Babylon Review: With a turbocharged but preachy epic about the hidden excess and chaos of 1920s silent-era Hollywood on the verge of talkie extinction, Damien Chazelle returns to that la land where he made his big breakthrough. He was inspired by some well-known anecdotes and further embellished the false rumors and tales. Though I recall Chazelle’s other films being love letters to real people, it is unavoidably loved letters to the movies. Singin’ in the Rain is mentioned beforehand.
The film culminates with a sad, swoony montage reminiscent of the Oscars that features scenes from James Cameron’s Terminator 2 and Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon. Even though Babylon frequently has a sense of humor, it oddly lacks the subtle romantic beauty and believable human imperfection of his Oscar-winning film La La Land in all of its frenzied dramatization (although there are musical echoes of that earlier picture and the same message that jazz is where integrity is to be found in showbusiness).
Chazelle is also concerned about bringing back some of the minorities erased from Hollywood’s history and being more honest about the sleazy realities. Still, he sidesteps the current #MeToo conversation about the Hollywood heyday by stating that all of the explicit sex in this film is mainly consensual. Kevin Brownlow, a silent cinema historian and evangelist, has been mentioned by pundits about this movie. However, Kenneth Anger, the author of Hollywood Babylon, and Baz Luhrmann are owed more credit than either. The crazy party sequences, complete with the required overhead shots of the ecstatically naked women crowd-surfing face-up, are so eerily similar to Luhrmann’s work that he ought to receive a royalty check. Here is the official trailer of Babylon.
In the chaos of the film, a variety of stock characters roam. Brad Pitt portrays Jack Conrad, a gorgeous, long-married, older starring man in the John Gilbert vein whose career is in decline. Jack Conrad hides his inebriated ennui under a façade of pleasant suavity. (I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it: Pitt is Hollywood’s great forgotten cowboy actor with his impenetrable comic drawl and rangy body, yet there are no oaters here.) Li Jun Li portrays Lady Fay Zhu, a gay club singer possibly influenced by Anna May Wong, with style and personality. After being humiliated by racist “blackface” in the wake of Al Jolson’s triumph with The Jazz Singer, great African American jazz musician Sidney Palmer, played by Jovan Adepo, is finally granted some screen time in the talkies. A rare real-life figure, studio chief Irving Thalberg, is portrayed by Max Minghella.
But what matters most is Margot Robbie’s portrayal of obsessive would-be actress Nellie LaRoy, who has a gambling problem. She astounds everyone with her ability to cry on command. Still, she needs some elocution lessons from snobbish British gossip hack Elinor St John (Jean Smart), who has a side job for Henry Higgins and writes gossip columns a la Hedda and Louella. Manny Torres is a movie-struck Mexican boy who gets a position on Jack’s location shoot, rises through the studio food chain, pretends to be from Spain to avoid anti-Mexican bigotry and has a secret crush on Nellie. Relative newcomer Diego Calva plays Manny Torres.
There are several beautiful scenes in this movie. Still, one that stands out is an incredible set piece where Nellie, always up for a challenge, battles a rattlesnake in the desert following one of many orgiastic parties. This fight results in a highly sensual encounter with Lady Fay Zhu. She also excels when Nellie speaks in an upbeat college-girl comedy; she performs take after take with the cameraman melting in his soundproof “sweat box” confinement. Most astonishingly, Manny’s first acting job was corralling an elephant to be brought to a colossally luxurious party where a crisis a la Roscoe Arbuckle was to occur. When a young woman they were using drugs and having sex within a secluded room falls unconscious, one highly indulgent plutocrat waves of panic.
The rape issue—which fueled the real Arbuckle case, in which he was ultimately acquitted—does not come up. However, the film veers significantly from whether this imaginary woman recovers. In contrast to the actual case of dancer Patricia Douglas, who in 1937 became the target of a smear campaign after accusing a studio executive of rape at a party hosted by MGM president Louis B. Mayer, this circumstance is handled differently. Audiences have a right to wonder if the traumatizing secret that the real-life Hollywood Nellie LeRoys endured was not that they had a cutesily conceived “gambling habit” but rather that their bosses were systematically mistreating them.
Babylon is forcing a secondary emotional response that should naturally occur without intentional guidance, a movie that is thinking large, striving big, and acting big but feels medium. However, it’s always a joy to be in the company of such A-list movie stars as Pitt and Robbie, and Babylon’s exaggerated, event-movie gigantism is amusing.