Is it such a crime to be beautiful and talented? Let’s ask the audience! If we’re polling Twitter, the answer would seem to be a resounding “Yes,” based on the response to Babylon’s opening weekend box office numbers. Damien Chazelle’s second “love letter to Hollywood” earned just under $5 million over the holiday weekend. Against a reported $80 million budget (before promotion costs), that qualifies as a disastrous start. It also makes Babylon the lowest wide-release domestic box office number for its star, Margot Robbie, in her entire career thus far.
Babylon’s epic flop can be attributed to quite a few things. For one, its marketing was abysmal. No two people could wager the same guess as to its plot: There are parties? There are drugs? Jean Smart is in it, somehow? The film is also free of any franchise attachment, which is a hard gambit in the post-Marvel age. And despite the bevy of A-List stars attached to it (including Robbie’s co-lead Brad Pitt), there’s simply no way a stylish enigma could win out when stacked against something like Avatar: The Way of Water or the new Puss in Boots movie that just put a second pool in Antonio Banderas’ house.
Yet for all of the factors actively opposing Babylon’s success, Margot Robbie is the one taking all of the heat on Twitter—which, as we all know, is the opinion of the world at large. “Margot Robbie is on the flop run of her life,” one user tweeted. Another plainly put it that “Margot Robbie’s movies have lost Hollywood nearly $200 [million this year],” referring to Babylon’s numbers combined with those of Amsterdam, another colossal bomb that Robbie starred in earlier this year.
Sure, if we’re connecting the dots, it would seem that a pattern might be starting to emerge. Robbie had top billing in two films stacked with other household names within just a couple of months of each other, and both films returned dismal numbers. But why is Robbie alone catching all of the strays here? Lest we forget that Babylon also stars the aforementioned Jean Smart, it also features Pitt, Tobey Maguire, and Olivia Wilde, to name just a few of the big names.
Based on the sound of Twitter’s trumpets, Brad Pitt has come out of Babylon’s bomb relatively unscathed, despite being active in the industry twice as long as Robbie has. Pitt has also been the subject of glowing pieces in recent months (and years), declaring him this century’s “ultimate film star” and praising him for simply turning on Zoom to show up to a virtual table read prime-pandemic. I put pants on most days in 2020, and I don’t even have millions of dollars; where are my flowers, my applause?
Bullet Train, released this past summer, felt like a movie constructed from artificial intelligence that was made by someone who just really loves cameos, but Pitt is still receiving praise for it and his performance in Babylon. Though there are also those who are quick to mention the abuse allegations that follow Pitt, the conversation remains fixated on Robbie—and has now turned toward the virtue of her star power.
Despite headlining major blockbusters, breathing exciting life into DC’s anti-hero franchise, and being nominated for two Oscars within the last five years, Robbie has found herself dismissed by social media as box office poison. You’re no one in this town until the general public turns on you—just ask Jennifer Lawrence, who similarly was straddling franchises with more quirky and surprising fare for years, until audiences decided to paint her as a villain.
It all amounts to a simple truth: We continue to set absolutely impossible standards for women in Hollywood to live up to. If a woman’s not raking in hundreds of millions over opening weekend, her career must be over. She must not be the kind of an actor who can command the public!
“She’s not a butts-in-seats star,” one Twitter user posited regarding Robbie, echoing this idea. Another claimed that “No one goes to watch a Margot Robbie [movie] for Margot specifically.” This is an idea I’ve seen arise in recent years, as we become more online as a culture—that audiences go to movies just to see certain stars. That might be true, but according to the incredibly accurate poll I just took of the family members milling about my parents’ house post-Christmas, most people still go to movies because they look interesting. I love Nicole Kidman, but I watched her (and co-star Margot Robbie) in Bombshell because I wanted to see just how ridiculously bad Hollywood’s portrayal of Fox News would be, not because of Kidman herself. Not even a double bill of Kidman and Meryl “Minaj” Streep could get me to watch The Prom!
The echo chamber of social media has made people confuse being a flop actor with making bold, fun, and committed career choices. I appreciate that Margot Robbie gets a film script, reads it, and says to herself, “This is going to be absolute dogshit—where do I sign?” In fact, I think actors today are too careful, spending their time curating their careers so as not to get on the public’s bad side.
Margot Robbie may be stunningly beautiful (as so many have noted in their criticisms), but she is not afraid of a totally weird choice. Mary, Queen of Scots? A Tonya Harding biopic done documentary-confessional-style by the guy who directed the movie about Ryan Gosling falling in love with a mannequin? A Tarzan movie?! Give some credit where it’s due: Margot Robbie’s got some stinkers, but at least she’s interesting.
There’s a better case to be made about why no one’s running to see Babylon. That no one knows what the damn movie is about seems like a large hurdle. And maybe people—including the beloved, beautiful entertainment critic you’re reading right now—don’t feel swayed to pay $20 to watch three hours of this year’s millionth hedonistic ode to Hollywood’s golden age. That just simply does not scream holiday cheer.
So, no, Margot Robbie is not a flop. She’s just taking big swings, and whether she strikes out or hits a homer is none of her concern. If she’s earned herself any criticism, it’s that she should be taken to task for signing on to Amsterdam, a film made by a confessed abuser—ironically perpetuating the same systems of power that Bombshell so prided itself on thinking it was dismantling. That’s something I will happily chide her for. Well, that and the heightened New Jersey accent her characters always seem to have. Mark my words: When Barbie rides her pink convertible to the top of the box office in six months, the fickle conversation will sway in Robbie’s favor once more.