“Fin de cinema”? So states one of Babylon’s final montage of clips depicting the expanse of Hollywood’s century-plus output, and there is a sense that Damien Chazelle’s picture – a resounding flop – which shines a light on La La Land’s depraved underbelly, is sounding a death knell. As a Hollywood White Hat, previously responsible for oblique Moon landing movie First Man, Chazelle’s message is presumably the thing, but Paramount surely hoped for a marginally more enthusiastic reception. At least the French love it. I was mixed, but more because he fails us with his main characters than with the milieu.
Even without incandescent leads to bring the audience in, it’s unsurprising Babylon didn’t catch on. Despite the delirium, this is a downbeat tale, one cautioning against the beartrap of fame and glamour. Its movie touchstones are ones spelling financial failure rather than those of success. The decadence-laced Moulin Rouge! has been mentioned – minus Baz Luhrmann’s amphetamine style, fortunately – but to the extent that caught on, it did so as a tragic love story. The Wolf of Wall Street was a hit because it revelled in its excess and made its misbehaviour more attractive than cautionary. Boogie Nights veers closer in its approximation of filmmaking’s moral wilderness, but it had the benefit of being low budget (and, mystifyingly, highly acclaimed).
Babylon is probably nearest to the tawdry period tarnish of The Day of the Locust, offering the viewer few upbeat nuggets to take away from “the most magical place in the world” (aside from the transportive images on the cinema screen in that final montage: perhaps the message is, “Just don’t ask what was involved in putting them up there”). While there’s nothing to challenge Homer Simpson’s final frenzy in John Schlesinger’s film, there’s also nothing to support an emotional attachment to the material that might justify Babylon’s length and tangled detours.
Which is down to Chazelle as writer, along with his leads Diego Calva (Manny Tores) and Margot Robbie (Nellie LaRoy). The sensitive fellow who loves the glitzy girl is nothing new, but you have to be invested in the doormat, to some extent, and Calva brings nothing to the table. When he’s mooning over or trying to help in Nellie, there’s only dead air. Contrastingly, when Manny’s dirtying himself in the Hollywood game, rising as a studio fixer – some have compared him to Eddie Mannix, whom Josh Brolin played in another floundering golden-age-set Hollywood picture Hail, Caesar! – Calva’s reasonably effective.
However, Manny’s character arc is halting. He doesn’t even blink at getting a possibly dead starlet out of a debauched party – the scenario being a Fatty Arbuckle riff – or the numerous fatalities on sets and sound stages (impalements during battle scenes, a sound guy expiring from heat in a booth), firing cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) when she no longer fits or manipulating jazz trumpeter/shorts star Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) into donning black face with burnt cork so he looks darker under the studio lights. And yet, he’s suddenly a nervous wreck, all that acumen deserting him, in the company of ghoulish gangster Jimmy McKay (Tobey Maguire). Chazelle assembles a number of solid scenes together around Manny, most notably his attempts to get hold of a functioning film camera before the light is lost on location, but he’s neither especially interesting nor compelling. In the end, Manny, having soiled himself, is allowed a reprieve, and the coda grants him the veil of nostalgic distance.
Nellie, in contrast, is a chronicle of excess and attitude. There’s no reason to be charmed by her, and Robbie is essentially trotting out her Harley Quinn voice and act again. I was won over the first few times, but she’s been rather running on empty for a few movies now (probably since I, Tonya). Chazelle reportedly had the character as the actual Clara Bow in at least one draft of the script, and the similarities have been cited elsewhere (mentally ill mother, dirtball dad, shunned by the Hollywood elite, able to cry on cue – “I think of home” – and The Wild Party entrance). Where Bow retired, though, Chazelle is set on instructing that Hollywood will kill you, so gambling-addicted cokehead Nellie is found dead at 34.
Chazelle fares better with fake Brad Pitt – fake Brad is everywhere! – as Jack Conrad (also reported as actual star John Gilbert at one point). I’m assuming, what with Bow, Gilbert and Li Jun Li saying her character Anna May Wong was originally Lady Fay Zhu, Chazelle decided to opt for the more dramatically heightened fates of his characters as grist to his mill and so ditched the real names. Conrad blows his brains out upon recognising his time is over, whereas Gilbert succumbed to alcoholism (again, there are parallels with actual events: the suggestion Gilbert had a light voice that nixed his future in talkies, even though he wasn’t actually notably bad; this presumably inspired the scene where Jean Smart’s gossip columnist Elino St. John tells him “There is no why” audiences laughed at him talking. It’s simply “Your time has run out”. Contrastingly, Nellie “sounds like a dying pig”, and attempts to reinvent her don’t stick).
Fake Brad’s good, then, but Smart takes the honours in terms of both performance and character; she delivers Conrad’s eulogy, that regardless of his immediate career, he will live on forever, which is where the ending comes in, so to speak (it’s what’s up there that counts… until you discover that what went into it getting up there is so sickening that you’re turned off for life).
There’s also a strong showing from Li Jun Li, but most of the characters are little more than sketches. Adepo has the burnt cork scene, turning his back on Hollywood in disgust, but that’s it. Lukas Haas gets a toilet seat stuck on his head. Katherine Waterston (based on Broadway star Ina Claire, who married Gilbert) gets all snooty over Jack’s locution and projection. Spike Jonze amusingly tackles von Stroheim (as Otto von Strassberger), Flea is actually pretty good as studio heavy Bob Levine, Jeff Garlin’s studio boss Don Wallach, and PJ Byrne gets a great meltdown scene during the filming of Nellie’s talkie entrance (Chazelle missus Olivia Hamilton is also memorable as director Ruth Adler, based on Dorothy Arzner). Eric Roberts steals every scene he’s in as Nellie’s dad, particularly fighting a snake. As for Maguire, his dissolute, yellow-teethed, ether-lubricated whacko is the summation of all that is unholy in LA, a veritable demon of the underworld (he comes armed with movie pitches, including one about a 10-year-old prodigy; the twist is he’s actually a 50-year-old midget).
There has been much sniping over Babylon’s inaccuracies, not least from Paul Schrader. That shouldn’t be surprising, since resolute authenticity clearly isn’t on Chazelle’s mind. His movie is a musically – of course – charged embellishment, just less overtly displaced than La La Land (and with considerably less engaging leads). His choices are thus keenly calculated throughout; I’ve seen comment that he’s isn’t the guy to show debauch, as he’s so buttoned down himself, but I’d suggest that’s part of the point of the exercise. He wants to keep focus, even when things are spiralling out of control; we simply aren’t going into emotionally or “spiritually” Lynchian territory, even when we’re deep underground.
There’s also calculation in the movie’s approach to representation. Calculation, because the director whose Oscar-glory shoe-in was undone by charges of objectionably white appropriation of Jazz off the back of Trump’s election doubtless knew he wasn’t going to get his project either financed or acknowledged by critics without it (cynical, but reasonable. Even if, in critics’ eyes, it didn’t wash anyway). So the lead is an unlikely Mexican since “a Mexican émigré having Mannix-type power would have been almost unheard-of”. The comparison has been made to Cuban René Cardona, who came over to Hollywood, but it sounds as if, while he had various roles there, the idea that he “climbed the studio executive ladder” is stretching the facts somewhat.
One might argue this is revisionism, but Chazelle’s making no bones about attitudes to race at the time (Manny claims he’s Spanish; Sidney and the cork). One might also note the LBGTQ presence of Lady Fay Wong as Chazelle loading his deck towards the level of messaging Hollywood is looking for (the actual Anna May Wong was rumoured lesbian). The thinking presumably being, if he has something that looks like a duck, he can smuggle a fox into the henhouse. Which some have said is a potted high (or low) lights of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, not renowned for its gospel truths.
But Chazelle’s Babylon, as signified by that cinema montage, is about the whole caboodle. The only difference back then was less effective damage control. Indeed, when Mackay extols the virtues of his underworld haunt (“Welcome to the asshole of Hollywood”), he opines “This town has gotten so repressed… This city used to know how to have a good time. It’s such a drag now”. By implication, whatever we’ve seen has been forced further beneath the surface since, but has never gone away. Instead of Jimmy’s sewer, there are cloning centres, and you can still get whatever you want: Satanic fights to the death in cages, S&M degeneracy and depravity – with mutants – and all manner of twisted shit, eating live rats included (“They found him in a forest in Oregon”).
Which makes the opening 25-minute excess-fuelled party, featuring a now-famously shitting elephant, “Fatty” getting pissed on (“Does piggy like that?”), wanton drug use, Eyes Wide Shut (or ’70s Rothschild bash) costumery and a dwarf on stage spraying jizz from a giant phallus seem quite tame. There’s also a reference to “upstairs, where Don keeps his underage girls” (naturally, the studios are fuelled by pederasty). Deaths in the course of partying or production routinely become suicides or natural causes.
And, of course, everything that occurs in the city is condoned by the Elite, who stamp and approve on one’s licence for excess (ie you sell your soul to them to get ahead). When Nellie is groomed for a meeting, her audience includes Rothschilds, and after she has dropped the accent and any attempt to comply, but before she projectile vomits on William Randolph Hearst, she accuses them of “fucking your cousins… plying your underage fucking mistresses with fucking Beaujolais, you sick fucks”. Admittedly, all she needs is a baseball bat, pigtails and short shorts to be Robbie’s most iconic character, but Chazelle’s point couldn’t be clearer. This is no paean to times lost. There’s nothing here to make you wish you could have been a part of a bygone era. Even Conrad is looking back wistfully to the top of the pyramid, having taken a bruising tumble to its lower steps.
The question might be, then, did Chazelle expect Babylon to be dismissed, knowing it was rubbing its intended celebrants’ noses in the dirt, or elephant shit? Did he make it in the knowledge it would be scrutinised differently with hindsight, possibly like First Man will be, when all the dirt pours forth? Regardless, it’s much less skin off Paramount’s nose than it would have been, since Brad’s fellow-expired-star Tom Cruise furnished their biggest hit in many a year. Too late, since the entire model is imploding in on itself anyway, unless you’re a Marvel or Jimbo (and even then, Marvel is actively straining to undo itself). Fin de cinema? It’s certainly slouching that way.