The meaning behind Margot Robbie’s ‘unrecognisable’ moment


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Margot Robbie was photographed in London on Monday, and if the paparazzi weren’t given the correct details, we might never have guessed it was her because she appeared, as media outlets noted, completely unrecognisable.

The Australian actor, who shot to fame after playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in The Wolf of Wall Street, is filming a movie about Mary Queen of Scots, opposite Saorise Ronan, (who looks unfettered and delightful in the title role). And if the on-set pics are anything to go by, Robbie has transformed her blonde-haired, blue-eyed, tanned self to play the iconic monarch, replete with troubled skin, high forehead and frizzy red hair.

It’s not the first time an  actor has played the Virgin Queen. The role has been occupied by Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Bette Davis to name but a handful. And although each woman paid tribute to the iconic hairstyle of Elizabeth, none has gone to such extreme lengths as Robbie to look, well … how do we put this delicately? Like a bog-shovelling extra on Game of Thrones.

It’s true that Elizabeth I had skin issues, due, apparently, to a nasty bout of smallpox. But it’s also true that she had blackened teeth due to decay, so where do you draw the line?

Oh, yes, the line.

It’s a formula of sorts laid out for women in Hollywood who are perceived as uncommonly beautiful. And it would appear that Robbie, who appeared in The Big Short naked in a bubble bath in order to make a boring explanation of sub-prime mortgages more interesting, is following it to the letter.

It’s known as “Ugging up” for a role, and not just any role, it has to be a serious movie, one that might carry a faint whiff of Oscar for Best Actress. Or, if the costumes are good, but the plot is thin, a Golden Globe.

Perhaps the greatest example is from 2004, when Charlize Theron gained weight, shaved her eyebrows, popped in brown contacts and changed the surface of her skin for her portrayal of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Theron went on to win an Oscar for her trouble. Two years earlier in 2002, Nicole Kidman won the Oscar after she donned a prosthetic nose and dyed her hair to play Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Gwyneth Paltrow won her Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, a role in which she spent over half the movie wearing a badly cropped wig and a pencil-thin moustache. Natalie Portman won hers for turning into a gruesome, demonic swan, (remember that?). And, just two years ago, Anne Hathaway won her first Academy Award for getting a terrible haircut to play Fantine in Les Miserables.

Are you sensing a theme? If a really, really, good-looking woman, who has hitherto, only played girlfriend roles or similar fare that just isn’t achieving cut-through with Academy voters, she must prove herself through acting, yes, but also by tucking away her looks.

Okay. But what about Jennifer Lawrence? Excellent point. Jennifer Lawrence won her Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook. It was a big role, but it was a joint effort with Bradley Cooper. Put plainly, (sorry) Lawrence was a love interest. This theorem of credibility versus beauty only works if a woman wants to take on a serious role, and only if she is not playing opposite a man. So, a biopic, like is perfect.

It’s true that for a chance at Oscar, men transform themselves too, but here’s something strange: they tend to remake their bodies and leave their faces alone! Matthew McConaughey, Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe, Daniel Day Lewis, Eddie Redmayne all lost weight for their Oscar wins. But, to paraphrase Tina Fey, this is essentially what women have to do just to be in a movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Colin Firth, Denzel Washington, Jamie Fox – all of these men owe their fame, in part, to their looks. It’s not accidental handsomeness, it’s how they have been marketed to the cinema-going public since their careers began. And yet, they have never had to “ug up” for their little gold statues.

We know that, despite recent improvements to Academy Award voting rules, Hollywood has, for much of its existence, been the most sexist place on earth. Still. This is a strange perception, that women, for whom their looks are their “brand” must prove they are serious, not through acting, but by sacrificing their beauty. Why not just get a woman with frizzy hair and pale skin to play Elizabeth? Well, because where’s the fun in that? Who is going to want to go to that movie?

It would be naive to suggest that every actor achieved fame and accolades simply because he or she was good at their craft. Beauty, in both men and women, is a huge determinant of why we go and see their movies. It’s just a shame that, at this point in time, women, like Margot Robbie, must perpetuate the erroneous belief that echoes throughout so many societal institutions: a beautiful woman can be many things: wife, mother, sister, boss  – these days she can even be funny – but she is not to be taken seriously.

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