When Margot Robbie walks the red carpet this Sunday, Feb. 9, she’ll have already won. She may not take home the Supporting Actress Oscar this year (my money is on the long-overdue Laura Dern for Marriage Story); the 29-year old Marvelous Margot has already been nominated twice by the Motion Picture Academy. But even before this year’s Oscar envelopes are opened, it’s a fair bet that Robbie will be the most envied actor in Hollywood—she’s the above-the-title star and producer of what is certain to be this year’s first box office smash: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). If my guess is right, the film will be major box office AND critical success.
I’m a huge fan of Robbie’s work. She more than held her own in the formidable role of Elizabeth I opposite Saoirse Ronan in 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots; and in her supporting role in last year’s Bombshell, Robbie stole the film from no less than Oscar-winners Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron. I thought Robbie was even better in Bombshell than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (would it have killed the Academy to nominate her for both?).
Let us ponder Birds of Prey for a spell. Way back in September 2017, following her world premiere of I, Tonya at the Toronto International Film Festival, I asked Robbie about the possibility of her returning to the role of Harley Quinn in the wake of scorching the screen in a supporting role in 2016’s Suicide Squad.
“I knew that I definitely wasn’t ready to stop playing Harley, that there was still so much yet to be discovered,” she said. “The most exciting thing is having choices with your character. And let’s face it; you can do almost anything when you’re playing Harley Quinn. With some roles, you can react one or two ways; with Harley, it’s more like 20.”
Hollywood loves sequels a little too much, particularly when it comes to the superhero genre. Since 2003, we’ve had no fewer than 23 superhero films from DC and Marvel. But Robbie had very little interest in a money-in-the-bank rehash. She wanted something more subversive. So, she first sought out emerging screenwriter Christina Hodson.
“Margot and I fell in love over early morning pizza in the summer of 2015,” said Hodson. “She told me of her dream of doing a Harvey Quinn/girl gang movie and I was 100% in. We really saw eye to eye on a new tone but while keeping it fun. We wanted to do something boldly different in the superhero movie space.”
For their reimagined origin story that would pair Harley Quinn with a new collection of characters, they drew inspiration from the new generation of DC comics, particularly the New 52 series, when Harley is out on her own and no longer with the infamous Joker. Robbie and Hudson thought if Harley was to be the star of her own film, shouldn’t she also be the star of her own life? So, in Birds of Prey, that leads Harley on a collision course with Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and rogue cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). Toss more chaos into the blender in the personage of Cassandra Cain (the film debut of Ella Jay Basco), a character that DC Comic fans may know is destined to be a reincarnation of Batgirl, and Birds of Prey has mixed an acerbic, crass and nearly always perditious X chromosome cocktail.
It’s important to note that Birds of Prey has a hard R rating—there is strong violence and language throughout. Oddly, that’s what I admire most about Hodson’s storyboard: These badass Birds inhabit an adults-only universe, and choose not to nest in a squishy PG-13 world that attracts basement-dwelling fanboys. Indeed, this Birds-eye view is not from Gotham’s skyscraper rooftops where Batman prefers to perch. No, these Birds fly low among the Gotham’s grimy curbs. Cars are stripped, people are accosted and just about everybody is living by their wits and, like Harley, reinventing who they are. And special kudos to the small but essential touches from Birds’ production designer K.K. Barrett. Take Harley’s apartment for example. It’s as erratic as she is: There’s a commemorative Queen Elizabeth pillow on the fold-out couch, Chinese lanterns are hung throughout, and strewn across the counter tops are a volcano of cheese balls, a jar of marshmallow Fluff, an open pack of Easter Peeps, stacks of dry ramen, loose sticks of dynamite, a stuffed beaver wearing a pink tutu, and oh yes, a hyena… a real one, who apparently likes to keep things clean.
Cassandra: “Oh s**t, it that a hyena in your bathtub?”
Harley: “I named him Bruce, after that hunky Wayne guy.”