“We already know that if you’re an ambitious, beautiful moron you can still find your place in the world,” wrote Joe Queenen, a critic who reviewed Legally Blonde in 2001. “The place is called Hollywood.”
Writer Marlowe Granados points to this review in her essay “The Bimbo’s Laugh,” which charts the recent renaissance of the bimbo (as well as himbo and thembo), an archetype that “only punches up,” “pursues hyper-femininity to the extreme,” is “glossy, voluminous, and kind” — and who, historically, have been “attractive women caught in the crosshairs of powerful institutions and publicized in the media to their detriment.” She’s talking about women like Marilyn Monroe, for example, because it has always been Hollywood who needs a bimbo, and not the other way around.
It’s a tale as old as time, and one that is retold in Babylon, the colossally long, Oscar-bait offering from Damien Chazelle that chronicles Hollywood’s transition into sound films in the 1920s. Showcasing the decadent, depraved underground nightlife scene of the 1920s — an era filled with loose sex, plentiful drugs and debauchery — the film begins with a party that has everything: mountains of cocaine, public sex, rich men with fetishes, overdoses, and French 75s. There’s even an elephant.
Every party, of course, needs a party girl: Enter Nellie LaRoy (played by Margot Robbie) who pulls the age-old trick of showing up and pretending her name is on the list so she can get into the exclusive Hollywood soirée. Instead, she’s let in by Manny, an errand boy for the party host, and the two snort coke and talk about their big dreams of working in film. LaRoy is a mess: She stole a car to get to the party, has a rat’s nest of hair, a thick Jersey accent, an institutionalized mother, is living in squalor and has no connections — but her magnetic table-dancing commands the attention of a casting director in desperate need of an actress, who hires her to show up on set three hours later.
Turns out, she has talent. She can flirt, cajole, and cry on command. She becomes a star overnight, called “the wild child,” after straddling a swan ice sculpture at the premiere, getting hordes of men to follow her around, and icing her nipples before takes. Nellie’s unabashed party girl thing works — until it doesn’t.
When people talk about Babylon, they will talk about how it’s a heartfelt tribute to cinema, or the fact that two people get defecated on in the first 10 minutes, or the fact that, in one nauseatingly long montage, there is a clip from the film Avatar. But what’s most interesting about Babylon is Nellie’s story, a Hollywood story as old as Hollywood itself: how the town will use a party girl until they get sick of her.
Party girls serve us in eras of decadence and frivolity, but when the tides change, they become a liability. As Babylon goes on, Nellie begins partying too much; she’s addicted to gambling. Following the decadent 1920s and the crash of 1929, the modern conservative movement grew in the wake of FDR’s New Deal; people could no longer afford frivolity. The studios try to “fix” Nellie’s diction, taming her Jersey accent for films with sound, cleaning up her reputation so she can woo rich patrons. It doesn’t work. Nelly still cracks inappropriate jokes and chugs champagne. She is dropped by the studios.
It’s a familiar tale — Drew Barrymore got blacklisted from Hollywood following her party girl era; the Disney Channel put a purity ring on Miley Cyrus. Notably, Nellie’s story was inspired by real-life party girl Clara Bow, a silent film actress of the same era who coined the term “It Girl,” after starring in the 1927 film It. Bow was a notorious partier, even refusing to sign the studio’s “morals clause.”
According to the Guardian, studio executives called her a “birdbrain” and a “dumbbell” while she continued to make them masses of money at the box office. Following the death of her film career, she spent her life in relative obscurity. “All the time the flapper is laughing and dancing, there’s a feeling of tragedy underneath,” she said once. “She’s unhappy and disillusioned, and that’s what people sense.”
Bow was the blueprint for a Marilyn Monroe, a sex symbol with an air of frivolity — a bimbo. While Monroe was part of the sexual revolution, Hollywood turned on her during her years of drug addiction and descent into mental illness, during a time of rampant anti-Communism. "America's best-known blonde moving picture star is now the darling of the left-wing intelligentsia,” columnist Walter Winchell said of Monroe in 1956 after she married Arthur Miller.
We can’t talk about any of this without talking about the infamous 2006 New York Post headline “Bimbo Summit,” which was placed atop a photo of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan crammed in the front seat of Hilton’s Mercedes-Benz in the wee hours — the single most powerful representation of once-beloved party girls cast aside in the mid-aughts during an era of conservatism during the Bush administration.
“Whether dead (Anna Nicole Smith), jailed (Paris Hilton), bald (Britney Spears), knocked up (Jamie Lynn Spears), unemployable (Lindsay Lohan) or simply running down the street in raggedy old underwear (Amy Winehouse),” Mandy Stadtmiller wrote in the New York Post in 2007, “the year gone by was young, ditzy and out of control.” By 2008, Disney stars were wearing purity rings and selling their souls to morality clauses.
At the film’s end, LaRoy is saddled with gambling debts, deep in the throes of drug addiction, and is unable to get work. She does have a chance to leave Hollywood, but she can’t escape it, telling Manny that it’s her fate to stay: “I’ve made peace with it,” she tells him in a coked-out goodbye.
Later, we learn she dies at age 34, with a brief obituary for the “wild child” on the front page of the newspaper. There is no fanfare, nothing more to elaborate. She is no longer relevant, dying in obscurity — another washed-up celebrity gone far too soon, from whom Hollywood took more than it gave.