This story was updated at 11:25 AM.—Ed.
Harry Styles swoops out on stage at concerts and 10,000, 50,000, even 100,000 fans instantly fall under his spell. He’s mesmerizing. He can sing, dance, charm. Using that most elusive of skills, he transforms a massive arena into an intensely intimate setting. Just 28, Styles dares to be himself on and off stage, and that self is a gorgeous, androgynous performer with a killer smile. He can—and does—rock every and any outlandish outfit, from rainbow sequin jumpsuits to flamboyant overalls. He’s worn a dress on the cover of Vogue, a skirt for an inside photo spread, and he often sports pearl necklaces and painted nails. In interviews about his music, he comes across as well-spoken, reflective, determined, and positive.
So why doesn’t that charisma, that spark, that sense of connection, seem to carry over to the silver screen? After a promising but brief debut in Dunkirk, where Styles played an initially scared then seriously pissed-off soldier in Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama, the pop star seems to have stumbled—badly—in his transition to acting. With director Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling arriving in theaters on September 23 and My Policeman set to follow on October 21, this should be a welcome party for Styles and his Hollywood ambitions, a chance to bask in the moment. Instead, his performances are being flogged by critics, his actions at film festivals have drawn criticism, he’s found himself at the center of gossip and speculation about his relationships, and he’s been called out by some for instances of what they consider to be queerbaiting.
When it comes to acting, the critical consensus is that Styles is out of his depth in both of his new movies, with his performances registering as awkward and uncomfortable. The Washington Post panned Don’t Worry Darling—as have most publications and sites—and described Styles as “unimpressive but inoffensive, even when Wilde has him perform a puppetlike dance for no discernible reason.” The New Yorker argues that “Harry Styles can carry a tune, halfway around the world, but give the bloke a line of dialogue and he’s utterly and helplessly adrift. We love you, Harry!” Vanity Fair was somewhat kinder, but seems to be in the minority: “Seeing Styles on screen feels like something of an event, a sense of occasion that he rises to meet. Yes, there is some flatness when Styles gets to emoting, but he otherwise exists confidently within the picture. I don’t think he’s a Brando for the digital era or anything, but I would certainly be curious to see him in something else after this.”
That something else, My Policeman, is eliciting only slightly better reviews, but critics are still beating up on Styles. According to The Evening Standard, “He’s coasting on broody stares and eruptive displays of emotion. It’s all surface and no nuance.” The Daily Beast contends that, “At no point does Styles fully inhabit his role, in large part because there’s rarely a moment when he isn’t visibly acting. Whereas Styles has charisma to burn on stage, he comes across as timid and awkward in My Policeman.” And Variety, in its review, didn’t even bother to comment on Styles’ performance, insisting instead that “Styles, fully [embraces] the ambiguity of his queerbaiting brand.”
Add to the dismal reviews several public miscues, some self-inflicted, others a perfect storm of shitty circumstances. When talking about his music, Styles seems calm and confident, even if his mum might chide him for all the “ums,” “likes,” and “you knows” he utters. And though music critics gripe about him writing in generalities, his lyrics allow fans to find their own meaning in each song and, if nothing else, they can dance to it. When it comes to discussing films and acting, however, Styles doesn’t articulate his thoughts particularly well. It’s not unreasonable to wonder if maybe that’s why he’s so uncomfortable on screen and in interviews: he’s never really had to talk—or act—with any degree of specificity before.
Then there’s the queerbaiting debate. Why the dress on the Vogue cover? Why the ruby slippers for Harryween? Why make My Policeman? Why the androgyny when he’s been romantically linked with the likes of Taylor Swift, Kendall Jenner, Nicole Scherzinger, Camille Rowe, and, currently, Olivia Wilde? Addressing questions about his sexuality with Better Homes & Gardens, he explained, “I’ve been really open with it with my friends, but that’s my personal experience, it’s mine. The whole point of where we should be heading, which is toward accepting everybody and being more open, is that it doesn’t matter, and it’s about not having to label everything, not having to clarify what boxes you’re checking.”
Styles is right—he doesn’t owe the public, or anyone, an explanation of his sexuality. And he has been openly supportive of the queer community: Gay Times even named him their LGBTQ Advocate in 2018. But there’s a difference between being an ally and taking up space that should be reserved for others. In an interview with The Sunday Times, Pose star Billy Porter explained this dichotomy: “I created the conversation [about non-binary fashion] and yet Vogue still put Harry Styles, a straight white man, in a dress on their cover for the first time. I’m not dragging Harry Styles, but he is the one you’re going to try and use to represent this new conversation? He doesn’t care, he’s just doing it because it’s the thing to do.” Porter later apologized to Styles, saying, “The conversation is not about you. The conversation is actually deeper than that. It is about the systems of oppression and erasure of people of color who contribute to the culture.”
The dress debacle isn’t the only time Styles has been accused of being a distraction from a larger issue. Styles notoriously began a relationship with Wilde while filming Don’t Worry Darling. And, again, Styles and Wilde aren’t responsible for some of the controversy: fan grumbles about the 10-year age gap between Styles and Wilde are nonsense, and if Styles were the older partner, there’d be nary a peep.
To Styles’ and Wilde’s credit, they’ve been as discreet as possible, no easy feat when anyone with a cellphone is an instant paparazzi. However, unconfirmed reports from the set of Don’t Worry Darling suggest that Florence Pugh wasn’t happy about their on-set relationship. If true, that’s something they could have controlled. And should have. It overshadowed the film during production and led to infamous issues promoting the thriller at the Venice Film Festival a few weeks ago, what with Pugh missing a press conference and not posing next to Wilde in any red carpet photos. Then, of course, Styles found himself mired in Spitgate, as a video of him appearing to hock a loogy at Chris Pine went viral. In response, Pine’s rep denied the story in a statement to the press, and Styles joked about it onstage at a concert. It was a total nothingburger, but typical of the bad juju surrounding Don’t Worry Darling.
Styles has made some clumsy missteps, most of which seem to stem from a lack of situational awareness: yeah, he’s allowed to dress however he wants, but maybe being the face of a history-making moment that’s built on the work of the queer community isn’t a great idea. And yes, he’s allowed to love whomever he wants, but alienating his co-stars, whether that be Pugh on-set or Pine in interviews, isn’t the best way to keep the focus on his movie and not on himself. But maybe this isn’t Styles’ fault: how much of the problem is Harry stealing the spotlight, and how much of it is us forcing him into it? The gossip about his relationship with Wilde, and the distraction from Don’t Worry Darling it caused, at least, wouldn’t be nearly as bad if he were simply an actor and not Harry Styles, World Famous Pop Star.
So, does any of this really matter? Well, pundits anticipate a $17-$20 million opening weekend haul for Don’t Worry Darling, much of it likely to come from Styles fans. That only bolsters the notion that all publicity is good publicity. Will the hubbub be detrimental to Styles’ career? Not necessarily. Maybe he’ll deliver one day on the promise of Dunkirk. Perhaps he’ll connect with a director who can channel his live concert performing skills into screen acting prowess. And if it goes sideways and Styles reins in his ambitions, sticking strictly with music, there’d be no shame in that. “Watermelon Sugar” won’t ever get old.