Carey Mulligan Won’t Let Hollywood Off the Hook
Not every Carey Mulligan movie starts with a Charli XCX song, but maybe there should be more. When “Promising Young Woman” uses the pop-bop “Boys” from 2017 in its opening moments, that is the first sign that you are getting something from Mulligan that you are not used to: namely a contemporary environment.
“I know I’m in period costume all the time for a movie audience,” Mulligan said recently, shrugging in an oversized red sweater. She was chatting to me from her British country house in Devon, where she had confiscated herself in a darkened music room normally used by her husband, Marcus Mumford of the band Mumford & Sons. A single lamp lit them as single lamps often do at Mulligan.
In many of the 35-year-old actress’ recent films, including “Far From the Madding Crowd” from 1870, “Suffragette”, about protests against equality in 1912, you will find little more than a meager source of light Britain and “Mudbound” which begins in 1939. It’s been almost a decade since Mulligan starred in a modern movie – Steve McQueen’s “Shame” from 2011 – a period that initially surprised even her.
“I think ‘Wildlife’ is something of a contemporary!” she insisted. I had to point out that the 2018 domestic drama, in which Mulligan plays a troubled mother on the verge of an affair, takes place 60 years ago.
It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it’s a thing, and it’s part of the reason Promising Young Woman lands like lightning: imagine the cognitive dissonance, like Audrey Hepburn from her roles in Take them out of the middle of the century and put them in a thorough 2020 movie about consent, revenge, and persecution of your college acquaintances on Facebook. And imagine that she has achieved the performance of her career.
A pastel-colored black comedy, Promising Young Woman, casts Mulligan as Cassie, a disaffected high school dropout whose life has never been the same since her best friend was raped in college. Lately, Cassie has found a more confrontational way to deal with her grief: she’ll go to a nightclub, find herself in a vulnerable position – usually slumped at a banquet, too drunk to stand or even speak – and wait and see to see if a man will use the tableau as an opportunity. Somebody always does it depressingly.
Of course, the guy doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong: he just offers Cassie a “safe ride home” who just happens to return to his seat. There he will advance on her splayed body until Cassie suddenly sits up and reveals her sobriety just as he is about to attack her. “But I’m a nice guy!” he will stutter, caught red-handed. Cassie’s inevitable answer: “Are you?”
The film is a tonal balancing act, and Mulligan is amazing at it. There’s so much about Cassie that an actress might be tempted to act too much – her biting sense of humor, her well-defended sickness of the soul, the startling lengths to which she will accomplish her mission – but Mulligan lets the character get by feel painfully real. And sometimes, as if it were as easy as breathing, it can convey all of these martial qualities on a single line.
“She’s always as honest and about as grounded as an actress,” said Emerald Fennell, the writer and director of Promising Young Woman. In casting Mulligan, Fennell sought to steer clear of a stereotypical portrayal of female revenge in which Cassie was portrayed as “a woman walking down the street in slow motion with a fire lit,” as Fennell put it.
Mulligan can make great, and made great. She ended up playing Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s whirling, maximal adaptation of “The Great Gatsby”. But she’s down to earth by nature, which benefits her characters, and in conversation she comes across as crooked, understated, and alert. “Hardly anyone I’m friends with is in our industry,” she noted.
With other on-screen actors, you can sometimes feel a yawning gap between the celebrity and who they’re playing, but Mulligan can make a person like Cassie appear like … well, a person. Perhaps it is evidence of Mulligan’s reticent nature as a movie star that she can do something hugely high-key – like marrying the frontman of a famous band – and somehow it feels more like a fun bonus fact about her than an inseparable one Part of their mystique.
Does she feel typified as a contemporary actress? Mulligan is quick to point out that she has played at least two contemporary roles on stage in the past few years, in Girls & Boys and Skylight. But really, she said, it’s rare for a contemporary film to come with an antihero as complicated as Cassie, whose mission is justified, even if her methods may be insane.
“I never feel like I have to be okay with anything a character does in order for me to ride, and we never do it with men,” said Mulligan. “Cassie has the right to be as closed, as aggressive as possible.” uncomfortable, as vengeful as she wants, for going through hell. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care about them. “
LAST MONTH, IT HAPPENED AGAIN. Mulligan was reading a script and when a female character was introduced it was described as “Fine, but don’t know.”
If you are an actress in Hollywood you will know this phrase. And in the 10 years since Mulligan was nominated for an Academy Award for playing a school girl seduced by an older man on An Education, she has certainly come across that kind of description more than she’d like.
“I can’t believe it’s still happening,” she said. “But it does.”
We wondered aloud about the deeper meaning of such a description. Do men write it to turn other men on? Perhaps it doesn’t matter to her whether a female character is a nurse, a marketing director, or a serial killer – what matters most is to convey that this fictional woman is out of your league, but you still had a chance with her .
It may seem like a small thing, but those little things add up in Hollywood, where the way women are viewed becomes something the whole world can watch. So Fennell told all the men to play their nightclub scenes with Mulligan as if they were the heroes of their own romantic comedy: in another era they would have been.
Just watch groundbreaking comedies like Animal House, in which a freshman debates rape of a passed out girl, or Sixteen Candles when Molly Ringwald’s love interest leaves his darkened girlfriend with a virgin nerd and tells him, “Do what you want. “
“I was watching all of these movies and laughing along and not really thinking about them,” said Mulligan. “And then you sit back and think, ‘Oh God, this is actually not funny at all. That’s awful! ‘It really takes some thought not to just go along with those laughs. “
Fennell agreed. “It’s so embedded in our culture that so many people still don’t really understand what’s wrong with it,” she said. “I wanted a movie that showed her sneaking under the guise of something fun.”
The film they made is as sticky and dangerous as a spider’s web, and men’s reactions to it can be telling. Before the pandemic sank its original spring release, Promising Young Woman made a lively debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. I asked Mulligan if she’d read any of the answers back then and she winced.
“I read the Variety review because I’m a weak person,” said Mulligan. “And I have problems with that.” She paused and wondered if she really wanted to go there. “It felt like they were saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of trick,” she finally said.
While “Promising Young Woman” earned a fair share of raves at Sundance, Variety seemed surprised by the film and strongly suggested Mulligan was a bad cast. “Margot Robbie is the producer here, and it’s easy to imagine (perhaps too easily) that the role was once meant for her,” the review said. “While Cassie wears her pickup bait gear like a bad drag with that star. Even her long blonde hair feels like a pull on. “
Mulligan can still recite a few lines from this review. But she said, “It wasn’t an ego-wounding thing – I can fully see that Margot Robbie is a goddess.” What bothered Mulligan the most was that people could read a high profile review of an actress’ physical appearance and cheerfully accept, “It drove me so crazy. I said, ‘Really? Are you going to write something for this film that is so transparent? Now? In 2020? ‘I just couldn’t believe it. “
For Ironigan this is all the more ironic as “Promising Young Woman” explicitly deals with the litany of cultural expectations about how a woman should look and behave. There’s even a man who calls Cassie beautiful and then, in the same breath, gives you an insincere talk about why she wears too much makeup.
“We no longer allow women to look normal or like a real person,” said Mulligan. “Why does every woman ever on screen have to look like a supermodel? That has shifted to something where the expectation of beauty and perfection on screen is completely out of control. “
Men were barely enlightened in the historical plays Mulligan made, but that was often the point of these films, wasn’t it? When their characters asserted their independence, as in “Far From The Madding Crowd,” or in “Suffragette,” you could watch the present from your privileged point of view and think, “They were ahead of their time. “In one way or another, they were modern women, too.
You expect more these days, but maybe you shouldn’t. Perhaps that’s the “Promising Young Woman” lesson: that you better stay on your toes and that you have to push back, even if people prefer you just let it go. Even Mulligan, after a brief crisis of confidence – “Maybe I shouldn’t have said it was Variety,” she annoyed – would eventually decide that what she wanted to say is worth making a commitment. The more we idealize women, she told me, the more we rob them of what actually makes them interesting.
“I just don’t think it’s really about telling stories or acting,” she said. “Things can be beautiful without being perfect.”