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The angry women of Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan wasn’t exactly right about that Variety review. But she is right about Hollywood.

Carey Mulligan as Cassie in Promising Young Woman.
Focus Features

As we enter the bizarre awards season of 2021, Carey Mulligan is having a moment.

The actress stars in two new releases: the period piece The Dig, on Netflix, in which she plays a woman investigating a series of mysterious mounds on her English country estate; and Amazon Prime’s much-discussed rape-revenge thriller Promising Young Woman. Her turn in the latter is being hailed as a career-making performance, from an actress who’s already had quite a few career-making performances. It’s already netted her a Golden Globe nomination and a SAG nomination, with Oscar buzz whispering all around her.

And in the midst of all this awards prognostication, Mulligan has spent a month at the center of a conversation about the proper boundaries of critical discourse and how the entertainment press talks about women — for the second time in her career.

The current conversation revolves around a Variety review of Promising Young Woman written after the film premiered at Sundance in early 2020, in which a freelance critic suggested that Mulligan was miscast in the film. Mulligan plays Cassie, who spends her nights pretending to be blackout drunk at various bars until a self-proclaimed nice guy picks her up, takes her home, and makes a move. Then she drops the act.

Mulligan, the Variety review goes, seems like “a bit of an odd choice” for this particular role. She “wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag; even her long blonde hair seems a put-on.” The reviewer suggests that Margot Robbie, a producer on the film, might have been a better choice for the part.

“It felt like it was basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse,” Mulligan told the New York Times in December.

“It didn’t wound my ego,” she said in January during an interview with Zendaya, “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.”

The question of whether an actor’s physical appearance is fair game to discuss as part of a performance is a complicated one, and perhaps more nuanced than Mulligan’s statement suggests. Regardless, amid a flurry of outraged think pieces, Variety appended an apology to the top of its Sundance review.

The first time the sexism of the entertainment press became a major topic of conversation as Carey Mulligan promoted a movie was in 2018, when Mulligan was on the press circuit for her movie Wildlife. Headline after headline came out about men asking Mulligan outraged questions about why her character was such a bitch, and Mulligan responding with aplomb.

“Carey Mulligan Brilliantly Defended ‘Wildlife’ After Moviegoer Slammed Her Character During NYFF Q&A,” wrote IndieWire. “Carey Mulligan Makes a Mess in ‘Wildlife,’ and Men are Vexed,” wrote the New York Times. “A Roomful of Men Asked Carey Mulligan Terrible Questions at Her Women in Motion Talk,” wrote Vulture. “I’m always being asked shitty questions,” Mulligan mused to Vulture toward the end of that press tour.

There’s a congruence between the controversies Mulligan inspires and the roles she plays onscreen. In films, she tends to play women who are trapped by systemic sexism: In 2009’s An Education, she’s a ’60s schoolgirl who almost lets a man ruin her life because the only alternative she can think of is to become a teacher and that sounds hellishly boring; in Wildlife, she’s a ’50s mother flinging herself desperately after an affair with a rich man because her feckless husband has abandoned her and she needs to support her son somehow; in Promising Young Woman, she’s a former med student who puts her whole life on pause after the rape of her best friend. (The Dig, the other Carey Mulligan movie out this winter, is notable for being the rare Carey Mulligan period piece in which her character is hindered more by her own ill health than by sexism.)

And then in real life, while Mulligan is out promoting these movies, cultural outlets use her as a central figure to talk about all the ways actresses are trapped by Hollywood and Hollywood discourse. She becomes an avatar of the ways actresses are asked to be nice, to be sexy, to be passive and pliant, even when they are making movies about rage and grief and messiness.

Mulligan’s particular talents make her a flashpoint for this kind of conversation. In both her film work and in the public eye, Mulligan combines an air of disarming sweetness with an intellectual intensity that feels as though it can turn toward rage at a moment’s notice. And that makes her a natural avatar for all the women who feel underestimated — and all the women who are furious about that underestimation.

What makes Carey Mulligan films great is how good she is at getting mad while looking sweet

Carey Mulligan in Wildlife (2018).
IFC Films

The underlying tension that animates a great deal of Carey Mulligan’s work is this: She looks so sweet, with her bright eyes and her brilliant dimpled smile. But she also carries with her an air of seriousness, a gravitas that plays sometimes as intelligence, sometimes as rage, and often as both.

The juxtaposition of the two creates a frisson, which most of her best performances exploit. You watch a Carey Mulligan film waiting for the moment in which she tries to flash that dimpled smile only to be stymied by some terrible injustice, often caused by a terrible man. And then her chin trembles and the smile goes crooked, and waves of terrible grief and fury wash over her face as she unleashes all that intensity you saw her carrying with her all along.

She’s used that contrast since the beginning. In her breakout movie, Lone Scherfig’s 2009 film An Education, Mulligan plays a young schoolgirl named Jenny who begins a romantic relationship with the much-older David (Peter Sarsgaard). Here, Mulligan’s sweetness and intelligence work like a duet: Jenny is so clearly smart, so clearly much smarter than her peers and her parents and most of her teachers, that when she convinces herself she is using David more than he is using her, it feels plausible to the audience.

After all, it’s clear to both Jenny and the audience that she isn’t particularly crushing on David. She’s only with him because she likes what he can offer her: access to art and music and culture and excitement. Concert tickets. A trip to Paris. “We’re not clever like you, Jenny,” David tells her of himself and his friends, and it’s obviously true. So surely she must be the one using him?

When it becomes apparent that Jenny is not, in fact, the one with the upper hand in this relationship — that David, to whom she is now engaged and for whom she has dropped out of school, is in fact already married — Mulligan lets her sweet dimpled face crumple, and all of a sudden she becomes horribly young and vulnerable. You feel foolish for ever having let yourself be convinced that she knew what she was doing, she who was so smart but also always so much younger than David.

In 2018’s Wildlife, Mulligan gives what’s widely considered one of her best performances, playing Jeanette, a young mother and housewife in the 1950s. In the film’s first act, Jeanette overflows with sweetness, dimpling and smiling as she tells her husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) that the boss who fired him doesn’t know what he’s missing out on, as she covers up for the humiliation of a bounced check, as she charms her way past one intransigent secretary after another to a job of her own, for which she is only minimally qualified.

But there is something sad and haunted behind all that sweetness, something that lets us know that the smiles are a mask. It’s that same seriousness that read as intelligence in An Education, but in Wildlife it has a darker edge. And when Jeanette’s husband abandons her to go fight wildfires for minimal pay, in her outrage and betrayal, she rips all of that sweetness away and lets the darkness come seething out, furious and desperate.

Sometimes Mulligan plays against type as a character who is not distinguished by her intelligence. In Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame and 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, she plays messy and messed-up characters: a cabaret singer who self-harms in Shame, a folk singer who has a one-night stand with the protagonist and then furiously tells him that everything he touches turns to shit in Inside Llewyn Davis.

But even in those films, Mulligan’s air of intellectual good taste makes itself known extratextually. It adds to their credibility, creating a structure in which her characters’ messiness becomes all the more shocking and transgressive: This must be a really good movie if that sweet Carey Mulligan is willing to do a nude scene for it. After all, she doesn’t do just any movie she’s offered.

“While in-demand actors churn out movies by the dozen, she is ever so picky about her parts,” noted Simon Hattenstone for the Guardian in 2014. “After being Oscar-nominated for her breakthrough film, An Education … she took a year-long sabbatical because she couldn’t find a role that satisfied her.”

In the same profile, the Coen brothers note proudly that they cast her against type in Inside Llewyn Davis. What is her type, then?

“Sweet,” they said together. “People always seem to like her,” Ethan Coen added. “And for the actor that can sometimes be a burden. If you’ve got a part for a harpy, there’s something appealing about casting somebody like Carey, and I think that’s what appealed to her as well. She certainly took it up with relish.”

It’s because we think of Mulligan as being sweet that when she stops being sweet, it feels exciting and transgressive. And it’s because we think of her as smart that when she chooses not to play smart, we know it must be for a very good reason.

In Promising Young Woman, Mulligan hollows out all her natural sweetness. Only the rage is left.

Cassie (Mulligan) gets ready for a night on the town in Promising Young Woman.
Focus Features

Mulligan puts both her sweetness and her seriousness to work with exquisitely calibrated sharpness in Promising Young Woman, a critically polarizing film in which nearly everyone — Variety excepted — seems to agree that she gives an astonishing performance. And part of what makes her so successful in the role of Cassie is that she is once again playing against type.

That Variety review was correct to say that intellectual Mulligan feels like “a bit of an odd choice” to play avenging angel Cassie, and that her costumes, which feature a lot of candy-pink fruit motifs and princess-y blonde waves of hair, don’t seem to quite suit her. It’s even correct to note that she’s been cast in the archetype that usually gets played by the Margot Robbies of the world. In Promising Young Woman, Mulligan is the smart and sweet girl in the part that would usually go to the bombshell.

But that’s what makes Mulligan’s performance so effective. Cassie’s life does not quite suit her. She is someone who used to be the traditional Carey Mulligan type — a sweet and smart girl, a nice young med student, a promising young woman — and then she experienced a terrible tragedy. Her best friend was raped, and then died by suicide. Now Cassie is caught in a state of suspended animation.

Cassie lives at home with her parents and works a crappy job at a coffee shop. Her only remaining friend is her boss, whom she will not allow to promote her. Her 30th birthday passes by without her notice. She has given her whole self to avenging the rape of her best friend, and living her life this way has destroyed her.

The fact that Cassie is played by Carey Mulligan brings the tragedy of her life home. If the character had been played by a Margot Robbie type — the kind of actress we are used to seeing being hot and kicking ass — it would have been all too easy for Cassie’s life of vengeance to read as sexy and empowering and exciting.

Instead, with Mulligan at the reins, Cassie’s grief and rage bleed out onto the screen. That signature Carey Mulligan sweetness is still there, but she’s hollowed it out. Now it’s just a hard candy shell over a poisonous center. It’s devastating.

In Mulligan’s public life, journalists are often caught off guard by the combination of her assumed sweetness and her intellectual candor

Carey Mulligan at the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards on February 23, 2019, in Santa Monica, California.
John Shearer/Getty Images

The same tension between sweetness and seriousness that animates Mulligan’s film work tends to play out in her public persona as well. Here, it takes the form of a sense of approachable sweetness that journalists tend to attribute to Mulligan unthinkingly — she’s a lovely young thing in Hollywood, an ingenue, she must surely want to please — contrasted with the slight cool remove and reserve that seems to come out in her when she speaks in public.

“There was something about her that seemed to wrong-foot the very notion of an interview,” mused Gaby Wood, profiling Mulligan for Vogue in 2015. “She wasn’t guarded, exactly — in fact, she answered every question very openly, and when she laughed she could sound like a little girl. But she had a level of composure that was startling: She was devoid of frivolity; she didn’t spill; she was effortlessly self-contained.”

Mulligan will not talk about her private life. She is married to Marcus Mumford of the band Mumford & Sons, but she will not discuss her marriage with the press. When Simon Hattenstone asked her a series of questions about their home life for the Guardian in 2014, she only repeated “no comment” over and over again. “I don’t have a public persona,” she told Hattenstone.

Of course, Mulligan does have a public persona; she is a movie star and she cannot help but have one. But her public persona is one of deeply guarded privacy. It is one of selectiveness — toward what she shares with the public, toward the roles she takes. And it is simultaneously one of candor, because Mulligan is willing to be openly critical toward both herself and others. “I didn’t love my work in Gatsby,” she told Variety in 2017, referring to her turn as Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

But all the same, journalists and particularly male journalists seem to approach Mulligan again and again with the expectation that she must be extraordinarily sweet and girlish. “How would you react to someone saying you were very beautiful?” one man asked her at the Cannes Film Festival’s Variety-Kering Women in Motion talk in 2018, shortly after Mulligan discussed gender-based pay disparities.

The combination of Mulligan’s assumed sweetness with her intelligence and willingness to be openly critical frequently results in situations where men say ridiculous things to her, and then she is able and ready to articulate why they are ridiculous.

“We’re all too used to only seeing women behaving really well” in movies, Mulligan said in 2018, after a man accused her Wildlife character of being “completely reprehensible” and “unsympathetic.” “When we see them out of control or struggling it doesn’t ring true because of everything we’ve been brought up to understand, that women are always perfect and can do anything. That’s an unrealistic expectation of a woman. Seeing real humanity onscreen can be really jarring from a female perspective.” And she was, in that case, entirely right.

But interestingly, the recent conversation around Mulligan and Variety doesn’t quite fit the narrative that I’ve laid out here.

More than the freelance critic who appears to have loosely misread Promising Young Woman, the party at fault here is Variety, which has a responsibility both to protect its writers and to make certain that everything it publishes meets its editorial standards, and which published his review without sufficient oversight. However poorly phrased his discussion of Mulligan’s appearance was, it’s the sort of thing an editor should have caught and pushed him to clarify. And Variety’s rather fawning response to Mulligan’s protests — the outlet published a full article about the incident, including the note that Mulligan’s response to its apology was “beautifully said” — seems to suggest a desire on the magazine’s part to preserve a relationship with a movie star over a willingness to protect the critic it hired and then failed to thoroughly edit.

And while Variety’s critic misreads the film, Mulligan’s response seems to likewise misread his review. He is correctly noting that she’s been cast against type, which she seems to take as a blanket condemnation of her appearance. And then she goes on to suggest that no responsible film criticism should ever engage with an actress’s appearance, which is a position that plenty of feminist film critics would take issue with.

Personally, I would never claim that an actress isn’t hot enough for a role, but I have discussed Mulligan’s appearance throughout this piece because I think the way her face looks and the way she deploys it are an essential part of her toolkit. Extrapolating that idea more generally, I would argue that the fact of an actress’s appearance is never fair game to critique, but the way she and the work in which she is appearing deploy that appearance is. (See, for instance, the Queen’s Gambit beauty debate.)

But because of the pattern of public discourse around Mulligan, it makes sense for her to read a clumsily phrased bit of criticism as an attack on her appearance. It makes sense for her to experience the entire controversy as another case of a man underestimating a woman because she looks so sweet. That is, after all, part of what Carey Mulligan has spent her whole career getting thrillingly, furiously angry about.