Not a fan of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash for personal reasons and neither did I watch the romantic comedy musical La La Land, but hey his newest film Babylon grew on me and I think I know why: because it is a love story to Hollywood. While both were within the Golden Age of Hollywood period, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood explores Hollywood in the end 1960s where that age was declining whereas Babylon, set during the 1920s where silent movies was still a thing, was about the start.
Margot Robbie’s character Nellie LaRoy, an uninvited guest who made a grand entrance by knocking down a statue with her car, and Fay (Li Jun Li)’s seductive singing in the mansion tell me that yes, a wild night is going to happen and true enough, it was a wild night. The opening scene was grand and crazy— there was an actual elephant hidden in the mansion whose ballroom was filled with partygoers high on cocaine and alcohol making out and having sex with others.
Sound: the newest member to the glam fam
The movie is about the rise and fall of the cast. We have Manny (played by Diego Calva), the Mexican film assistant who hopes to be part of the film industry; Nellie LaRoy (played by Margot Robbie), a self-proclaimed star who quickly rose and become a sex symbol; Jack Conrad (played by Brad Pitt), a silent film actor who later sees his career declining as the sound film displaces silent films; Sidney Palmer (played by Jovan Adepo), a black jazz player who makes his fame thanks to Manny’s vision; Fay Zhu (played by Li Jun Li), a Chinese-American lesbian singer and intertitle writer for silent films.
All of them are part of the rise of Hollywood’s Golden Age and likewise, all were affected by the sound films. While their lives were dramatically transformed, the way they responded were different.
Lady Fay Zhu: hidden sexuality
Fay is the sexiest among everyone else. Donned in her cheongsam, Fay’s confidence and cool aura can easily win the hearts of many in a crowded room. She keeps her calm composure too as seen by her actions or the lack of when the snake chaos went loose. Like Jack, Fay has probably seen enough chaos to know which situations are worth getting hyped over and which can afford taking a step back.
She does not hide being a lesbian and openly displays her signs of affection to women she finds attractive. One of them is the rising star Nellie, whom audience is unclear of whether she is bisexual or lesbian. While the two bonded after the snake incident, they were forced to split by Manny who, presumably, echoes the voice of Hollywood executives and frowns upon lesbianism. One might wonder if the breaking apart of this relationship made Nellie worse off but for Fay, she is smart and she knows what to do.
With the introduction of sound to films, Fay is the smartest of all; she knew she was no longer relevant as an intertitle writer. Her time has ended in America and hence, she moved to Europe to to advance her dreams.
Jack Conrad: mid-life crisis
He was the star of silent films. He was the highest-billed actor of his era (maybe the same way Brad Pitt was at some point in his career?). Fans loved him and because of that, executives loved him. Nobody really seems to know him well apart from Fay and his longtime friend George, not even his ex-wives. When sound films took Hollywood by storm, Jack failed to hop on the train and derailed. Towards the end, we see Jack taking on low-quality films as a favour for a friend. He was no longer sought after. With romantic relationships falling apart, the suicide of George and the departure of Fay from his life, there is nothing anymore that Jack saw a purpose living for. As a film star, he has always been part of the audiences’ and studio executives’ lives, but none of them mattered to him.
No one cared about Jack as a person, but just a money-making machine and sadly, that was the life for Jack. When George died, Jack was clearly depressed for a while yet in the party he later attended, people expressed sadness for Jack for his failed box office than the death of a friend. Only few mattered and these few sadly were no longer part of his life anymore. For the an all-play-no-work-makes-Jack-a-dull-boy Jack Conrad, he instead decided to kill himself as he probably refused to believe that his life has ended or maybe he accepted and hence, chose suicide as the way out.
Nellie LaRoy: The problems with maintaining fame
The downfall of Nellie is tragic. She had a complicated family background and stardom was her way to prove to her family back home. But her wild behaviour —though ironically was the one that caught the executives’ attention during the party at the mansion — leads to a path a self-destructiveness which further reduced her likeability and popularity among the new crowd. But Nellie accepted that her life will never return to the one it was in the golden days. Even after Manny’s love confession, she is unable to accept a lifetime with him when she knows that she is the cause of his downfall. Nellie finally accepts responsibility for her mistake and made the choice to leave Manny. It is unknown whether she chooses to spiral downwards and that may have caused her death at a tender age of 34.
Sidney Palmer: Race
Sidney Palmer is one of the character I wished Damien gave more attention to. We literally know nothing much about him and yet his character is the best among the ensemble cast, personally for me, as he is the one that did not change in light of the changes around him. He quickly makes fame as a jazz trumpetist with his own movie and studio orchestra thanks to Manny’s vision and was even invited to hang with the upper-class society. But that scene (see picture below) was so awkward as the attendees, whom I am sure had no ill intentions but nonetheless treated him as if he was an exclusive ‘out’ member who is now finally an ‘in’ member, asking him really tough questions and making him feel uncomfortable.
He refused to give in to the studio executives’ demand of blackfacing himself to meet the demands of the Southern states, and maintains his dignity by simply exiting the Hollywood scene. Near the end, we see him performing gigs at a cosy and intimate bar where he, at least on the surface, appeared satisfied.
Manny Torres: Roaring Twenties, the American dream
Raised in a Mexican immigrant family, Manny was a film assistant at the start of the story and his career peaked when he became a film producer for Hollywood. Manny is the archetype of the American dream. He is a loyal friend to Jack, never going against him but he was not exactly the best friend of Jack either as there were fewer scenes of Jack and Manny together as the film reaches midway. Jack saw the talent in Manny and gave him a chance to be on set while Manny did not had a chance or want to save him as his energy was focused on the wrong person all this while.
His love for Nellie is applaudable given how Nellie has not once reciprocated her love back nor her gratitude. Still, Manny sticks around like a loyal friend hoping that one day Nellie would rise again but that day never comes. If there is a rise, there is a fall. Manny was dragged into another one of Nellie’s mishap and his life was almost ended by a merciful killer.
Motif of ‘death’
There is a lingering motif in the film and oddly, that is about death (it kind of reminds me of the speech Elinor gave Jack but I could not find traces of it anywhere on the internet). The literal deaths of the George, Jack, Elinor; the metaphorical death of Nellie, Sidney and Manny’s high-flying careers; and the death of cinema. In the film’s ending, Manny brings his wife and daughter to the Kinoscope Studios entrance and in a mere few minutes, his daughter was bored. Movies may appeared glamorous back in the 1920s and 1930s, but maybe not among the new generation anymore.
Babylon very much; I am unsure if I saw things correctly but there was a moment where the camera tilts downwards to reveal a younger crowd of audience seated below, which upon very close investigation looks like what was the younger version of our ensemble cast, and then tilts up again to the present day where Manny was seated. If that was the case, then I guess Elinor was right that people will die one day and films will be the medium that connects ghosts to the ones currently living.
I would say that Babylon is incredibly sexy albeit too much; goodness the amount of nudity in the opening scene is insane! The runtime is a good 189 minutes but it did not felt very long compared to Avatar: The Way of Water as the movie was not just focused on one main character but many and their stories. Not sure why it was a massive box office flop though but either ways, I do recommend Babylon over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood any time.