Is An Actor’s Physical Appearance Off Limits In Reviews? Carey Mulligan Challenges Variety Review

Promising Young Woman starring Carey Mulligan currently sits atop our new movies in theaters watchlist.

Yes, very much want to see this movie! Hopefully in the next week or two we’ll have the opportunity.

This film was produced by Margot Robbie and honestly, Mulligan sort of looks a little like Robbie — at least from a distance. Close-up, they look very dissimilar, but before we get into Carey Mulligan reading a review and basically taking umbrage with the reviewer critiquing her appearance and if that should be off limits for a review, let’s talk briefly about the movie itself.

While trying to ignore reviews from others before actually seeing it ourselves (futile these days, I know!), I’ve noticed plenty of positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes, sort of the go-to source used by media for wide-scale acceptance of reviews (whether or not we agree or disagree with this convention) has overwhelmingly positive reviews for the film to date. Also, at least one reader here has commented at this site already recommending we need to see this movie.

It came out on Christmas, alongside Wonder Woman: 1984. Since theaters in our area have been closed, we’ve been unable to view it on the big screen. It’s still showing at some theaters, so hopefully on vacation we can see it — finally.

On February 5, 2021, theaters in our area will finally be allowed to reopen again, assuming they continue to abide by limited seating requirements. That’s what they were like before, when they reopened for a short time. Regal Cinemas are still closed, but AMC is going to start back up again. I don’t know yet if they will be showing this film still when it reopens, but if we don’t see it on vacation, it will be at the top of the list to see locally when we get back in town.

Anyway, I’ve visited the PVOD and currently Promising Young Woman is available to stream, hoping that it will cost less than $19.99 to rent and/or be available to outright buy at that price. We want to see this in a theater, not pay to rent it at home for $20 (see: Yes, Some Are Paying $20 to Rent New Movies – But Is This The Right Price Point?)

Slightly related, I just watched Carey Mulligan in The Dig now streaming on Netflix and her performance there was very strong. It just takes one or two good performances for an actor to garner my attention. Mulligan is now firmly on my radar.

So, to recap, strong emphasis that we want to see this movie and will see it — soon. Now onto what actress Carey Mulligan is questioning and whether or not it’s fair game for reviews..

In a recently published conversation with fellow actress Zendaya for Variety’s “Actors on Actors” series, Zendaya asked Mulligan about her criticism of the review and the apology from Variety. “I feel it’s important that criticism is constructive,” Mulligan 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.”

Carey Mulligan strikes back at review – CNN

I disagree that all criticism should be constructive. It certainly can help filmmakers do better work in the future if some sort of constructive criticism is provided in a detailed critique, but is it required? No.

That’s like saying we should dance around something we dislike, try and spin positive the negative. No, we just spent a finite amount of our lives with this creative content with the goal of being entertained. We have a right to be as critical and as non-constructive about this work as we want to be. Sorry, Carey Mulligan and anybody else who thinks we’re obligated to go gently with our review, but no, we aren’t.

Regardless her saying otherwise, Carey Mulligan seems to be taking the review personally. She was paid for this work. If a reviewer doesn’t like something about her work, they aren’t required to be “constructive” with their criticism.

Is it nice to be constructive? Sure. But nice, let’s face it, can be kind of boring. Who wants to read some wordy, bloated review that dances around Mulligan’s looks? If you don’t like how she looks in the role, just tell us straight. Shock jock type review writing, perhaps, but I’m in favor of and support reviewers writing their reviews however creatively they want.

Omit needless words! (as Professor Strunk would say)

That said, I don’t think being intentionally mean-spirited is a very good review strategy either. It might be funny to read for some (not those being criticized certainly), but vicious criticism that seems personal can be oft-putting for readers also, so there are lines best not crossed. I’m not going to state where those lines are, it’s up to each individual reviewer and his/her readers to define.

I don’t think telling a critic how s/he should review a movie — when reviews are subjective based on the person reviewing — is a fair criticism of the review process period.

Personally, I think everything and everyone involved with the finished product of the film, the actors — yes, their looks too — are open to criticism and review. That’s story, characters, sound, lighting, cinematography, writing, direction, makeup, wardrobe — again, the actors looks! — editing, runtime, and so on — all very much fair territory for review, critique and criticism. I also think the actors background and experience as regard to casting decisions are relevant. What movies or TV shows have the actors been in before? Are they a good fit for the role? All of this is fair game for criticism.

Lest we forget how many people were upset by how awful the cats looked in the movie Cats? That ruined the movie for many people.

Recently, and more specifically, the subject of what actress should play Lucille Ball (see: Hmm, Not Sure About Nicole Kidman Playing Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin Penned Biopic and Debra Messing Is Available To Play Lucille Ball – Again – And Has Family Support)

Can a review about a movie with a woman faking men out that she’s drunk and/or incapacitated so they will take advantage of her opens itself even more to questions about what the actress playing the character looks like? Duh!

Should note that there are all types of women who might play a role like this and there isn’t really a type appearance, except to look slutty. I realize that’s stereotyping, but I’m a guy and we are generally drawn to the way women dress and look. Physical attraction is a relevant review criteria in a movie like this especially.

We can get into the sex of a reviewer. Would women reviewers be less likely to examine Mulligan’s character looks than men? Perhaps. Maybe that’s what she’s trying to say (?) but it gets lost in the fact that she’s making this about all women everywhere.

Here’s the problem. If the reviewer had been more complimentary to Carey Mulligan’s physical appearance, she probably wouldn’t have said anything about this. Only because the reviewer in Mulligan’s own words that she “wasn’t hot enough” to pull off the role, was this an issue. But what if the reviewer had said she was hot enough, would Mulligan have raised the same issue?

I doubt she would have.

It’s almost always the negatives that bring out complaints. If we’re being totally objective — which is impossible when talking about a subjective review — and appearance of the actors is a criteria that the reviewer cannot be critical of, than s/he cannot be positive either. It must work both ways.

This is why I disagree with the premise that an actor’s looks don’t matter in a role as legitimate review criteria. Certain roles, I don’t see how an actor looks as important, but we think of nothing of describing prosthetics and how real people are portrayed (IE. Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly in Bombshell, see: 20+ Bombshell Reviews – Charlize Theron Portrayal of Megyn Kelly Not Award-worthy), so why shouldn’t how an actor looks be a totally reasonable, relevant part of a review?

Heck, the Oscars give awards for makeup and wardrobe!

The simple truth is physical appearance can be widely changed by hair, makeup, wardrobe and prosthetics, so don’t tell me Carey Mulligan looks exactly like she does in Promising Young Woman in her every day appearance. So, even if the reviewer does criticize that she’s not “hot enough” to pull off the character, the criticism doesn’t seem lobbed at Mulligan directly, but at the way her character is presented in the film. Criticism of her looks then becomes blame that could be assigned to the makeup and wardrobe people. Or, maybe the reviewer doesn’t like Carey Mulligan’s looks compared to Margot Robbie and think Robbie should have been cast instead (a casting criticism). Sorry, Carey Mulligan, but that’s a completely fair review opinion.

Tried to present my argument for why an actor’s looks are not off limits in reviews. I applaud Carey Mulligan for commenting on the review and of course she’s welcome to disagree with it, but don’t think an apology by the publisher, was warranted. Of course I understand why they did it — because Mulligan was offended — but professionally, I don’t think it was necessary. This just props up other actors to complain about reviews and publishers to have a knee jerk reaction and throw their writers under the bus to save face for the publication.

That’s just BS.

Let reviewers review movies however they want. It’s art. Art. We all look at art in our own ways and are free to express our opinion on that art. We should not be limited by what we can and cannot criticize in a review. I think the whole argument over what’s professional or not is bogus. Mulligan cites the size of the publication mattering. That’s also bogus. Whether you have 1 reader or over a million, a review is a review is a review. Review the movie however you feel and by all means be honest. If being brutally honest is your style, take them down, tiger.

Your editor should support and defend your style, not attack it the instant it’s challenged. Even if it’s by the lead actress in the film. So what. Have some backbone already, Variety.

Maybe you rate movies based on how big the guy’s package looks or how how voluptuous the breasts are, whatever. If that’s part of your review criteria, so be it. Not mine — unless it’s a movie where breasts are relevant — but hey, more power to you, the reviewer.

My only request of reviewers are make it clear whether or not you recommend a movie or not in your review. I dislike reading reviews that don’t answer this simple binary choice. In some cases, I’ll leave a comment to this effect, “are you recommending this or not?” Have some sort of criteria, rating score, etc, which answers that simple important yes/no question. Please!

(Our recommended criteria changed Jan 1, 2021, it’s explained here: Effective Jan 1, 2021 We Will Only Recommend Movies 4-Star and Above)

Whatever you say about the movie itself in the body of your review is your opinion and, sorry Carey Mulligan, the reviewer’s personal opinion does matter. What makes all writing unique is the writer’s voice, their perspective.

Lastly, let me give Ms. Mulligan some personal advice: if you’re going to take what reviews say personal, then don’t read them. She admits she was “weak” for doing it, so already is acknowledging that she probably shouldn’t be commenting on reviews of movies she stars in. Um, yeah.

I’ll give Mulligan major kudos, however, for her impassioned explanation of what concerned her about the review. Read it here:

“And I think if women continually look on screen and don’t see themselves, that’s not helpful for women or for anyone, really — that we’re not going to tell authentic stories. So I think in criticizing or sort of bemoaning a lack of attractiveness on my part in a character, it wasn’t a personal slight, it wasn’t something that I felt. It didn’t wound my ego, but it made me concerned that in such a big publication, an actress’ appearance could be criticized and it could be that, you know, that could be accepted as completely reasonable criticism.

Carey Mulligan Responds to Variety’s Apology for ‘Promising Young Woman’ Review

It’s a very eloquent response and almost wins me over to her perspective. Almost.

Do we know absolutely that the reviewer meant to attack Mulligan personally — or more broadly all actresses — through the review? Despite her saying otherwise, she took it personally and responded as if the review was slighting women actresses everywhere. That’s where she lost me in her argument.

And now you have all these people talking about review criteria, what’s acceptable, what’s not, etc. That’s a discussion worth having, hence this post on the subject, but the reality is we’re never, ever, ever all going to agree 100% on an absolute convention for all reviews. Not going to happen. Is it even worth the effort? Maybe that’s the real question.

Now, I leave this to you. Do you think an actor’s looks are fair game for review criteria? Yes, no, why? Why not?

4 thoughts on “Is An Actor’s Physical Appearance Off Limits In Reviews? Carey Mulligan Challenges Variety Review

  1. The issue here is that the critic in question said something along the lines that Carey Mulligan wasn’t hot enough to play the part in Promising Young Woman. That no man would try to take advantage of her. I say Carey was spot on. And in my opinion any scumbag who would take advantage of a woman who is drunk, would do that regardless of her looks. The ugliest woman on Earth, drunk and an easy prey for a so-called man would be raped. The point of the movie is that ANY woman in such a state shouldn’t be in danger. It’s quite a misstep to comment upon Carey Mulligan’s appearance in this context. That only tells me that the critic in question didn’t understand the message of the movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. While naturally I agree with your comment wholeheartedly as far as anybody taking advantage of any woman under any circumstance. It’s illegal, immoral and wrong. There’s no justification for that.

      Art is open, however, to wide interpretation. What the movie is about is a subject for reasonable debate among a wide variety of viewpoints. Having not yet seen the movie — but very much wanting to do so soon — I’m at a disadvantage as to being able to determine what I saw the movie and thought it was about to me. Will be able to come back to this and look through a different lens at that time.

      People look at garbage that’s art and have different interpretation on what it means. It doesn’t have to mean what the artist intended it to mean. Or even what most people intended it to mean.

      Ah, subjectivity!


  2. Having seen the film and read the review I think Harvey has the right to say what he did. I also think Mulligan has the right (whether she should take it personally or not) to call him out about it.

    He could have chosen his words a bit more carefully and left out any comparison between Mulligan and Robbie (or any other actress) which is probably what hurt him the most because it blurs the lines of what he may be trying to say especially in context of saying she ‘wears the pick up outfits like bad drag’. Hard disagree. But more importantly she is supposed to be a falling down drunk mess- she isn’t supposed to be a glamour Queen in those moments. So like I said reading the review and the comparison between the two actresses in that moment with no real follow-up I can see how a person would take that as Robbie being more of a ‘catch’ for a guy in the bar which is off the mark for what this movie says to a lot of people.

    Anyway like I said I think appearances are fair game but it is the Internet and the blowback here is not unwarranted. And hey he’s standing by his review and defending himself. Hopefully it will get more people to see the film and judge it (on its merits) because I think it’s more than worth the watch.

    Liked by 2 people

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