For nearly 70 years, it’s been an evocative image. The woman and alleged object of all men’s desire stands atop a stage surrounded by admirers. Dressed in pink and with blonde hair that’s just so chic, she hums something about diamonds, the comfort they afford, and also, in a way, about the power dynamic between men and women. It was eye-catching when Marilyn Monroe did it in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and it has sharper edges for Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.
Robbie’s Marilyn Monroe homage has been at the center of Warner Brothers’ Birds of Prey marketing, from trailers to official clips. After all, what else says this ain’t your typical superhero movie than a ‘50s inspired musical number? And while it’s only a brief sequence in the finished film, it’s also one of the movie’s best moments. Tied up at the nightclub owned by Roman Sionis, the villainous Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), Harley has been captured simply because he believes she’s more vulnerable after her breakup with the Joker.
“I want to kill you, because without the Joker around, I can,” he boasts. “For all your noise and bluster, you’re just a silly little girl with no one around to protect her.” But Harley is neither silly or in need of protection. She quickly realizes that Black Mask is after a MacGuffin of great importance—a diamond, in fact—and Harley will be just the gal to retrieve it for him. Because Harley is resourceful, Harley is smart… and Harley is also a wee bit nuts. Hence when Sionis smacks her in the face, Harley vanishes into a musical fantasy where she gets to go into full Marilyn mode, vamping in pink attire and bejeweled accessories while singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” McGregor even shows up in the fantasy to dance along before shooting up the scene much too quickly.
This fleeting moment is remarkable as it is a glimpse into the Looney Tunes world Harley’s mind swims through, and it’s also thematically the heart of the movie. To take it a step further, it is even thematically about what Robbie is challenging in Birds of Prey, the first superhero movie she’s produced under her LuckyChap Entertainment banner.
By itself the sequence is a brief dive into pop culture etymology. On this end, Robbie and Harley are emulating Marilyn Monroe’s most popular musical number (even as Marnie Nixon dubbed part of the song for Monroe); it also may be a nod to Madonna’s “Material Girl” music video (which likewise homages Monroe); and then there’s the way director Cathy Yan films McGregor interrupting the sequence by shooting up the stage like a more literal version of Fred Astaire’s dance-shooting in “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” from Top Hat (1935). Even McGregor’s inclusion is a knowing wink to one of this century’s musical masterpieces, Moulin Rouge! (2001), in which he plays a penniless writer astonished when Nicole Kidman also sings “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” oblivious to the materialism she is teasing.
But this is more than just an homage to a Marilyn Monroe scene or the abject cynicism of her song (which Madonna wholeheartedly embraced and Moulin Rouge! deconstructed). In the original movie, the song is a third act statement of intent by Monroe’s character, Lorelei Lee. Lorelei is an unabashed gold digger whose entire plight stems from her romancing one rich married man while being engaged to another. When her schemes are discovered, she seemingly loses both, hence her big musical number about why diamonds are better than any transient romance.
Beyond this dreamy sequence about the virtue of social climbing though, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the otherwise mediocre first-half of a one-two punch that made Monroe a superstar in 1953; the other being the slightly better How to Marry a Millionaire. In both films, 20th Century Fox cast Monroe as a dumb blonde archetype whose only values are her looks and the wealth they can invite. She begins Gentlemen, for instance, unable to understand that Europe is not a town in France. Her virtue in the film was limited wholly to her sex appeal in a decade where the social mores were changing… if only to allow Monroe to play the ultimate naïve babe in the woods in need of a sugar daddy.
This of course had nothing to do with the real Monroe. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, the woman who became Marilyn spent her youth running from foster homes, orphanages, abuse, and a brief stint as a child bride at the age of 16. Breaking into Hollywood because of her beauty and sudden success as a pin-up model during World War II, Monroe eventually signed multiple contracts with Fox before she became the defining image of a 20th century blonde bombshell and movie star sex symbol.
She didn’t necessarily want to be that—or certainly only that. Having a contentious relationship with studio head Daryl F. Zanuck, who disliked Monroe and her desire to be more than the dumb blonde gold digger in musical comedies, she was suspended in 1954 for refusing to do The Girl in Pink Tights. She eventually made up with Fox, but she also started her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, for which she was ridiculed in the press and by her peers. Broadway even saw an infamous play written around the punchline of a vapid actress trying to start a production company (that actress was portrayed by Monroe lookalike Jayne Mansfield).
During this era, Monroe also struggled in her private life, including her marriage to Joe DiMaggio, the world famous baseball player who for a honeymoon took Monroe on a business trip to Japan… and then divorced her in a rage after she embarrassed him by posing for photographers over a Lexington Avenue subway grate during the filming of The Seven Year Itch (1955). Again the press took a disdainful sniff at the movie star who let the strong man get away—just as they sneered when she then married intellectual playwright Arthur Miller.
All the while, she strived for legitimacy as an actress by studying with Lee Strasberg, and her production company helped allow her to make different films like Bus Stop (1956), a so-so drama in which she still plays a woman controlled and even kidnapped by the men in her life, but now can reflect on the abuse she’s enduring with an impressive, and unglamorous, Ozark accent.
The story of Monroe’s fight for credibility, both in association with 20th Century Fox or with Joe DiMaggio, and away from these men, is the kind of real world struggle Birds of Prey strives to reflect, even in its gonzo funhouse mirror. In the film, the world around Harley Quinn entirely evaluates her worth based on her relationship with the Joker. Thus at the beginning of the film, very few take her seriously, even when they know she has broken up with the Clown Prince of Crime.
In a scene during the film’s opening montage, Harley overhears women from a club gossip about the “J” necklace she wears, and how they think she’s too weak to be alone… implying she’ll run to the first man who’ll protect her. Indeed, McGregor’s Black Mask is all smiles and courtesies in his initial scene with Harley at his club, even though she just crippled his personal driver. Why? Because he thinks she is still with the Joker. As soon as he knows she is single, he must possess her. “She belongs to me,” he bellows. Of course this being a chaotic comic book movie, possession takes on the form of wanting to slice her face off.
Yet everyone, including other women, define Harley by her relationships to men, and view her to be, as one man says early in the film, “a dumb slut.” These insults are hurled even though she has a PhD and, as she displays throughout the film, a rather quick witted intellect in which she can psychoanalyze her friends and foes alike. In her lifetime, Monroe was likewise defined by the men in her life and what they could give her: stardom from Zanuck; a press-friendly marriage to DiMaggio; a publicly unwanted one with Miller. And then there were the Kennedys…
Through it all, she struggled for legitimacy and respect as an actress when executives were content to just see her singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend:” a male fantasy in which a beautiful woman purports the only thing she wants in this world are the presents powerful men can bestow on her.
Nevertheless, playing that game gave Monroe the tools to eventually make movies she was proud of, like Bus Stop, and to form her own production company—which was a crack in Fox’s power over her and another crack in the slowly crumbling Hollywood studio system. In many ways, Marilyn Monroe Pictures helped pave the way for more female stars to build their own producing labels and have more autonomy over their careers.
That is exactly what Margot Robbie did after she realized the potential of the Harley Quinn character. Perfectly cast as the jester moll, Robbie’s Harley was the sole redeeming quality of Suicide Squad (2016), even as director David Ayer’s camera seemed to most value her for all the lingering shots of her skintight (or nonexistent) clothing. Nonetheless, Suicide Squad gave Robbie a lot more clout as a producer, helping generate interest in I, Tonya (2017), the film that earned Robbie her first Oscar nomination, and now Birds of Prey—the movie in which Harley is center stage with no Joker around to define her status. She even wears overalls instead of booty shorts.
It’s perhaps serendipitous the movie is opening the same weekend as the Oscars ceremony, where Robbie has a second Oscar nomination for her work in Bombshell. The film, about the Fox News scandal that brought Roger Ailes down after decades of sexual harassment and abuse, uses its title to play on the “blonde bombshell” aesthetic created by Hollywood PR men for actresses like Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. It is also, by extension, calling Robbie and co-stars Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman “bombshells.” Yet Robbie herself revealed last year that she actually loathes when journalists, usually men, describe her as a bombshell.
“I hate that word,” Robbie told Vogue in June. “I hate it — so much. I feel like a brat saying that because there are worse things, but I’m not a bombshell.”
One might suspect that in her time, Monroe thought similarly as Fox kept trying to cast her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes type roles; and that Harley definitely did when Black Mask called her “a silly little girl.” But using the tools Monroe pioneered, Robbie is able to take preconceptions audiences might have for her, or for Harley Quinn after Suicide Squad, and blow them away.