Tuesday January 10, 2023
Movie Review: Babylon (2022)
It’s not often I watch a movie and think, “Hey, scale back on the tits and ass, will ya?” So kudos to Damien Chazelle.
What did Chazelle think the point of “Babylon” was? That the great, unbridled bacchanalia of the silent era gave way to the strictures of sound, and there went all the fun? Does he believe this is true? In fact or in spirit?
Some of his inspiration apparently came from Kenneth Anger’s book “Hollywood Babylon,” which was published in France but banned in the U.S. until 1975. We had a copy of it when I was a teenager—Dad, movie critic—and I was drawn to some of the pictures but never to the words. In the last year, I bought a copy and tried reading it again. Couldn’t. It all felt false—reveling in the most salacious rumors and scandals in Hollywood history, exaggerating and enjoying them. I think that’s what really turned me off. It’s not the lack of humanity in the stories but in the storyteller. Like all tabloid fodder, it’s saying, “Look how awful these people are,” but revealing how awful the author is.
You ain’t heard
Chazelle isn’t like that, he cares about his characters, but he revels in the exaggerations. It’s not enough to cart an elephant up a hill to a mansion for an all-night party, the elephant has to shit all over the guys pushing the vehicle. It’s not enough to show a Fatty Arbuckle type, naked and voluminously fat, enjoying sex, no, the naked girl above him has to pee all over his chest and face while he laughs uproariously. And then she dies, of course. And it’s swept under the rug. It doesn’t lead—as with the real Arbuckle—to three murder trials and an eventual acquittal but a ruined career and an early death. Legal and journalistic careers were made off of Fatty’s carcass. Sometimes the true scandal is who benefits from the scandal.
The first half hour of “Babylon,” a Babylonian party, is all excess—drink, drugs, nudity, sex, dance—filmed at a frenetic pace. Amid it all, we’re introduced to our main characters:
- Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), the matinee idol of the day, who, between drinks and wives, longs to kinda make something meaningful
- Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the brash up-and-comer, who acts like a bratty star before she becomes one
- Manny Torres (Diego Calva), helpmate and gofer, who finds himself inexplicably drawn to it all—particularly Nellie
The freneticism continues the next day, as three or four films for Kinescope Pictures are filmed simultaneously in a large field in close proximity to one another. Manny proves himself resourceful and begins his rise. Nellie proves she can act and steals the movie away from an established star. Jack proves that when the cameras roll, he can still project star power.
But then that upstart Warner Bros. produces a sound picture, “The Jazz Singer,” and it’s getting standing ovations all over New York (source, Damien?), and everything changes. Goodbye large field and close proximity. Hello separate sound stages and hitting your mark. There’s a good scene on the number of takes a simple entrance requires, but that, too, is over-the-top, as the cameraman dies of heat stroke in the soundproof booth. More unforgiveable: you see it coming.
Pitt’s character is basically John Gilbert, the silent star whose flat line-readings in the sound era (“I love you, I love you, I love you”) provoked laughter and ruined his career. Meanwhile, Nellie (Clara Bow-like) is just too Jersey, it’s decided, and given elocution lessons by scenario writer Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), and then taken to a party where she’s supposed to put on airs. All of this goes as poorly as you’d imagine. The snobs see through her, she reacts badly, shoving food into her face, and then projectile vomits all over the host. Sure. I never got who these people were or why they mattered. And that’s not what ends her anyway. She gets too deep into booze, drugs and gambling. She winds up owing $85,000 to gangsters who threaten to throw acid in her face.
That’s when Manny returns into her life. He’s been rising all the while, helping create a series of movies about a jazz band led by Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo). Now Nellie, the love of his life, needs his help. The $85k he gets from studio pill-pusher “The Count” (Rory Scovel), who goes with him to deliver it to gangster James McKay. We turn a corner, see Tobey Maguire, and are momentarily relieved. Then not. He’s drug addicted and super-creepy, taking the men on a tour of underground L.A., where there are live alligators, sex shows, geeks eating live mice, and the Elephant Man himself. Is this some comment by Chazelle on what happens when bacchanalia is bridled—that it’s driven underground and becomes perverse? The elephant of the opening party becomes the Elephant Man of underground L.A.
Oh, and the $85k from the prop man turns out to be prop money. The gangsters figure it out and kill The Count but let Manny skip town. Sure.
There’s also an Anna May Wong character who seems too self-satisfied given her circumstances, along with way too many studio executives and movie producers: Flea, the kid from “Witness,” Jeff Garlin, Irving Thalberg. I liked Chazelle’s wife, Olivia Hamilton, playing the director who first spots Nellie’s talent. Afterwards, my wife dismissed the female director thing as PC revisionism. Me: “No, there were women directors in the silent era. It was sound that screwed them over.” Maybe that should’ve been the story.
Pitt is great—is he never not these days?—but I never bought Robbie as a 1920s starlet. Something too tall, hard and modern about her. She's supposed to be Clara Bow? Come on. Meanwhile, Calva’s Manny is a nonentity. What does the guy want? That's the question. And the answer for Manny is, I guess, to be part of it all? And then Nellie? And then to survive?
I kept wanting other. St. John becomes the town gossip columnist, its Louella Parsons, and she writes a cover story on the fall of Jack Conrad. He confronts her about it, she responds that what he really wants to know is: Why did they laugh? That’s not bad, but I wanted him to also wonder why they loved him in the first place. Why was it magic one way and comic another? Instead, she talks about how, 50 years after his death, people will still be admiring his work. Even as she said it, I flashed on how James Cagney and other 1930s contemporaries assumed none of it would last. I wanted more of that contemporary, cynical attitude rather than Chazelle’s dreamy historical take.
But of course he’s teeing up his ending. After Conrad blows his brains out in a hotel bathroom, and we see below-the-fold newspaper headlines on the deaths of Nellie and St. John, it’s suddenly 1952. Manny returns to L.A. with wife and daughter, and stands outside the gates of Kinescope Pictures. Later, alone, he wanders into a movie theater, which is playing “Singin’ in the Rain,” MGM’s comedy-musical about the transition from silents to talkies; and he’s stunned to see versions of the men and women he knew and loved. And then he seems to see, or Chazelle shows us, the long future of movies, up to and including “Avatar,” and the joy it brings the world, and … it’s so fucking pointless. He should’ve just left Manny outside the Kinescope gates. He’s our eyes and ears here, and that’s where we all wind up.
I’m currently reading “Hollywood: The Oral History,” by Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson, culled from countless AFI interviews over the decades. I’m still in the silent era and loving it. The other night, I came across this quote from Raoul Walsh: “Work. That’s the true story of Hollywood. But who wants to hear it? They’re looking for something else. Who took off whose panties behind the piano while the director shot the producer in the head? People want to know stuff like that, even if it isn’t true.”
- Anthony Lane, “Damien Chazelle’s ‘Babylon’ Goes Nowhere, In a Mad Rush”
- Karina Longworth, “Fake News: Fact Checking Hollywood Babylon”