Pretty In The Past: Robin Johnson

Onscreen and in real life Robin had a mixture of confidence and vulnerability that made her slightly frightening and highly loveable at the same time. Best of all she was genuine. She was real.
Publish date:
February 13, 2013
pretty in the past, Robin Johnson

Back in November I took the opportunity to discuss a performer who I consider iconic and important, despite the fact that she had only appeared in a handful of roles and never rose to the level of fame typically earned by the subjects of these posts.

It remains one of my favourite pieces I’ve written for this site, because it highlights a fact that seldom gets discussed in these kind of celebrations of style, beauty and charisma - sometimes the people who deserve fame and attention don’t end up getting it.

Sometimes a person finds themselves positioned to be the 'Next Big Thing' only to have the wheels of fate twist and turn in the opposite direction. Fame eludes them, even though every indication suggests they possess the special qualities we traditionally choose to celebrate.

As you might have guessed by the fact that the name of the woman in the headline above is one most people won’t immediately recognize, this post tells a similar tale. It is about a young woman who was plucked from obscurity, given a starring role in a movie produced by the same folks who gave us Saturday Night Fever, was promised the world and was then forced to watch as it all fell apart.

It is the story of Robin Johnson.

The story begins when a Canadian filmmaker named Allan Moyle, living in New York, comes across an unidentified young woman’s diary hidden away in a used piece of furniture. Curiosity overwhelms him and he read its entries, which detail her struggles to survive in the largest and toughest of American cities during some of the darkest years it has ever known.

As sad as it is, he finds her writing inspiring and starts thinking about a story of two girls - one rich, the other poor - who join together on New York’s streets and form a bond that allows them to transcend the bleakness of their situation and - with the help of a popular late night deejay - become genuine urban legends.

His script - then called She’s Got the Shakes - eventually found itself in the hands of Robert Stigwood, a man best known as the manager of The Bee-Gees, who had turned to film production to help promote the band. The resulting Fever was the rare film made to justify a soundtrack that actually turned out to be great in its own right. He saw a lot of promise in Moyle’s screenplay, although its success depended on finding the right breakout star.

Moyle was certain he’d found her when someone involved in the production came upon a 15 year-old Brooklyn native with a rough gravelly voice and rebellious attitude. Robin Johnson was exactly who he was thinking of when he wrote the part of Nicky Marotta. Onscreen and in real life Robin had a mixture of confidence and vulnerability that made her slightly frightening and highly loveable at the same time. Best of all she was genuine. She was real.

Stigwood agreed and as production began and some original songs were recorded for the film’s (eventually amazing) soundtrack, he became convinced he had a future superstar on his hands. Having been there before with the similarly charismatic John Travolta, he decided to not risk her moving on without him like Travolta eventually did, and convinced her to sign an exclusive management deal with his company.

During post-production Stigwood and Moyle disagreed on the final cut. Stigwood insisted all hints of the sexual nature of Nicky and Pamela’s relationship be removed, since he wanted a lighter, less gritty film than the one Moyle had imagined. Stigwood won the battle, but he lost the war.

Now an urban fairy tale that bore no relation to the real location identified in its new title - Times Square - the film was met with indifference by critics and audiences alike. It came and went without a trace, save for thousands of double record soundtracks (unjustifiably) found in discount bins across America.

The film’s failure kept Moyle from directing another film for a decade, until he finally returned with the movie for which he still remains best known - the 1990 Christian Slater rebellion-through-radio classic Pump Up the Volume. Unfortunately for Robin, she would not be allowed a similar redemption.

Stigwood had signed her to a management deal with the expectation that Times Square would make her a superstar, but when it didn’t he lost all interest in promoting her career. For some reason, though, instead of allowing her to pursue the few opportunities being offered to her by those who had been impressed by her performance in the film, he kept her from working and those opportunities faded away. By the time she was let out of her contract it was like she was starting all over again.

Three years after Times Square bombed she finally appeared in another film, John Sayles’ Baby It’s You. She followed that with a low-budget but strangely amiable comedy about an all-girl rock trio called Splitz, in which she played the band’s lead guitarist.

This led to a daytime soap and a co-starring role in a TV series called Code Name: Foxfire that ran for 3 episodes before it was cancelled. She then made it into a Martin Scorsese movie, but she didn’t say a word in her one scene in After Hours as the punk girl who hands Griffin Dunne a flyer to a nightclub. Three years later she co-starred in the 1988 Dennis Quaid/Meg Ryan remake of D.O.A. before she finally gave up on Hollywood.

Just 24, she had the rest of her life to live and she eventually pursued a career in L.A. radio while also occasionally appearing in local theatre productions. But as she spent her days giving traffic reports, her first film started to rise from the ashes. As flawed and neutered and unrealistic as it was, more and more people began to rediscover and reexamine Times Square and the conclusion many of them came to was that it was something remarkably special and unique.

Time has been very kind to the film. What was once almost offensively absurd - the idea that these two young girls wouldn’t be immediately devoured by the mean streets they called home - now seems much less important compared to how seriously it takes the relationship between them.

Despite all of Stigwood’s efforts to make theirs just a friendship instead of a love affair, the subtext is there and powerfully felt. This is a film about two girls who truly love and need each other, which makes it a rare film indeed, but - ultimately - it’s Robin’s performance that makes it must-see viewing.

As Nicky, Robin is a raw nerve - a lost girl unable to control the emotions swirling around inside of her. Her toughness is both very real and a façade at the same time. She is a rock star who lives on the street. She is a child desperate to be loved.

Watching her now, it’s clear we’re watching a star in the making - a performer with an electric authenticity that cannot be faked. But it never happened. Robin Johnson didn’t get to become famous. She never got to win any awards.

Instead, she had to settle for a real life. So maybe - given what we know about such things - she was really lucky after all.