When D.W. Griffith faced backlash for his racist depictions in The Birth of a Nation, he attempted to return with something bigger, bolder and more morally righteous to silence his critics. Thus, Intolerance, a 1916 silent epic of unprecedented budget and scale, was born. After the film floundered, its colossal Babylonian set was left abandoned in a dirt lot on the corner of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevard—allowing the extravagant décor to become a metaphor for Hollywood’s decaying morals in Kenneth Anger’s 1959 Hollywood Babylon, a compilation of some of the wildest and most depraved golden-aged gossip ever put to paper. It seems that when Hollywood fails, a symbolic connection to the fallen Mesopotamian capital is not far behind. For this reason, Damien Chazelle’s latest feature, a three-hour “hate letter” to the filmmaking machine, is aptly titled. The film continues a tradition: Decadently dragging Tinseltown through the mud (or, in this case, urine, elephant feces, rat’s blood and Margot Robbie’s projectile vomit). But through all its filth, cynicism and poison-inked vengeance, Babylon cannot help but to be a devoted worshiper at the altar of cinema—and its admiration proves infectious.
Babylon begins in 1926 with a less-than-luxurious introduction to Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a pliant protagonist who acts as our eyes and ears through much of the film’s rollercoaster journey. When we first meet the young Mexican immigrant, he wants nothing more than to be on a film set, and will do just about anything to make that happen. His hunger has led him to some strange places, and on this particular day, he is tasked with transporting an adult-sized elephant to a hilltop mansion that will later serve as the location for a sweaty, cocaine-fueled jamboree.
It’s at this party, between the thunderous jazz, the hoards of half-nude bodies and warm tungsten lights, that we meet the film’s key players: There’s the guest of honor, Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a beloved leading man of the silent pictures; Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), the talented trumpet player leading the live band; Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), the cabaret performer who wows the crowd with her risqué rendition of “My Girl’s Pussy;” and Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy, a vibrant Hollywood-hopeful who crashes the rager with a little help from a smitten Manny.
When an actress from Kinescope Studios falls ill, it’s up to the fixers to make sure her body is transported out of the mansion without suspicion and find her replacement. This is where Nellie, who walked into the party as a complete unknown, gets her big break. It’s what La La Land dreams are made of—until it’s not. As the characters navigate the shifting technical and moral standards of their industry—from silent films to talkies, from exuberant sex-on-film to the Hays Code—their larger-than-life narratives take a tragic turn.
From shot-by-shot references to films like Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain to subtle allusions to the rumors published in Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, Babylon is flooded with Hollywood history, real and mythical. The character we see this in the most is Nellie, the rambunctious Brooklyn wild child whose familial circumstances and roaring sexuality mirror real-life silent starlet Clara Bow. Bow, the first ever “it girl” and an individual whose life was plagued by parental abuse and tragedy, was one of the many entertainers victimized by the reckless rumors published in Anger’s book (which mostly demonized her for her sexual openness).
So much of Nellie’s early depictions consist of breathing new life into the vicious gossip that surrounded Bow and allowing viewers to see her through a sympathetic lens. Where Anger vilified Bow for supposedly bedding the entire USC football team, Babylon makes LaRoy the life of the party when she shows up to a gathering with a team of athletes. Where Anger poked fun at the idea of Bow blowing out the valves of her first sound production with her powerful New York accent, Babylon opts for close-ups of LaRoy’s sweaty forehead and anxious feet as she waits for her cue behind the soundstage of her first talkie. And when they finally get a usable shot after technical and performance mishaps, we rejoice in her triumph. Although LaRoy, like Bow, doesn’t get a happy ending, Robbie’s all-in performance succeeds in humanizing the troubled figure.
At its heart, that’s really what Babylon is interested in: The ways the industry uses and abuses those in its ecosystem. Of all the bleak moments that occur in its latter half, the most gut-wrenching betrayal comes in the 1930s, from a protagonist who was once filled with so much light and kindness. This character has managed to become a producer at Kinescope Studios and has the bright idea of casting trumpeter Sidney Palmer in a musical. Something that started with innocent intentions turns poisonous when Palmer, a Black musician, is humiliated by a racist makeup choice imposed by the producer. When the camera tilts to reveal Palmer in this makeup, the shame and frustration on his face say it all. It’s a moment that punches you right in the gut and speaks to the long history of racism in Hollywood.
And though Chazelle points a gold-plated middle finger to the industry time and time again, Babylon’s cold heart repeatedly melts away from the warmth it holds for its medium. The sequence that best encapsulates this love occurs during the film’s silent-era depictions, where Nellie is shooting at Kinescope for the very first time. In that day, the studio lot was less of the glamorous backlots it later becomes and more of a literal dirt lot. Because there was no need for capturing audio, the studio is loaded with sets overlapping one another—violinists shooting next to cowboys, shooting next to a bar-top dancing Nellie. It’s an overwhelming scene; to make matters worse, the film chooses to cut between the young actress, her screaming director and the other sets in rapid succession. Film set. Nellie. “Now cry!” Dancing. Director. Film crew. Extras. Pause.
Just when you feel as if your head is about to explode, Chazelle inserts a silent black-and-white clip of Nellie. The performance they managed to capture is raw, tender, moving. Despite all odds, it works. It’s one of the few quiet moments of the entire film, but it’s what sticks with you the most. If you’ve ever been on a set or tried making your own cheap student film, you know that production can be an absolute nightmare, but the result—the pure magic that can be captured with a camera lens—is worth every battle. There’s nothing like the moving image. And there’s nothing like creating it yourself.
Babylon is the good and bad. The highs and lows. The profane and the sacred. It’s the complicated mess that was and is our motion picture industry. It’s a comeback from a director bruised by the box office failure of his last film, and a strive to return with something bigger, bolder and dirtier. It’s Hollywood.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Jean Smart, Jeff Garlin, Olivia Hamilton, Flea, Tobey Maguire Phoebe Tonkin, Olivia Wilde
Release Date: December 23, 2022
Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste, Film Cred or Kathychacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.