For Women’s History Month this March, FF2 members spoke with podcast Offscreen with Jillian and Sophia. In the first FF2 episode, Editor-in-Chief Jan Huttner talked about the unique creative relationship between a director and an actor when both are women. In celebration of Carey Mulligan’s Oscar nomination this year for Promising Young Woman, we’re highlighting some of her past work through Jan’s stories.
Sitting down with Offscreen’s Jillian and Sophia, Jan thought back to Carey Mulligan’s breakout role as Jenny in Lone Scherfig’s An Education. Previously, Mulligan had been seen as Kitty in the Joe Wright Pride and Prejudice—as Jan puts it, she’s the Bennett sister who doesn’t get any screen time. Kitty is a follower, sometimes an accomplice to Lydia’s antics, usually just yet another eligible young bachelorette for Mrs. Bennett to worry about. She, like the other Bennett sisters, is a liability: she’s vulnerable to outside influences, and if the wrong one takes hold, it could take away her future.
So when she appeared as the lead in An Education, she was, as Jan puts it, a “revelation.” Like Kitty, Jenny is the teenage girl unsure where to turn for examples of what she can become. She’s a high school student who takes up a relationship with a much older man. At first, she’s excited about him as an invitation to a more mature, glamorous world.
Jan explains that Jenny is surrounded by women she knows she does not want to grow up to be. She’s especially averse to Rosamund Pike’s character, Helen. Helen is happy to be an object, a possession, in exchange for the lavish lifestyle her wealthy lovers offer. Jenny enjoys this world, but it quickly becomes clear to her that she wants more ownership of her life than Helen has. She doesn’t want to be at anyone else’s whim. (Jan notes in her podcast interview that Rosamund Pike’s role in this year’s I Care A Lot was, in many ways, the opposite of Helen: smart, cynical, and self-possessed. That character, as Jan says, was latent in Rosamund Pike even as she played Helen.)
When An Education premiered in 2009, Jan was one of only a handful of women in the Chicago Film Critic’s Association watching screenings of new films. Often, she would attend a critics’ screening and find herself the only woman in the room.
When she saw An Education , Chaz Ebert, wife of influential critic Roger Ebert, was also at the screening. Jan and Chaz had a moment to chat in the women’s restroom, as the only women in the audience of a movie that can stir up a lot of feelings for anyone who has been female-presenting in this world. Chaz saw Jan crying, and she said something Jan would never forget: “I’ll be curious to see what women think of this film.”
As it turns out, women in general saw this film very differently from men. Jan explains that in the film’s early reviews, men critics (even as late as 2009, the dominant voices) tended to talk about the enthralling power of Carey Mulligan as Jenny, a “perky new Audrey Hepburn.” Jan wrote about it differently, pointing to the relationship between a high school student and a man twice her age, to the power dynamic in that relationship. Jan felt like the only one who had a problem with this, who even noticed or acknowledged how its predatory nature was central to the narrative.
Remembering An Education and the impact it continues to have on audiences, Jan thinks especially of Miss Stubs (played by Olivia Williams), Jenny’s English teacher. Miss Stubs is deliberately presented with more restrained femininity, a foil in Jenny’s mind to Helen. It’s she who gives Jenny a chance to return to school, to get a shot at university even after she strays from the path in her new “adult” social life. What really saves Jenny from this relationship with this man, Jan explains, is her relationship with her teacher.
Jan was heartbroken to see that Olivia Williams was overlooked for a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for that film, and her career didn’t take off after the film in the way Mulligan’s did. But the successes of Mulligan and Pike, and the variety of characters they’ve been able to play, have been a joy to watch. When you’re a critic for many years, Jan observes, you see the trajectories of films, filmmakers, and actors from the beginning; sometimes it’s disappointing, but sometimes it’s really gratifying.
In Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan’s character could be considered a protector for the Jennys of the world. She’s a vigilante, seeking out the predatory men who take advantage of vulnerable women. Jan was deeply proud when New York Film Critics Online awarded her Best Actress for the role. In the days after that podcast was recorded, Mulligan received an Oscar nomination.
For podcast host Jillian, Promising Young Woman is especially refreshing because we get to see a multitude of commanding women onscreen. There are so many perspectives of women on different sides of an assault: people affected by it, people adjacent to those affected by it, people who helped to suppress it. When it comes to the Bechdel test, this film passes without question.
As a listener, this podcast has given me the opportunity to reflect on and reaffirm my understanding of FF2’s mission. We need diverse critics just as much as we need diverse artists. Now that the quantitative achievements we once dreamed of are starting to come to fruition—this year, two of the five Oscar nominees for best director are women—are we done? Are we de-politicized? Never! This is an encouraging step, but we’re still far from the point where people of any gender or race can make art with the freedom and audiences they deserve. And we’ll probably never be able to stop trying. But I hope we’ll always help make things a little better.
Listen to more episodes of Offscreen with Jillian and Sophia, including a series of interviews with FF2 contributors for our partnership this Women’s History Month, here. Read Jan’s 2009 review of An Education here.
© Amelie Lasker (3/26/21) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman.
Middle Photo: Carey Mulligan in An Education.
Bottom Photo: Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in Promising Young Woman.
Photo Credits: Merie W. Wallace; Kerry Brown.