There’s no doubting that Nellie LaRoy, Margot Robbie’s vivacious (albeit vulgar) character in the epic Hollywood drama Babylon, is a tour de force.
The first time audience meets Nellie she’s literally crashing her way into the upper-echelon of Hollywood, and subsequently spends the remainder of the film defying convention and indulging in the debauchery of old world Los Angeles.
Nellie is the embodiment of the times, equally debaucherous as she is depraved, with the decadent backdrop of 1920s LA providing the perfect playground for someone like Nellie to succeed commercially.
As Babylon director Damien Chazelle revealed during a Q&A for the film in Los Angeles the film is a “poison pen, a hate letter to Hollywood, but a love letter to cinema”.
After one viewing, you’ll be completely infatuated with the excessive, grandiose and lawless nature of 1920s era Hollywood.
Before there was even a hint at the burgeoning metropolis of ‘Hollywoodland’ and the golden age of cinema, there were sets of silent films shot on rugged hill-side farms. In juxtaposition to the decrepit landscape, there were titanic silent-film stars—who would in turn become a dying supernova like Robbie’s Nellie or Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad, thanks to the rise of ‘talkies’.
Between the indulgent party scenes, the decrepit and sordid underbelly of Hollywood’s night life and the chaos of filmmaking itself, it’s natural to question how much of Babylon is true, any how much of it is ‘movie magic’.
This is especially true in regards to Margot’s character, Nellie LaRoy, whose chaotic behaviour is part equal parts of her allure and her demise.
Below, everything you need to know about the real-life Nellie LaRoy, including what Margot Robbie revealed exclusively to marie claire Australia about the role.
Content Warning: Spoilers for Babylon lie ahead.
Is Nellie LaRoy A Real Person?
“You don’t become a star – you either are, or you ain’t,” croons LaRoy in the film, and while completely lucid on a cocktail of drugs, including cocaine, her logic is especially sound considering the anarchic nature of Hollywood.
But was Nellie LaRoy a real person, making films during the birth of Hollywood as we know it today?
Nellie is indeed a fictional character, but she was inspired by many emerging actresses trying, against all odds, to break into this disorderly industry. Spefically, Robbie and Chezelle based a lot of Nellie’s story and quirks off of Clara Bow.
Like Clara, Nellie is unabashed, unhinged and completely uncouth. Once you see Babylon it completely puts into perspective why Robbie had such a visceral response to the role—even to the point of considering driving over to Chazelle’s house to convince him to give her the part.
“I love the characters where it’s a big swing and this character is a big swing and I have lot more fun doing that than something more subtle end subdued perhaps,” Robbie revealed to marie claire Australia on the red carpet at the theatrical Sydney premiere.
Despite Nellie being a fictional character, she personifies the changing landscape of the time, and it was Robbie’s task (which she performed masterfully) to strike the balance between the debauchery of old Hollywood, while humanising the character.
And it turns out that Robbie had to look to Bow’s own personal history in Hollywood to do so.
“I think, once you really know a character and, for me, once I know that a deep, deep, deep pain comes from, then extreme reactions can make sense,” Robbie told us.
“So, the more hurt she was in her childhood, the bigger her reactions could be as an adult, I found, or I find that with characters.
“So really, it was about kind of coming up with her backstory and what I ended up doing was kind of taking Clara Bow, who was real life silent film star who had a horrible childhood, and taking her childhood history and believing that and making that where Nellie came from.
“Once I did that, anything she’d do in the movie I could justify.”
The fictionalised element aside, Robbie also told us that she does share some similarities with Nellie, although not the ones you’d probably guess.
“I hope I’m not too similar to Nellie because if you watch this movie she’s pretty unhinged, but she definitely goes for it and I would say when it comes to acting I definitely go for it.”
Who Is Clara Bow, The Actress Nellie LaRoy Is Based On?
From her ensembles (which are worthy of a space in the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures), to her sex appeal and ultimately her demise, much of Nellie’s character is based of the real-life star, Clara Bow.
Dubbed the very first ‘It’ girl thanks to her leading role in a film titled It, and Hollywood’s original sex symbol, Clara was an actress who rose to prominence during the silent film era but failed to make the transition to ‘talkies’ after Hollywood introduced sound into productions.
As Robbie noted, Bow’s childhood was far from the rose-tinted upbringing seen in Hollywood productions.
Bow’s mother was diagnosed with psychosis as a teenager, and subsequently abused Bow throughout her adolescence. Bow even recounted one instance where her mother threated her life with a butchers knife to a publication in 1930.
As we see Nellie embrace her vampish side to make it as a newcomer, it’s a trajectory that Bow perfected back in the Jazz Age. Bow was regarded to “radiate sex appeal”, as the Los Angeles Times put it in 1930.
She was known as a wild child, and thanks to her erratic behaviour and failure to successfully transition to talkies, was eventually ostracised by Hollywood in the 1930s.
Chezelle also modelled Nellie off of silent film stars who “burned bright and crashed hot”, particularly Jeanne Eagels, Alma Rubens, Thema Todd and the legendary Joan Crawford.
“Her voracious hunger for attention, were modelled in part on the young Joan Crawford, who changed her name from Lucille LaSueur upon landing in L.A. in the silent era,” wrote Chazelle in his production notes.
Another silent film star, Lia LaPutti, was noted to be the inspiration behind Nellie’s unkempt and wild-child hair. Given that long hair was unconventional at the time, this look is just one of many subliminal hints of how Nellie uses her no-holds-barred attitude to make it in the mainstream.
While Nellie may not be a real person, she’ll be a character that remains in the hearts and minds of viewers long after the movie is over—not too dissimilar to the transfixing energy of the silent film stars she was channelling.
However, unlike the fleeting careers of stars like Bow, both Margot and Nellie will remembered as two of the greats in cinematic history.
Babylon is available to view in cinemas on January 19.