‘The Bling Ring’ appeal

Words: Camilla Peffer, Genevieve Rosen 

GQ magazine has a knack for cresting the hype-wave with their covers. This month's star is Emma “Not Hermione” Watson. Sporting Julia Roberts’ iconic Pretty Woman outfit – plus a neon bangle or two – the controversial men’s publication has re-catapulted the discussion of Sofia Coppola’s upcoming film, The Bling Ring (in which Watson plays the lead) into pop culture’s proverbial spotlight, after the trailer leaked just under a month ago. 

Emblazoned with the words “Emma Watson: In Character, Out of Control”, the May feature explores Watson’s upcoming role as ‘Nikki’, an on-screen adaptation of notorious tabloid fodder Alexis Neiers and, while GQ stylists are usually slammed for their unapologetic dissemination of sexist values, here they have managed to make a compelling link between rampant nineties materialism and the movie’s focus on untamed millennial greed.

Although they bandy about 'sexiest ever' a little too often, GQ have a certain skill in selecting cover girls. They named Lana Del Rey their (naked) Woman of the Year at the height of her public allure; they scored a topless, newly-single Jennifer Aniston post-Brad interview in 2005; and they even managed to secure post-baby-body Beyonce for their ‘100 Sexiest Women’ issue, wearing nothing but a sporty crop-top, red leopard print underwear and a belly chain. So what is it that puts Coppola’s Bling Ring in the same league of buzzworthiness? Well, it’s the eternal good girl, Emma Watson, playing the ultimate unlikeable.

“When I read the script and I realized that essentially it was a meditation on fame and what it's become to our society, I had to do it. The character is everything that I felt strongly against - she's superficial, materialistic, vain, amoral. She's all of these things and I realized that I hated her,” explained Watson.

“I found it really interesting [to play someone I hate]... it gave me a whole new insight into what my job, or my role as an actress, could be.”

For the uninitiated, The Bling Ring – sometimes called The Burglar Bunch – were a group of wealthy high-schoolers in Hollywood who robbed the homes of celebrities from October 2008 to August 2009. Using sites like TMZ and celebrityaddressaerial.com, the group was able to use technology to track the whereabouts of celebrities and locate their homes. What’s remarkable (and what makes these events worthy of a Coppola cinematic exploration) is not that they stole over US$3 million from the homes of Orlando Bloom and Miranda Kerr, Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, Rachel Bilson and Lindsay Lohan (described as the ring leader’s greatest conquest) but rather that the suspects were a bunch of brats from San Fernando Valley, an area defined by “Valley Girl” stereotypes and vapid materialism. They would get appropriately drunk, pile into an Audi T4, and ransack the homes of their idols turned victims, piling up suitcases with lingerie, designer watches, handbags and artwork. They would carouse around Mulholland drive, high on the coke they looted and the thrill of owning incredibly expensive tokens of fame.

(“That's so exciting for me”, said Watson on her detestable leading role. “It meant I was really acting.”)

Of all the teens who garnered attention, the self-proliferating, narcissistic Alexis Neiers hit the jackpot for infamy. A coltish brunette who served as an icon for the underbelly of more-money-than-sense teen culture and media saturation, Neiers was 17 at the time and filming her own reality MTV reality program, Pretty Wild. The show was supposed to be an exploration of her life as an enigmatic and somewhat erratic party girl, but the focus quickly changed to her upcoming arrest and bid to stay out of jail.

Alexis Neiers in Pretty Wild.

Casting Leslie Mann as ‘Nikki’s’ ex-playmate mother, Coppola has already started to tick the boxes for her signature exploration of young girls on the cusp of womanhood, as they struggle to come into their own. The new twist, though, is the re-definition of girl culture at a time when online followings are more valuable than offline friends.

Movies about troubled teens have been around almost as long as ‘teens’ have existed as a demographic. Docu-style 13 was a slap in the kisser to parents who believed their kids were still wrapped in cocoons of innocence and  Larry Clarke’s Kids was similarly uncomfortable viewing. But what complicates the relationships between The Bling Ring and movies like Kids, 13 or Rebel Without a Cause is that the very existence of The Bling Ring is wish-fulfillment for its subject. A feature film is a dream for attention seekers – the modern equivalent of a statue in the town square. The celebrity worshipers may have gone through hell and back to get that cover page, but now they’re famous in their own right.

Traces of Coppola’s 2010 Steohen Dorff/ Elle Fanning-starring film Somewhere also seep into the project: A penchant for talent coupled with a panache for creating gossamer, cinematic portraits of unlikely heroes and heroines stuck in a decadent, emotionally unfulfilling existence are glaring parallels, even though this time non-fictional and heavily reported events have been used to create a narrative of corrupted youth.

Also similar to Marie Antoinette, The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation, The Bling Ring carries deep undertones of misery, ennui and isolation, but what should set this film apart is that all those feelings occur in a context of mass self-communication, rather than a world of crippling disconnection.

Surrounding – whether it took away or added to –  Neiers' allure was a very contemporary brand of hyper-reality: you know, the kind that occurs when Perez Hilton reports a reality star enjoys a bit of black tar heroin while the salivating Tumblrverse  immortalizes her infamy. While The Bling Ring is certain to be a piece of subtle, poignant criticism on an existence built on appearances, it’s appeal, as the editors at GQ perhaps see it, is the way forward-thinking talent can reinvigorate what was an easily forgotten story on boredom, privilege and moral decay. 

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