Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy
Inspiration: Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Jeanne Eagels, Alma Rubens, and Thelma Todd
We first meet starlet Nellie LaRoy as she (literally) crashes the Kinoscope orgy, where she inhales a copious amount of cocaine, dominates the dance floor, her bright red dress both free-flowing and figure-hugging as she gyrates in ecstasy. When Kinoscope exec Bob Levine (Flea) needs an actress to replace one who has overdosed, he points to the energetic Nellie, the life of the party, dancing atop a table, casting her on the spot and changing her life forever.
While Nellie may seem overly modern in her style and physicality, Chazelle is actually drawing from several starlets of the era whose modern sensibilities skyrocketed them to fame, most notably Clara Bow and Joan Crawford.
One of the most notorious stars of her era, Clara Bow shined brighter than most of her contemporaries, with her larger-than-life persona and off-screen antics leading to some of Hollywood’s most pervasive — and perverted — myths. Just like Nellie, Bow had a difficult childhood (allegedly her mother had schizophrenia and her father was abusive), leaving New York for LA as soon as she could. Although her casting story is not quite as interesting as Nellie’s, she was signed on the spot after one meeting with Preferred Pictures studio chief B.P. Schulberg. When the independent studio hit financial dire straits, the two moved over to Paramount together.
With her glorious red hair and uninhibited, effervescent screen presence, Bow was a breath of fresh air in Hollywood. Like Nellie, she clashed early on with some of the more established stars. In “Babylon,” Nellie bankrupts producer-star Constance Moore (Samara Weaving) after showing up one day with her face covered in bandages after the pair bickered while in production. This actually happened on the set of 1924’s “Painted People,” where Bow co-starred with Colleen Moore before being fired.
Other tidbits from Bow’s real life, like her gambling problems (and troubles with Cal-Neva casino owner and gangster Jim McKay, played here by a gonzo Tobey Maguire), an unfounded myth involving the USC football team, and a cafe she opened capitalizing on her iconic “It” girl image are all referenced as Nellie rises the ranks of the Hollywood elite before spiraling spectacularly.
While the original “It” girl Bow was the biggest inspiration for Nellie, a young Joan Crawford is the clear inspiration for Nellie’s hip-hugging costuming and even her name. Nellie LaRoy is a nod to Crawford’s real name, Lucille Fay LeSueur. Originally a redhead, Crawford crashed parties and danced wildly into the night. During her first day on set, Nellie astonishes her director with her fearless acting abilities. When Crawford began her career, she was also known for her mastery of screen acting. In fact, George Cukor once remarked that she “had no fear of the camera. You could dolly right up on to her and she would never blink.”
Like Nellie, many starlets had drug problems, especially with cocaine, that led to their early deaths. After many unsuccessful stints in rehab, star Jeanne Eagels died at the age of 39 in 1929, receiving a posthumous Oscar nomination for her work in “The Letter.” Alma Rubens wrote a searing memoir about her struggle with addiction called “This Bright World Again” before she died at the age of 33 in 1931. The sudden death of comedienne Thelma Todd, nicknamed Hot Toddy, at the age 29 in 1935 became one of Hollywood’s most notorious largely unsolved mysteries due to her connections with the mob.
As Nellie accepts her fate and dances off into the night, she joins countless other starlets in obscurity, whose deaths barely merited a mention in the very papers that once exalted them.