How Margot Robbie has perfected the art of carrying a film on her shoulders while never blowing her own trumpet
Margot Robbie has held her own in men-driven narratives like The Wolf of Wall Street and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, and found her own in films like I, Tonya and Birds of Prey.
In one of the key scenes in Cathy Yan's supervillain ensemble Birds of Prey, Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn is seen explaining the purpose of her life to another woman. "You know what a harlequin (a character in pantomime) does? It can't do anything without its master. It needs a master to fulfill its purpose."
This confession is blurted out days after Quinn's breakup with Joker. Completely shattered, Quinn puts on a brave front, not revealing the development to anyone so that she enjoys the 'immunity' from being the girlfriend of a dreaded criminal. After overhearing a conversation where her friends make fun of her for her relationship with Joker, she decides to come into her own, getting rid of her 'J' necklace and putting a chemical factory (where her relationship with Joker began) to fireworks.
Just like her onscreen part, Robbie has also enjoyed 'immunity' in a man's world by choosing to remain in the shadows of leading men like Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf of Wall Street) and Alexandar Skasgard (in The Legend of Tarzan), and for the most part, working with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, known for their films dominated by men.
In both The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019), Robbie stealthily sneaked out of the shadows, to shine a light on her talent and irresistible screen presence. This mischief, highlighted by her signature wide-eyed grin, is characteristic of her constant endeavour to register her presence in presence of Hollywood stalwarts.
Scorsese's corporate drama The Wolf of a Wall Street saw a much-needed strong woman character, and a dash of romance, in Robbie's character Naomi. While Leonardo DiCaprio got a larger chunk of credit for his performance of Jordan Belfort, a hedonistic drug-addicted stockbroker, the portrayal of Robbie as his second wife was not one-dimensional either. She could have easily come across as a parasitic gold-digger determined to cash in on Belfort's fortune, but she did not.
Robbie played Naomi with both puppy-eyed vulnerability and Machiavellian intrigue. In an iconic scene with DiCaprio, she shifted the power dynamics at a time in the narrative when the viewer begins to the question the authenticity of the lead character. She completely owned the scene, making the audiences' loyalty shift to her. This is the sign of an actor who knows how to literally steal a scene.
The Wolf of Wall Street was her debut in Los Angeles after a successful stint in Australian films and television, and American show Pan Am. Since she worked with heavyweights like Scorsese and DiCaprio so early on in her career, she could have easily fallen into the trap of trying too hard. However, right from her Dutch accent to the babe-like attitude, she ensured her act did not end up as a caricature but borrowed from life itself.
Similarly, in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood last year, Robbie registered her own share of moments as late actress Sharon Tate despite getting the shorter end of the stick. The film is set in 1969 Hollywood, and revolved mostly around Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), an actor with waning stardom, and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). As the narrative progressed, Robbie's role seemed to be leading to a horrific climax since the film was reportedly based on the infamous Manson Murders, in which a real-life pregnant Tate was murdered at her LA residence. However, Tarantino narrated history like he wanted to, and the would-be executioners land up at the wrong house, ultimate saving Tate from what the world knew her fate to be.
In such a case, the depiction of Robbie's graph could wind up as all foreplay, no climax. The film was severely criticised for wasting a talent like Robbie. However, both Tarantino and Robbie maintained hers was an immensely significant role since it showed Tate as the simple woman she was before the Manson Murders turned her into a cult of sympathy. Though she lived at a plush Tinsel Town mansion by virtue of being married to filmmaker Roman Polanski, she was seen indulging in the most humble joys, like dancing away in a room and at a party, visiting a bookstore, not paying the ticket of a movie (because "I'm in it"), wearing glasses while watching it, and relishing the live audience response to her fight sequences on screen.
As Sharon Tate, Robbie perfectly balanced the charisma of a growing movie star and the unassuming quality of everywoman. Even at a Playboy party, she danced with such abandon that her old-school glamour cannot be contained by her free-spirited personality.
It is clear that even in a universe dominated by men and their humongous egos, Robbie navigates her way into being a relevant figure. But her evolution over the years has seen her carry a couple of films on her shoulders while not blowing the trumpet about it.
Shades of this were seen in Josie Rourke's 2018 historical drama Mary Queen of Scots. While Robbie plays the more popular Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1569, the titular role of her cousin, the monarch of the neighbouring Scotland, is essayed by Saoirse Ronan. Though Robbie slips into the shoes of an authoritative ruler throughout the film, her best work is reserved for the climactic confrontation with Mary, where the two women rip open to reveal the scars caused by patriarchy in spite of their positions. Robbie feeds off the performance of a fellow Academy Award-nominated actress in order to give the audience a memorable scene. Though history suggests the two queens never met, the audience would not mind the cinematic liberty taken there.
Another film in which she owned her performance was her first-ever titular role in Craig Gillespie's 2017 biopic I, Tonya, based on the life of 1990s figure skater Tonya Harding. Decked up in flashy colours, accompanied by pale white skin tone and blood-red lips, Robbie swiftly transitions from a gum-chewing reckless woman to a figure skater who is poetry in motion. From channeling the joy of an arduous victory in the stadium to breaking down in despair over being barred from figure skating for life in the courtroom, Tonya is undoubtedly Robbie's most versatile act, and she does not mind stretching both ends much further.
The transition from the meatiest part in I, Tonya to a less significant role in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Jay Roach's Bombshell would not have been considered wise by many. But the way Robbie makes her mark in small parts not only fetched her eyeballs and critical acclaim but also a nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category at the Academy Awards this year (for the latter).
Robbie seems to have given it back to all her critics who cried over her less screen time (despite standout moments) in the past two films. Birds of Prey not only offers her Harley Quinn her own Suicide Squad spin-off, it also makes Robbie tap into her inherent girly glee and a borrowed destructive streak. Along with her character, the film also marks "The Fantabulous Emancipation" of one Margot Robbie.
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