Watch the trailer for Babylon
Damien Chazelle's hotly anticipated new film Babylon has landed in UK cinemas. The 3-hour epic from the Oscar-winning director of La La Land and First Man gives a glitzy overview of the outrageous debauchery of Hollywood’s Golden Age during the tumultuous transition from silent films to talkies.
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The bold synopsis promises: “A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, Babylon traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.”
Babylon certainly begins in true bombastic style with a chaotic and elaborate party set piece, packed with jazz, drugs, booze and even an elephant thrown in for good measure. Things only get wilder and more ridiculous as the film progresses.
Given the historical backdrop of the movie, film fans are already wondering if the characters are based on real-life figures from the industry and if 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 blend of fictional and multiple real-life Hollywood players, taking large liberties where necessary.
Chazelle is said to have taken his early Hollywood research from Kevin Brownlow’s classic study of the Silent Cinema – The Parade’s Gone By, a definitive account of early Hollywood with all its decadence and depravity.
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While Babylon is set during a time of gross opulence, it also captures the rocky transition in Los Angeles, as the movie industry gradually moved from silent films to talkies, 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 finding their footing,” Chazelle said in commentary included in the film’s production notes.
“And, on a deeper level, I liked the idea of looking at a society in change.”
Along with large leaps in technology and new audience expectations, many stars were also unable to successfully pivot to the talkies and those that did, found themselves recklessly indulging in their newfound notoriety.
In a recent interview with Collider, the Academy Award-winning director claims he only “scratched the surface” of the dark impulses of Hollywood – which include multiple set accidents, drug-related deaths and even cold-blooded murders.
This was a time of sensational news stories and sordid scandals, where young stars ran amok on and off-screen, with many meeting a tragic demise from an exploitative and unforgiving industry.
Acclaimed filmmaker Paul Schrader questioned the film's period accuracy, with the Taxi Driver screenwriter saying “Babylon is many things but well researched isn’t one of them.”
Who inspired Babylon’s characters?
Chazelle, a self-proclaimed fan of early Hollywood, worked with the star-studded cast to carefully craft complex characters that epitomised the live fast and die young ethos of the shifting celluloid era.
“You start researching some of the people that Damien pointed us towards, and you start racking up how many people died this time”, Babylon star Margot Robbie told Cinemablend.
Robbie also points out how “young everyone was” during this exploitative time. “People were going from being dirt poor to being the biggest movie stars in the country... and if they were 20… they were dead by that time they were 25 or 30.”
So are the cast portraying real life wild child types from this turbulent time? Turns out, it’s not that simple.
Max Minghella, who plays producer and original movie mogul Irving Thalberg, is the only real-life character depicted in the film.
Thalberg, known as ‘the Boy Wonder’, was credited with MGM’s distinguished reputation thanks to his ability to produce high-quality films, as well as shrewdly identifying and cultivating talent.
The other cast members are a blend of multiple starlets and key players from the industry, amalgamated to paint a picture of the seedy side of showbiz.
Manny Torres, played by Diego Calva, is based on several Latino filmmakers and actors including René Cardona, a Cuban immigrant who became a pioneer in the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema.
Brad Pitt’s character Jack Conrad is “sort of the uber movie star,” according to Chazelle. “He’s the highest-grossing leading man in the world when we meet him.”
Conrad is alleged to be based partly on John Gilbert – a hugely successful silent film star in the 20s who failed to make the transition into the new era of sound and watched his illustrious career crumble.
Margot Robbie plays one of the other leads – Nellie LaRoy. An aspiring actress and flapper girl that’s heavily inspired by the original ‘It girl’ Clara Bow, with a hint of Joan Crawford.
Bow had a meteoric rise and subsequent fall while cultivating a scandalous reputation as a sexually vivacious party girl.
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Despite making masses of money for the studios, Bow was never considered classy enough for stardom and after one too many tabloid exposés, she was dumped by Paramount Studios and eventually retired for good.
Behind the good-time-girl persona, Bow had a tough life marked by extreme poverty and violence, which Robbie considered when drawing inspiration from Bow.
“Whenever I’m trying to make a character, I have to figure out their childhood,” Robbie said in a recent interview. “I can justify anything they do later in life if I just figure that out.”
“She probably had the most horrific childhood I can imagine for anyone. You can justify anything [she] does and says in this movie if you imagine she experienced something like that as a kid.”
Babylon has garnered mixed reviews from critics so far and though many praise Chazelle’s depictions of the outrageous excesses of the age, some feel he overcooked it.
“One of the year’s richest and most ambitious films,” writes Kyle Smith Wall of the Street Journal, while CNN’s Brian Lowry describes Babylon as a “sprawling, messy, three-hour-plus endurance test.”
Nearly one hundred years on, it seems Hollywood is still the fickle place where dreams are both made and destroyed in equal measure.
Babylon is in UK cinemas now. Watch a clip below.