American Critics Attack “Variety”

A Statement From The National Society Of Film Critics Regarding Variety’s Apology For Its Promising Young Woman Review

Feb. 9, 2021 — We, the members of the National Society of Film Critics, wish to register our alarm at Variety’s shabby treatment of our colleague Dennis Harvey.

On Jan. 26, 2020, Variety published Harvey’s review of the movie Promising Young Woman from the Sundance Film Festival. (Full disclosure: The review was edited by Peter Debruge, Variety’s chief film critic and a member of the NSFC.) While praising the film, Harvey wrote that Carey Mulligan, “a fine actress, seems a bit of an odd choice” as the movie’s “many-layered apparent femme fatale” protagonist, noting distancing aspects of the character’s costuming, hairstyling and vocal delivery. He went on to praise Mulligan’s performance as “skillful, entertaining and challenging, even when the eccentric method obscures the precise message.”

On Dec. 24, 2020, almost a year later and in the thick of awards season, Mulligan noted her objections to Harvey’s review in a New York Times profile: “It felt like it was basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse.”

Mulligan, like any artist, is within her rights to respond to criticism of her work, just as we are within our rights to assert that nothing in Harvey’s review — which focuses on the actor’s stylized presentation, not her attractiveness — supports her claim. But differences of opinion in the evaluation of a film or a performance are not at issue here. What concerns us is Variety’s subsequent 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 insinuation in our review of Promising Young Woman that minimized her daring performance.”

If Variety felt the language in Harvey’s review was insensitive and insinuating, it had the option of working with him to fix that in the editing process before it ran. There are also ways Variety could have acknowledged and responded to Mulligan’s criticism, rather than simply capitulating to it and undermining its own critic in the process. The imposition of a subjective value judgment (“her daring performance”) as a flat editorial perspective, as if it were a matter of inarguable fact rather than opinion, is particularly inappropriate. We believe the editor’s note should be removed.

Like any journalism, film criticism often displeases those being written about. And, like any journalists, film critics must have the support of their publications when that displeasure, usually coming from people far more powerful than any journalist, is made known — especially when that publication claims to report on the industry those powerful people inhabit. It is appalling that, in this instance, Variety chose to side with that power rather than supporting its writer.

Published by the National Society of Film Critics (the US-American partner and member of FIPRESCI).