Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Baz Lurhman is another glaring directorial influence on Birds of Prey, one who is also named by Yan. “I have always loved the way that Baz Luhrmann can do his heightened worlds that create a really beautiful, subsitive [sic] space,” the filmmaker told Heroic Hollywood during the movie’s London junket. “His Romeo + Juliet was a big influence.” That’s not the Luhrman I was thinking of while watching Birds of Prey, but they do both have a lot of pop style in service to an adaptation involving ridiculously pulpy gang warfare. And Birds of Prey definitely has a frenetic pace reminiscent of Luhrman’s work.
Luhrman’s next movie, the musical Moulin Rouge!, is more easily linked to Birds of Prey for two superficial reasons. One is that Ewan McGregor stars in both movies. Another is that Birds of Prey features a dream sequence in which Harley performs a pantsuited take on the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which calls to mind the mashup of that song and Madonna’s “Material Girl” (the video of which is modeled after the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes scene) in Moulin Rouge! — and McGregor appears in both sequences. The soundtrack item in Moulin Rouge! sampling “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is reworked enough to have its own title (“Sparkling Diamonds”) and the same goes for the soundtrack item in Birds of Prey (“Diamonds”).
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
In the spirit of Harley’s narration in Birds of Prey, let’s pause a moment and go back a little further in time. You need the whole story. You can’t fully appreciate the “Diamond’s Are a Girl’s Best Friend” connection to Moulin Rouge! without knowing the movie that starts that pop culture reference. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes actually originated with a novel, which was adapted as a stage musical for Broadway with Carol Channing singing the song. Marilyn Monroe gave us the most famous rendition in the movie version, however, with Travilla’s costume design giving it part of its iconic look, which Birds of Prey costumer Erin Benach updates like she’s giving us her artform’s equivalent of a cover song.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is also worth looking at for its status within feminist film theory. While Birds of Prey is immediately being celebrated as a feminist superhero movie but also invites contrary viewpoints, Howard Hawks’ musical has been subject to debate over its representation of women for decades. Many scholars remind of the indisputable male gaze, fetishization, and otherization of the movie’s characters (Claire Johnston calls Monroe’s Lorelei “woman-as-phallus”) in response to attempts to call it ahead of its time for its female relationships (including lesbian readings of the film). Modern interpretations do seem to side with it being a feminist buddy comedy, however, with its protagonists bonding together and exploiting men (the latter laid out monetarily in the “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” lyrics), not unlike the women of Birds of Prey. Watch the 67-year-old movie and come to your own conclusion (with our without help from readings).
I also recommend watching the music video for Madonna’s breakout single “Material Girl,” which is directed by Mary Lambert, who’d go on to make the first adaptation of Pet Semetary and other horror movies as well as the documentary 14 Women. The video’s nod to Monroe’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes performance is for ironic purpose as the narrative around and in contradiction to the lyrics of the number portrays a woman more interested in romance rather than wealth and material things. And through Lambert’s lens, there’s some play to the male gaze of the number, represented literally in Keith Carradine’s lust-at-first-sight love interest. The video has been celebrated for turning Madonna into a “postmodern feminist heroine” as well as a postfeminist icon.
Leon: The Professional (1994)
Luc Besson is a complicated filmmaker as far as feminist representation goes. He’s one of those writ er-directors who champions the concept of the kick-ass woman, with most of his movies centered around a female character more recognized for her physical abilities than her personality. Plus he’s an alleged rapist. Still, one of his earlier, still-beloved movies was an influence on Yan as she made Birds of Prey. As she discussed the films that inform her own during a press set visit (via Slashfilm) she included, “The Professional for sure, especially the relationship between Harley and Cass.”
That relationship is one of an older rescuer taking in a young woman who is hiding from the bad guys and it’s being likened there to Jean Reno’s titular assassin in Besson’s movie taking in Natalie Portman’s character after her family is gunned down. I find it a bit of a stretch but when Cassandra Cain is sitting outside her apartment while her foster parents argue did remind me of our introduction to Portman’s Mathilda in The Professional. Actress Ella Jay Basco, who plays Cass, doubled-down on the influence during the London press junket (also via Slashfilm): “I took actually took some inspiration off of The Professional with Natalie Portman. And that was something that I really used while trying to figure out her character.”
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Here’s another movie that Yan has cited as a reference, and it’s one that’s more glaring. No, the Birds of Prey never barge into anyone’s house and sexually assault someone while singing along to classic Hollywood show tunes. Nor is Harley Quinn every rehabilitated in an experimental fashion including having her eyes propped open to watch brainwashing propaganda. The Birds of Prey aren’t exactly a bunch of female droogs. It’s simpler than that. Yan said during the set visit, “We also visually I think [were] very much influenced by A Clockwork Orange as well. And that and like the Milk Bar. The Black Mask Club has a lot of that. The female figures, I’ve been kind of reinterpreting that. The Mod style, the ’70s era.”
Here’s my documentary pick of the week and the one item on this list that’s solely my suggestion. After her breakup with the Joker, Harley takes up roller derby, which is a good fit for her until her teammates start complaining about her and she overhears them. The hobby isn’t just to flesh out her character, though. It’s a setup for an action bit later on when Harley asks Huntress to “whip” her during a car chase. What does it mean to “whip”? In the sport of roller derby, it’s a kind of assist, as seen in the movie, where one player helps propel another forward.
If you’ve seen the movie Whip It or you’ve gone to live roller derby bout (they’re a lot of fun), you already know this. Or maybe you’ve seen any of the recent documentaries made about the sport, such as Blood on the Flat Track: The Rise of the Rat City Rollergirls. If not, or even if so, I recommend going back to the Citizen Kane of roller derby docs, simply titled Derby. It’s a bit on the exploitation doc side, particularly during a scene with go-go dancers, but it’s also a compelling observational film that showcases the lives of both men and women in the scene. Unlike most of today’s derby leagues, those in this film involve banked track instead of flat track play. But right away you can see some violent action similar to what Harley does in Birds of Prey and an immediate example of a whip.
Two Little Rangers (1912)
Birds of Prey reminds us that although not a lot of women filmmakers have directed action movies, they’re certainly capable of doing so and they do have a long history with the genre. Alice Guy-Blache isn’t just one of the first major film directors in general, rather than just one of the first women film directors, but she’s also one of the first notable directors of action fare. She gave us war action as early as 1898’s Surprise Attack on a House at Daybreak, and more than a decade later she made the 15-minute short Two Little Rangers, a Western with plenty of thrilling sequences.
The plot of Two Little Rangers should appeal to fans of Birds of Prey, too, since it’s about violent justice in the case of an abusive husband. And it’s at the hands of some empowered young women. To make a long convoluted story short (with spoilers), following some rough business between the wife-beater, a cowboy who steals her away, and a postmaster who gives the woman a new home, as well as the near-murder of the postmaster, his daughters go after the abuser/would-be-murderer and shoot up the guy’s house and then set it ablaze, killing him.