Opinion | Carey Mulligan is wrong. Actors’ looks are fair game for discussion.

In “Promising Young Woman,” Carey Mulligan plays Cassandra, a former medical student living in Ohio with her parents. (Focus Features)

This question has arisen recently in the context of review of the buzzy rape-revenge movie, “Promising Young Woman.” Critic Dennis Harvey, reviewing the film for Variety, wrote that actor Carey Mulligan, who plays a woman seeking revenge for her best friend’s rape, is “a fine actress” but “seems a bit of an odd choice as this admittedly many-layered apparent femme fatale — 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.”

As a fellow critic, I think Harvey slightly misreads the film. But was his judgment beyond the pale? Mulligan thought so: In December, she said she read the review as saying “I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse.”

It’s a bit rich to turn a brief discussion of two different sorts of extraordinary beauty and a few costuming decisions into a sexist insult worthy of a month-long news cycle. No matter: Variety soon followed with an apology appended to the original 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.” In getting back on Mulligan’s good side, Variety put itself on the wrong side of this debate.

In accepting Variety’s apology, Mulligan set a standard for criticism that no serious publication should abide by, and which could undermine her own stated goals. “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,” she said. “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.”

There’s a difference, of course, between obsessing over a personal ideal of physical beauty and raising whether an actor’s appearance interferes with his or her credibility in a role. No one in her right mind is going to cast the muscle-bound Chris Hemsworth or Dwayne Johnson as consumptive poets. And anyone who watches movies aimed at women knows how exasperating it is for movies to suggest that a pair of spectacles can render a bombshell invisible, or to see an actress in a size-6 dress presented as plus-sized.

More than that, suggesting that “the appearance of an actor” is not one of “the right things” to discuss in conversations about movies can cut both ways — and can work against the kind of change Mulligan says she’d like to see in the movie industry. She’s absolutely correct that Hollywood’s idea of loveliness is narrow to the point of monotony, and that there are real consequences to that myopia. The industry’s obsession with youth produces a distorted image of the world in which there is no place for older women; its historical refusal to treat Black women as romantic heroines plays into racist stereotypes; and its focus on hyper-femininity suggests there’s only one way to be a woman or to be beautiful.

Widening that aperture inevitably involves talking about the way actors look, whether that means praising nonbinary actor Asia Kate Dillon’s magnetism or the way director Eugene Ashe emphasizes the beauty of Tessa Thompson, who is Black, in the romantic period drama “Sylvie’s Love.”

It’s not only expectations for women that are at stake here. It would be useful and healthy to have a wide-ranging discussion of the escalating physical standards for men in the entertainment industry. That shift represents a twisted form of equality: men finally get to feel the anxieties and pressures their female colleagues have been subject to for decades! But the new requirement that actors sport defined muscles and ever-declining body fat percentages comes at a cost, including risks of injuries on-set or in training and pressure to use performance-enhancing drugs.

Variety’s editors declined to answer questions about whether actors’ physical appearances are ever a legitimate subject for criticism. That’s a shame. If beauty standards in Hollywood — and elsewhere — have to change, we need to talk about looks more, not less.