‘Babylon’ Rebuts the Idea That Movie Stars No Longer Exist in a Surprising Way (Commentary)

Much of the new movie “Babylon” takes place during the bumpy transition from silent movies to talkies in late 1920s Hollywood, paying particular attention to how it affects the fortunes of veteran silent movie star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) and driven up-and-coming starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie). It’s a familiar dynamic, explored in movies like “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) and “The Artist” (2011), among others, and at first it seems like what writer-director Damien Chazelle brings to the table for this retelling is sheer muchness: This is a more decadent, vulgar, drug-fueled version of Hollywood, with a lot of influences from the past 25 years of on-screen debauchery and hopped-up style. For a guy who seemed to revere older-fashioned movies in his musical “La La Land,” Chazelle sure spends a lot of time imitating “Boogie Nights” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

But part of what keeps “Babylon” from turning into a pastiche of dorm room posters is Chazelle’s attention to movie stars — an increasingly rarified group in current American cinema. The changes that have diminished the power of the contemporary movie star are less epochal than the dawn of talking pictures, but notable nonetheless. As Quentin Tarantino and plenty of others have talked about over the past decade, Hollywood is no longer in the business of frequently minting new stars, despite going through those motions, sometimes successfully, with younger performers like Glen Powell or Anya Taylor-Joy.

This doesn’t mean that no one likes these actors (check Twitter for evidence that almost any actor of any age has some level of “Tiger Beat”-level fandom); just that, say, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man are more popular than Gal Gadot or Tom Holland, the fake characters dominating the people who nominally play them. All-star casts like “Amsterdam” are routinely flattened at the box office by concept-first movies like “Smile” or “Violent Night.”

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Chazelle couldn’t have known that “Amsterdam” would flop when he was making his movie; he might have reasonably assumed that its star Margot Robbie would be splitting her time between awards campaigning for that movie and this one. But it still feels purposeful that two of the film’s three leads are played by Brad Pitt, still one of the bigger stars in Hollywood and likely one of the best-known faces in the world; and Robbie, who has become a 21st Century sort-of star, working with major directors, starring in high-profile big-screen projects, and yet still probably best-known for her work in a superhero franchise (she played the cheerful antihero Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad” and two additional DC movies).

There are so many elements of past Robbie performances in her “Babylon” character that the movie threatens — perhaps cleverly — to treat her as a bigger star than she is really is: Nellie LaRoy’s voice has more than a hint of Harley Quinn’s cartoonish squawk; she’s a brazen hustler not unlike her con-artist character in “Focus”; and of course Robbie played real-life starlet Sharon Tate in Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” At the same time, Nellie isn’t really a composite of Robbie archetypes; she’s more of a freight train pulling all that baggage along at top speed.

That Manny (Diego Calva, the least famous of the movie’s leading trio), a waiter-turned-production-assistant-turned-exec, falls in love with Nellie after a fleeting connection at a debauched party early in the film feels like a tribute to the raw star power of both character and actor, irrespective of their actual careers — or, in Nellie’s case, her actual behavior, erratic and reckless well before she gets famous, flouting a traditional corruption-of-the-innocent arc.

Chazelle ventures into more discomfiting territory for later scenes where Pitt’s Jack Conrad is shown behaving abusively toward one of his several wives. Anyone with a passing knowledge of celebrity gossip may think of Angelina Jolie’s accusations against her famous ex-husband, and wonder whether Pitt is performing a kind of strange self-effacement or compartmentalized denial in these moments. Despite his arrogance and selfishness (or maybe because of it), Jack is the character who truly reckons with his waning star power, as Nellie flails to keep hers burning. In a crucial scene opposite journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), she levels with him about a profile that he feels betrayed his trust. She describes movie stardom as a form of immortality with melancholy limitations, not designed to offer deliverance or glory for any individual career. Images will live on; people, as ever, will not.

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That’s what sets “Babylon” apart from other movies about the purported magic of cinema, moreso than its entertaining brashness: Its acknowledgment that movie magic still can’t turn back the clock, vanquish personal demons, or provide real peace to those who conjure it it—that it can be at least as destructive as it is abstractly healing. Maybe the eclectic group of familiar faces Chazelle assembled for the film’s huge supporting cast was simply a product of how many performers wanted to work with the director of “La La Land” and “Whiplash.” But a tapestry that includes momentary glimpses of recognizable stars (Olivia Wilde; Tobey Maguire); “nepo babies” (Max Minghella; Katherine Waterston); no fewer than three members of the indelicately nicknamed group that used to carouse around Hollywood with Leonardo DiCaprio (Maguire, Lukas Haas, and Ethan Suplee); performers who aren’t quite regular actors (Flea; Spike Jonze); and even an actress frequently confused with Robbie (Samara Weaving) feels like a statement unto itself: Here is a galaxy of stars, jostling for attention, often consigned to the darker depths of a town discovering its endless supply of them. (Chazelle, not much for subtlety, includes a sequence of literal descent late in the film.)

Ultimately, this is neither lament for a bygone era nor condemnation of its cruelties, though Chazelle flirts with both as his camera winds through a makeshift desert soundstage where half a dozen or more silent productions appear to be filming simultaneously. Amidst the familiarity of “Babylon” is a kind of celebratory, ongoing wake for all the stars who thought they might live forever, not realizing that their pictures in the attic won’t keep their bodies going.

In a roundabout way, it rebukes the idea that movie stars no longer exist; maybe it was always the fakeness that everybody loved.