In the opening paragraph of his Vanity Fair profile of Margot Robbie, writer Rich Cohen describes the actress in a manner that makes you wonder if this is the first time he’s ever met a woman. After claiming that ‘America is so far gone, we have to go to Australia to find a girl next door’, Cohen glories in detailing how delightfully foreign and compares Robbie to an alien, watching and learning about America from a mystical distance as she waited for her big break. The entire piece is beyond bizarre in the way that only a celebrity profile gone wrong can be, but it highlights the particular contradictions that surround the way we talk about the young female starlets of Hollywood, particularly those who are, to use the technical term, fucking gorgeous. Margot Robbie is a stunning beauty who the industry latched onto as their burgeoning sex symbol of the era and tried to box her into those narrow parameters. Many beautiful actresses have come before her, but few have worked at the speed Robbie has to move beyond that crowned image of flawless sex appeal and into the realm of acclaimed actress. It’s a path she’s swiftly made her own, partly through tried and tested tactics but largely through self-awareness of her own brand and knowledge of those who came before her.
Like many Australian actresses before her, Robbie came to prominence through the soap opera Neighbours, playing the character of Donna Freedman. She was nominated for a couple of Logies, became a fan favourite, and when her contract came up for renewal, the makers of the show fought tooth and nail to keep her on the air. By that time, she’d already decided to head off to Hollywood, so Donna got a happy ending and left for America too. Robbie herself said she would have preferred for the character to have a dramatic ending with more finality, but it was clear the producers were hoping she’d want to return if the whole Hollywood thing didn’t work out.
She moved to Los Angeles in 2011, at the age of 21, although refuted rumours plague her that she’s older than officially reported, which gives you an idea of how sexualised women are viewed by the world. Within the first few months she had landed her first major role in ABC’s retro drama Pan Am, having originally for a role in the Charlie’s Angels reboot before the producers at Sony informed her that they felt she was a better fit for their other show. The series was cancelled after 1 season, despite warm reviews from the critics, and Robbie established herself with her undoubtable charm as a rookie air hostess. In the Vanity Fair profile, she is candid about the peculiar process of the pilot audition process, wherein ‘you have to sign your contract before they test; you sign on to do seven years before you even know [if you’ve got the part]’, and lamented the switch in tone the show made midway through the season in futile hopes of clinging to viewers. During that time, Robbie started auditioning for other roles. She appeared in a small role in Richard Curtis’s About Time and then read for the part of Naomi in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
This is the role that shot her into the stratosphere of fame. As Jordan Belfort’s second wife, she is brash and funny and has a look of withering disdain that could send Leonardo Dicaprio rushing off-set in shame. Naomi is a prime Scorsese broad, one Robbie embodies with panache and, despite a wonky Brooklyn accent, manages to hold her own against a titanic ensemble. Yet, perhaps almost inevitably, it wasn’t really her acting that people were excited about. Jordan Belfort positions Naomi as an object in his drug addled life of brutish hedonism, and the camera does spend a lot of time slavering over her like a giant tongue, but the film itself is not fetishistic of Robbie. We view the world of The Wolf of Wall Street through Belfort’s eyes, and what he sees is money to be made, drugs to be taken and women to be disposed of like well-used tissue paper. When Jordan hits his wife, it’s not supposed to be glamorous. A lot of people thought the film condoned Belfort’s abhorrent behaviour, but I don’t think that’s true. With regards to Robbie, she’s a true highlight of a movie crowded with them, but it became too easy for viewers and the media to just dismiss her as, in the words of Terence Winter’s screenplay, ‘the hottest blonde ever’.
Robbie has certainly used that image to great effect, both in terms of furthering her career and poking fun at it, often at the same time as was the case with her scene in The Big Short, where she explained the complex jargon of subprime loans while lounging in a bubble bath and drinking champagne, or the librarian sketch during her guest hosting of SNL where a jock boy’s fantasy goes hilariously wrong. Focus is not a great movie but Robbie is exactly the kind of on-screen presence who can wear that golden age femme fatale persona as naturally as the rest of us wear socks. Even in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a movie that is somewhat misguided in its earnestness, allows her to play with the image of being the pretty woman in a business where that’s a double-edged sword. Being beautiful is hardly the curse of an actress, but in an industry where women are often dictated to solely on that basis and are frequently the prey of predatorial producers hoping to cash in on those looks, it can be a near impossible field to navigate. Robbie is intensely beautiful in a manner that feels simultaneously classical and modern: Think Carole Lombard by way of Scarlett Johansson, with a dash of Megan Fox for good measure. Fox comes to mind a lot whenever I think of Robbie. While Robbie is definitely the best actress of the pair, both were similarly packaged and dissected when it came to how the industry saw them and the value placed upon how they looked. It’s hard to talk about Megan Fox without thinking of the ways movies, directors, critics and viewers reduced her to a mere prop, and you can see echoes of that throughout the brief but flourishing career of Robbie. Nowhere is that more evident than in a tiny pair of booty shorts worn for the role of Harley Quinn.
Everything about Suicide Squad is bad. To even begin to interrogate what went wrong with that train wreck of a film would take a greater mind than I possess. Nothing about it works beyond the glimmers of potential in about half of the ensemble, most of whom have to force themselves through cringe-worthy dialogue, nonsensical plotting and next to no character development in order to make some kind of impression. As the Joker’s girlfriend who has her own psychotic follies, Robbie is easily one of those depressingly few bright lights in a grim affair. Really, she’s kind of perfect for Harley, with that gleam in her eye that turns so quickly from seductive to sociopathic. Harley is a tough character to write well: The best writers of the comics make her an anti-heroine for the ages, balancing an undeniable sweetness with true madness and oft-underestimated intellect, but then there are those who just want a bikini clad villainess with a giant hammer they can pretend is a Strong Female Character by merit of her ability to kill men without slipping out of her booty shorts. Her relationship with the Joker is one of the comic book world’s most complex portrayals of a toxic romance, which is what makes it all the more satisfying when she leaves him to go her own way.
None of us expected Suicide Squad to let Harley be her own woman entirely separate from DC’s most bankable baddie, but the muddled mess of their thankfully brief take on the relationship, told completely straight as a passionate mad romance, was still a disappointment. Once Harley is separate from the Joker, she’s not much better, dressed in an outfit so Male Gaze-y that Laura Mulvey might sue. Robbie does what she can, but it’s abundantly clear that the film is more interested in creating a pin-up for Hot Topic merchandise than a deftly drawn anti-heroine for the modern blockbuster age, something we could sorely use. Our superhero heavy movie culture has so few women at the front and centre of such stories, so seeing one of the comic book world’s most beloved female villains reduced to what a focus group of men deem the perfect product is an unsurprising result of the industry’s worldview when it comes to women. It’s a total waste of Margot Robbie as well. You watch the film and silently pray for Amanda Connor or Gail Simone to redraft the script in her favour.
After a couple not so great projects - including Jane in another Tarzan reboot and a thankless turn as AA Milne’s wife in Goodbye Christopher Robin - Robbie seems to have found the next role that will offer her the stepping stone from beautiful up-and-comer to legitimate actress, although even typing that I feel like I’m patronizing her. I, Tonya, wherein Robbie plays disgraced ice skater Tonya Harding, is also her debut as a producer. It opened at the Toronto International Film Festival to surprise raves and was the runner-up for the People’s Choice Award. Robbie has already secured a Gotham Award nomination for Best Actress and it’s no surprise that talk has begun for the seemingly never-ending cycle of awards season. Critics have been vociferous in their praise, but even the most ardent fans of her performance cannot help but mention the physical transformation at the centre of it. They talk of her being ‘stripped of her usual glamour’, while reports call her transformation ‘amazing’, ‘unrecognisable’, a ‘shock’ and even ‘insane’.
In a Vogue article that emphasises the physical transformation, the film’s head of makeup says ‘Our biggest obstacle was how classically beautiful Margot is’. It’s hardly the curse of the century but you get a lot from that sentence: The ways women are judged solely by their looks, the stereotypes made about their talents or lack thereof because they look a specific way, the ways playing down one’s beauty is painted as arduous, and the manner with which being anything less than pretty is a certifiable achievement. Robbie has proven herself repeatedly to be a talented actress, often in thankless roles beneath her skills, but it’s not until she goes ‘ugly’ that the narrative is complete. That’s how you become a serious actress. Never mind that Tonya Harding was hardly hideous, but anything beyond beautiful is a step down in Hollywood’s eyes. Robbie isn’t even unrecognisable as Harding, but that process will be what heavily defines her performance once awards season rolls around. Try and keep count of how many times she’s asked about it in interviews, and how it’s posed as something difficult or even brave.
None of this is Robbie’s fault. The chances are she’s the type to roll her eyes open derision when asked such questions. She is playing that had she was dealt and I’d argue she’s doing it with piercing success. In the space of five years, she’s moved from rising TV star to blockbuster favourite and producer with a strong clear vision for her own career. Women in Hollywood have a short shelf life, especially if the industry primarily defines them based on their beauty, and moving past that point and into a fruitful career with true longevity is a minefield unto itself. That Robbie has done it so quickly is to be commended.
She’s also done it with basically no promotion of her personal life. She has a Twitter account but it’s sparingly updated, mostly with promotional tweets and shout outs to her favourite charities (as well as public support for a yes vote in Australia’s referendum on equal marriage). Her husband Tom Ackerley occasionally posts a photo of her on his Instagram, but their relationship is so low-key that she kept it pretty secret for years, keeping her marriage last year out of the headlines. According to a recent Page Six report, a source claims that Robbie admitted the pair had actually been married for three years. Keeping a secret in Hollywood is not impossible, particularly when it comes to relationships. Look at how Katie Holmes and Jamie Foxx kept away from the cameras for close to five years before allowing the paparazzi to snap a shot, or the way Carey Mulligan and Marcus Mumford have remained out of the public eye to the point where many didn’t realize Mulligan had given birth to her second child. Kerry Washington managed to lock down an engagement and wedding, as well as ensure her two pregnancies were intensely private. There’s no doubt that some stars face immense scrutiny from the press, but it’s worth remembering how a celebrity can harness their private life for career gain, and how choosing to opt out of that process is surprisingly easy.
Robbie has a jam packed schedule for the next few years. She’ll be playing Queen Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots alongside Saoirse Ronan, as well as the thriller Terminal (which she’ll produce). There’s the inevitable sequel to Suicide Squad, plus DC’s constant attempts to expand their franchise with Gotham City Sirens and a Harley-Joker project. She’s attached to a reinvention of the Robin Hood story, centred on Maid Marian, which she’ll also produce, and gossip swirls that she’s the favourite to play Sharon Tate in Quentin Tarantino’s Manson Family movie. Robbie never did the grind of tiny indie projects before moving into the bigger movies like many actresses, so now she’s doing it backwards. The benefit to that is she has the clout and know-how to make it the most optimal experience for her career. She doesn’t have to grind in nothing little roles if she doesn’t want to, so she’ll use her name and growing power to remind everyone she deserves to be there. Many in the industry may have spent years dismissing her as nothing but a pretty face, but there’s real savvy behind that, and it was never hidden in the first place.