The new period blockbuster starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt is about the scandalous side of Tinseltown in the 1920s. Christina Newland wants to know how real it is.
It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that people have different feelings about Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s new loose-cannon period epic set in silent-era Hollywood in the 1920s. If you’re looking for something like La La Land, you won’t find it here. Instead, you’ll find a lot of vomit, cocaine, and weird references to the sleaziest parts of Old Hollywood history, like murder, drug addiction, suicide, and more. With its spinning overhead shots of wild, hedonistic parties, mountains of Class-A drugs, and portrayal of a new movie colony where health and safety on set were, to say the least, not a priority, it’s easy to see why some critics were surprised by its full-throated, enjoyable filth.
In general, the movie is told from the point of view of Manny, a young studio worker (played by Diego Calva, who is great in a role that requires him to mostly react to the chaos around him). When he befriends Nellie LaRoy, a rough-and-tumble aspiring starlet with a scrappy Brooklyn accent, he gets pulled deeper into the chaos (Margot Robbie, whose every whirling dervish move in this film further corroborates her screen power).
At the same time, he is helping a Hollywood legend named Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who is a dipsomaniac and is bumbling his way through the end of his career with one new wife after another.
Babylon mixes fact, fiction, and legend, and there are a lot of historical Easter eggs that make your head spin. This makes it both very cinema-literate and very dense with references. Even though not all of it makes sense – it can be too complicated and over the top to really get at the main point a lot of the time –
Babylon is also a movie with a lot of clever, beautifully made, and hilarious scenes that are based on real historical events. In one scene, Nellie tries and fails over and over again to get a scene right in her first talking picture.
With the old sound technology, even the wrong sole on a shoe can make background noise. This makes it hard to move around in front of the camera in a way that was never a problem in the silent era. Also, movies can no longer be shot next to each other on the same set, with a western shootout right next to a period romance.
A lot of this is true about how hard early sound technology was, and there is a hilariously over-the-top moment when the cameraman, who is locked in a sound-proof box that is way too hot, passes out from the heat.
Many people may have to ask if any of this—the sound problems, wild parties, studio attempts to hide bad behaviour, and so on—had any effect on reality. The answer is that Babylon is a movie that captures the spirit, if not the letter, of the time period it shows. Chazelle imagines the time period as a freewheeling, wild place that was different from what the censors of the time might have thought.
Marya E. Gates, a film historian, told BBC Culture: “Babylon shows the excitement of 1920s Los Angeles and asks big questions about history in a place that tries to sell itself as the ultimate fantasy.
Chazelle directs his well-researched script with a knowing wink and smile, looking at how darkness and light work together.”
One obvious point of reference for the movie is Hollywood Babylon, the notorious 1959 book by filmmaker Kenneth Anger about the supposed scandals of early Hollywood. The book’s “purple prose” about murder by ivory dildos, orgies, and other things would infect the minds of a generation even though he had no real evidence to back up his claims.