By Remigius Kim
“Party time, sparkle cocks!”
Margot Robbie shocked and dazzled audiences as the formidable Nellie LaRoy in Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (2022).
A movie set in the momentous transition in 1920s Hollywood, Babylon is not afraid to make the world blush with its brazen portrayal of the hedonistic decadence of 1920s Los Angeles. However, while audiences were drawn in by Margot Robbie’s explicit party sequences and shocking scenes depicting liberal drug use and unbound debauchery, there remains an element of Robbie’s character that was majorly responsible for keeping the world absorbed: her complete freedom.
However, as a character, Nellie LaRoy was not, by any means, an outlier in recent Hollywood productions. Moreover, not only were these characters a crucial element to the success of these movies and TV shows, they were single handedly responsible for carrying them. As of late, several recent productions have featured female characters who have exhibited the same infectious traits as Robbie’s LaRoy, so much so that it has taken the mould of a new trope in Hollywood.
In the same year that Babylon was released, Margaret Qualley portrayed Rebecca Marin in Sanctuary (2022), a sleek dominatrix who blackmails her long-term client that breaks off their relationship after inheriting his family fortune.
Another came in the form of Abbey Lee’s Delly West in Netflix’s recent limited series, Florida Man (2023), a whirlwind of a character who fakes her own death and causes actual deaths in her bold escape from her Philadelphia mobster boyfriend, all the while determined to seek out shipwrecked Spanish gold in Florida.
What one may notice – rather subtly too – is that these are wildly different stories, each differing extensively in their subject matter and feature characters who pursue their own unique objectives.
Each of them, too, have exhibited widely different imageries that are unique and tailored to their character through their physical appearances. Nellie LaRoy’s rough-hewn, loose-fitting red dress in Babylon displays her thorough self-assurance in a sea of well-fitting dinner jackets and bejewelled ball gowns. Delly West’s 90s inspired pastel outfits in Florida Man vividly separates her from other characters in the series. And the contrast of Rebecca Marin’s blonde hair to her smooth, green velvet suit establishes her authority in a powerful, visual way to viewers in Sanctuary.
However, one may also notice the important trait serving as the binding factor between all of these characters: drive. Their appeal comes from their boldness and their active determination to attain their goals, never shy to utilise ruthless methods to ensure their success.
Nellie in Babylon works tirelessly to attain fame in Hollywood by using her acting talents as well as occasionally relying on her charm and natural ability to con others. Rebecca in Sanctuary works to re-establish the fading bond with her client over the whole film through intense emotional manipulation and blackmail. Delly in Florida Man causes chaos throughout the series, setting off a chain of surreal and catastrophic events as she escapes from her relationship.
While the objectives of these characters were clearly defined, it was the characters which gave these goals meaning. Through their determination, these characters exhibited a dangerous recklessness, a willingness to smash things up in order to get what they want. Nellie’s substance addiction and her gambling habits nearly kills her close friend and lover Manny when he attempts to repay her debt to Los Angeles mobsters. Rebecca’s blackmail causes intense emotional distress for her client Hal and drives him to the breaking point. Delly’s great escape resulted in the demise of many, most notably a paramedic who collaborated with her and wound up brain dead after crashing his ambulance and losing it to a wild, beastly, “Florida man”.
While their recklessness is extensively highlighted, the quality at the characters’ core is undoubtedly emphasised. What cannot be ignored with these female characters is their unwavering desire for independence. Rebecca’s blackmail comes from her wish of gaining control both over Hal but, more importantly, over herself. By conquering Hal, she has successfully conquered a part of herself that feels inherently dependent and inferior to Hal.
Similarly, Delly’s rampage in Florida comes as the result of her desire to break free from her relationship. While the initial motivation over her actions appears to be for finding the lost Spanish gold, Delly’s drive becomes more and more apparent as the series progresses. The gold that she seeks becomes an embodiment of her own agency and an escape from other male characters who have both underestimated and sidelined her.
The theme of gaining independence also heavily permeates the narrative of Babylon and was crucial to Nellie’s character development in the film. Nellie’s hunger for fame comes exclusively from the desire of having something that belongs solely to her. Her beauty, glamour and charm are contained to herself and not for the attention of others. Chazelle’s sleek, opening, one-take dance sequences follow Nellie LaRoy alone as she dances through the lavish and debaucherous house party of a Hollywood mogul. This was no accident as the scene subtly and vividly displays that Nellie is not dancing out of performance, but instead out of her own enjoyment.
In the taxi monologue in New York, Nellie reveals to Manny that she has “done nothing but disappoint people” and that she fails to measure up to the standards of casting directors, family and others in society. Instead, she reinvents herself to actively disappoint them by being authentically and unapologetically herself.
“And I like making ’em squirm. Let ’em know that I got here on my terms, not theirs. And when I’m done, I’m gonna dance my ass off into the night.”
Nellie’s monologue fundamentally touches on the core of her character and needles the drive behind her actions poignantly. Her gambling addiction, her abuse of drugs and her need to put on a lavish, public spectacle can therefore be explained as her way of exhibiting her complete liberation from the restraints that society intends to impose on her. Towards the end of the film, even when she truly loves Manny and has accepted his marriage proposal, Nellie eventually leaves him behind and dances away on her own into the night, never to be seen again. By doing so, Nellie has truly accomplished what she had set out, she became truly free.
By no means are these characters good people and by no means did their respective stories attempt to label them as such. They are inherently flawed, with each of them perfectly aware of the destruction they had inflicted on their surroundings. What’s more, all of the characters also recognise the severity of their actions transparently and thoroughly, and embrace them without moral justification. Instead, there exists a complete apathy, and this lack of concern ultimately reflects their tight grasp on freedom, even at the cost of others.
Interestingly, characters similar to Nellie, Rebecca and Delly have long existed before the golden age of Hollywood and indeed, even movies themselves. It is no surprise that not only are they recognisable but that they resemble remarkably some of the most iconic female characters in literature.
Estella in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Emma Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s Emma would immediately spring to mind when it comes to glamorous female characters who behave against the tide of society. However, perhaps the most definitive example could be found in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Having been acclaimed to have crafted and solidified the characterisation of flappers in the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary works have fundamentally defined the contemporary perceptions of flappers today. Through this strong characterisation of female characters who are incredibly bold in their active rebellion against the restrictions of society, Fitzgerald shifted the mood of the American society in his time by making them seem fashionable and appealing.
Indeed, this new wave of female characters in recent Hollywood productions has, in some way, taken shape as the new-age flappers of the 2020s.
In many ways, this new trope of bold, reckless female characters parallels the heroines of some of Fitzgerald’s most well known novels such as This Side of Paradise (1920), The Beautiful and Damned (1922), and most famously The Great Gatsby (1925). Glamorous appearances and carefree attitudes have served as the engine behind the heroines in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and while characters such as Nellie LaRoy and Delly West may shadow Daisy Buchanan and Gloria Gilbert in their indulgent and careless behaviours, there also exists some crucial distinctions.
Despite being female characters with strong will, Fitzgerald’s female characters behave recklessly at the expense of a weaker male character who governs them and cleans up their mess by the sheer might of his gender. As a result, their glamour and value rely on the financial support of the men that they are attached to. Unlike Nellie LaRoy who dances for her own amusement, Daisy Buchanan’s actions exist as a performance to please male characters such as Gatsby and Tom. More importantly, in This Side of Paradise, Gloria’s persistent rebellions are crushed repeatedly and effortlessly by the fact that she is financially dependent on her husband Anthony. In The Great Gatsby, Daisy retreats back into the control under Tom Buchanan, by harsh contrast to Nellie’s melancholic exit into the evening in Babylon for the sake of preserving her own freedom.
Therefore, the most significant difference arises when it becomes clear that Fitzgerald’s flapper characters were allowed to be reckless, which subsequently displays that they are not and cannot be truly independent. This absence of freedom fundamentally needles their wasteful indulgence and carelessness all the more harshly and vividly.
Once more, it is important to note that while the flaws of these new, flapper-esque characters in recent media have been heightened and accentuated, they are by no means celebrated. All of the respective narratives have made painfully clear that their protagonists’ actions are at fault and remain the direct causes of catastrophic consequences. Moreover, there have been no attempts to justify their flaws or have them attenuated in any way by reconciling it with the characters’ desire for freedom. What it did accomplish was to provide a new life to the flappers that Fitzgerald had created by placing self-determination at the absolute heart of their characterisation. Therefore, it is, unmistakably, this theme of unapologetic independence that has been glorified and glamorised.
For Hollywood’s new-age flappers, freedom is not only crucial but essential to their very existence and, for once, they do not feel the need to apologise to anyone for it.
Image: Judge Magazine (1926) via Wikimedia