Watch the trailer of Babylon
Damien Chazelle’s highly anticipated new movie Babylon has taken its place in UK cinemas. The 3-hour saga from the Oscar-winning director of La La Land and First Man offers a flamboyant overview of the ugly debauchery of Hollywood’s Golden Age during the turbulent transition from silent to sound films.
Set in the booming 20s, the R-rated film features Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, as well as a host of big names like Tobey Maguire, Jovan Adepo, Diego Calva, and Jean Smart.
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The bold synopsis promises: “A tale of great ambition and extreme excess, Babylon traces the rise and fall of multiple characters in an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.”
Babylon definitely kicks off in real extravagant style, with a chaotic and elaborate party set filled with jazz, drugs, booze, and even an elephant thrown in for good measure. Things get wilder and more ridiculous as the movie progresses.
Given the movie’s historical background, movie fans are wondering if the characters are based on real-life figures from the industry and whether Tinsel Town really was that scandalous in the 20s.
The true story behind Babylon
While director-writer Damien Chazelle draws inspiration from Hollywood history, the film’s characters are a mix of many fictional and real-life Hollywood actors who exercise great liberties when necessary.
Chazelle is said to have taken her first Hollywood exploration from Kevin Brownlow’s classic work Silent Cinema – The Parade’s Gone By, a definitive account of early Hollywood in all its decadence and depravity.
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While Babylon is set in a time of great wealth, it also captures the difficult transition in Los Angeles, where the film industry gradually shifted from silent to sound films between 1926 and 1930.
“I wanted to look under the microscope at the early days of an art form and an industry, when both were still laying their foundations,” Chazelle said in her commentary in the film’s production notes.
“And on a deeper level, I like the idea of looking at a society in flux.”
With the huge leaps in technology and new audience expectations, many stars failed to successfully return to audio television, and those who did found themselves recklessly succumbing to their newfound notoriety.
In a recent interview with Collider, the Academy Award-winning director claims that Hollywood’s dark impulses, including multiple set crashes, drug-related deaths, and even cold-blooded murders, are only “scratching the surface”.
This was a time of sensational news and dirty scandals as young stars raved on and off the screen, many of whom faced a tragic death from an exploitative and unforgiving industry.
Renowned filmmaker Paul Schrader questioned the period accuracy of the film, when the Taxi Driver screenwriter said, “Babylon is many things, but not one of them well-researched.”
Who inspired Babylon’s characters?
A self-proclaimed fan of early Hollywood, Chazelle worked with a star-studded cast to carefully craft complex characters that epitomize the live fast and die young morals of the changing celluloid age.
“You start investigating some of the people Damien pointed out to us and you start figuring out how many people have died this time,” Babylon star Margot Robbie told Cinemablend.
Robbie also points out how “everyone is young” during this period of exploitation. “People were going from poverty to becoming the country’s biggest movie stars… and if they were 20… they were dead by then, at 25 or 30.”
Are the actors playing real-life types of wild kids from this turbulent time? Apparently it’s not that simple.
Max Minghella, who plays producer and original movie boss Irving Thalberg, is the only real character portrayed in the movie.
Known as the “Magnificent Boy,” Thalberg had a distinguished reputation for MGM’s ability to produce high-quality films, as well as his cunning identification and development of talent.
The other cast members are a mix of multiple starlets and key players from the industry, brought together to paint a picture of the seedy side of show business.
Manny Torres, played by Diego Calva, is based on several Latino filmmakers and actors, including René Cardona, a Cuban immigrant who pioneered the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.
Brad Pitt’s character Jack Conrad is “a sort of uber movie star,” according to Chazelle. “When we met him, he was the top-grossing lead actor in the world.”
Conrad is allegedly based in part on John Gilbert – a hugely successful silent movie star who failed to make the transition to the new sound age in the 20s and watched his illustrious career crumble.
Margot Robbie plays one of the other lead roles, Nellie LaRoy. An up-and-coming actress and flapper girl, heavily inspired by the original ‘It girl’ Clara Bow, with a hint of Joan Crawford.
Bow experienced a meteoric rise and then a fall as she gained a scandalous reputation as a sexually lively party girl.
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Despite making a lot of money for the studios, Bow was never seen as classy enough to be a star, and after too many tabloid revelations he was abandoned by Paramount Studios and eventually retired forever.
Behind her good-time girl personality, Bow had a rough life marked by extreme poverty and violence, and Robbie thought about this while getting inspired by Bow.
“Every time I try to create a character, I have to unravel their childhoods,” Robbie said in a recent interview. “If I can figure this out, then I can justify everything they’ve done.”
“He had the scariest childhood I could possibly imagine for anyone. you can justify anything [she] If you ever imagined experiencing something like this as a kid, he does and says it in this movie.
Babylon has so far received mixed reviews from critics, and while many praise Chazelle’s portrayals of the excesses of the era, some consider it to be exaggerated.
“One of the richest and most ambitious films of the year,” writes Kyle Smith Wall of the Street Journal, while Brian Lowry of CNN describes Babylon as “a sprawling, messy, over three-hour endurance test.”
Nearly a hundred years later, Hollywood still seems like an unstable place where dreams are both made and destroyed in equal measure.
Babylon is now in UK cinemas. Watch a clip below.