In BABYLON, Damien Chazelle has given us several films about the last hurrah of silent films and the birth of synchronized sound. Some of them are good, some of them are muddled, and one of them is superb. Chazelle’s ambitious attempt to encapsulate a time and place provokes respect for the effort, even when it comes off as a ham-handed salute to SINGING IN THE RAIN, a film he fully references before he is done with us.
It begins with the exuberant decadence of 1926, when Bel Air was little more than palm trees, dusty roads, and, in the opening shot, an elephant on its way to provide an evening’s entertainment in one of the lavish Spanish-inspired mansions then springing up in that most exclusive of neighborhoods. Wrangling the operation is Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant dreaming of being part of the movie biz. At the party itself, an orgy worthy of the early de Mille, he meets Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who is crashing both her car and the party in her own quest to be recognized for the star she already knows that she is. In the course of the evening, they will both get their wishes.
Chazelle mixes fact with fiction as he takes us from 1926 to 1932, and considering the scope with which he is working, it’s a clever choice. There has never been, for example, a bio-pic of John Gilbert, a silent film star whose private life equaled any of the melodramas in which he appeared. Twice stood up at the alter by Garbo, and the object lesson in how careers were ruined when sound arrived, he is here personified by Jack Conroy (Brad Pitt) in a storyline that gives that cautionary tale of living large and falling harder the proper mythic quality that a Hollywood legend deserves. Blending the fact and the fiction of Gilbert’s life into a melancholy study of fame and the fickleness of the audience. Pitt’s performance, comic and complex, plays to the legend without ever eschewing the human being beneath the star. He is the spoiled and petted darling of his studio, who can draw an audience, marry a woman on a whim, and somehow make casual coitus with a server at the orgy that starts the film kind of sweet. It is the storyline that also provides one of the most poignant, prescient, and clear-eyed evaluations of fame ever presented, delivered by Jean Smart as the gossip columnist to the stars. Here monikered Elinor St. John, but read Elinor Glyn, the novelist famed for her scandalous books and screenplays, she explains without rancor or pity the perils of the spotlight to Conway as he faces the end of his career, but then provides the coda for Chazelle’s film, and the reason why movies matter so much to so many people, even those not yet born. It’s a concept argued more prosaically by Conway and one of his fiancées, a dignified New York stage actress (Katherine Waterston) who considers film a low art and isn’t shy about the way she looks down her nose, often askance, at the milieu in which she finds herself.
Low is also the adjective applied to LaRoy, in overheard snippets of conversation and by her own father, who explains his daughter’s wardrobe choices by using that word. For LaRoy read Clara Bow, the doomed “It” girl (by the ci-mentioned Glyn) of silent films whose private life was a turmoil of addiction, exploitation, and mental illness. Robbie is ferocious as the “Wild Child” as she is dubbed here but is too often reduced by the script to the clichéd role of sex goddess wounded in mind and spirit. pouring out her insecure heart to Manny not with words but with a voracious neediness of spirit. Not that it isn’t fun watching her tear up the set on her first day in movies with her raw sexuality and undeniable talent. The film just doesn’t seem to have much to add to the familiar story arc that also evokes Marilyn Monroe. Neither does a prolonged meltdown in a hoity-toity old money party sequence that could have used some tighter editing.
Manny’s rise through the studio system, where he rubs shoulders with Irving Thalberg (a nicely enigmatic Max Minghella) and studio execs who see him as a convenient liaison with problems. Those include the glamorous Lady Fay (Li Jun Li), who is the Anna May Wong of the story and Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), an African American musician whose hot jazz provided the soundtrack to parties (and orgies) in the silent era, and is forced to make dehumanizing choices when he makes his way into the talkies. Lady Fay barely scrapes the surface of Wong’s storied life, and her struggle against discrimination is channeled more into her sexuality rather than her ethnicity.
BABYLON takes us to a time before OSHA or civil rights, but rife with energy, creativity and an almost innocent buoyancy to its excesses that sound, and the moral police, squelched. It is an epic of decadence devolving into degradation, if a flawed one, bursting with the affection Chazelle so obviously has for the process of filmmaking that can sometimes be fatal. The glimpses of the process itself, with such gems as how intertitles were painted by hand or the physical demands of early sound, are a pleasure for the film buff, but at three hours, and with its uncertain narrative, it becomes a slog. And that’s a shame.