrafting of a potentially offensive sentence.

In this case Harvey should, perhaps, have been persuaded to polish the ambiguity out of the controversial paragraph. Once the review has been published the writer can reasonably expect the periodical, barring factual errors, to stand by the text as presented. It’s one thing to commission a piece offering a counterargument or even one that contends the review should not have been published. It is another for an anonymous editorial voice to disavow sections of the copy. That is not how the relationship used to work.

I hate it when writers are left hanging out to dry like this.

"The original text was ill judged," Hugh Linehan, Arts and Culture Editor of The Irish Times, says. "But I hate it when writers are left hanging out to dry like this. I would think it would be better if Variety's equivalent of me put their name to a statement explaining why they regretted their mistake in publishing it."

Enduring snipes from the critical sidelines is an unpleasant business, and we can hardly expect Mulligan to reject the paper’s contrition. “I was really, really surprised and thrilled, and happy to have received an apology,” she said later. “I kind of found it moving, in a way, to have drawn a line under that in a good way, and know that that had an impact in a way.”

Fair enough. If the controversy does nothing else, it reminds us that male voices still dominate too much of the discourse on popular entertainment. There would be fewer such squabbles if the film press were a little more diverse.

Critics will, nonetheless, view the proceedings at Variety Towers with some unease. One or two will pause before expressing forthright opinions. Dennis Harvey is clearly taken aback by the kerfuffle. "I assumed that film-makers who created such a complex, layered movie wouldn't interpret what I wrote as some kind of simple-minded sexism," he said. "And while Carey Mulligan is certainly entitled to interpret the review however she likes, her projection of it suggesting she's 'not hot enough' is, to me, just bizarre."

We may have forgotten all about it by the time Oscar nominations land. That is often how inside-baseball conversations progress.