If Hollywood loves one thing, it is Hollywood itself.
The history of movies about the magic of moviemaking is long and storied and rich with self-congratulatory Oscar statuettes. But filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s new epic Babylon is, as its name implies, not a polite and polished and squeaky-clean ode to all that is good and pure about the art form. Certainly, there are whiffs of, say, Sullivan’s Travels or Singin’ in the Rain in Chazelle’s tale of movie stars struggling to transition from the days of silent films to talkies in the ‘20s – the kind of wide-eyed sentimentality that you might expect from the director of La La Land.
But Babylon is an entirely different beast with many backs. Take the film’s first half-hour, which opens with a cavalcade of orgies, overdoses, bodily fluids (both human and animal) and a facsimile of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle engaging in a sexual act that I cannot describe in this newspaper without getting censured or maybe just employing very specific, very cryptic emojis. And after those initial hard-R 30 minutes, things only get more overwhelming, outrageous and – during one particular passage that asks what might Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights look like if it took place in the ninth circle of hell – completely horrifying.
“I knew the film needed to distinguish itself from prior treatments of early Hollywood because the subject has been sanitized before,” Chazelle says in an interview. “We had this preconception of old Hollywood as being quaint, polite. But that was a sham constructed in response to the era. Read the history books and oral histories especially, and you’ll hear about Wally Reid’s overdose, the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the accidental death of Olivia Thomas, and you get a different picture.”
Specifically, you’ll get Chazelle’s sex- and blood-drenched 189-minute epic, which could have been called The Aristocrats!: The Movie, in answer to the favoured joke of certain X-rated comedians. Using three disparate film-industry characters – Margot Robbie’s wannabe actress, Brad Pitt’s silent-movie superstar and Diego Calva’s movie set gopher/audience surrogate – Chazelle crafts a wild, propulsive, not-a-little-bit-sickening ride tracing a lurid history that was certainly not on display in, say, The Artist.
If all the filth and folly seems like a departure for Chazelle – who, at 32, became the youngest director to ever win an Oscar for La La Land – a beyond-surface-level read of his filmography reveals a filmmaker who has always operated in extremes and intensities. See Chazelle’s breakthrough, the sweat-drenched music-student drama Whiplash. Or the anxiety-inducing science of his NASA portrait First Man. Even La La Land felt more at home with Hollywood’s hungry, desperate outsiders than its comfortable insiders – including its bittersweet broken-circus score by Justin Hurwitz, who re-contextualizes his work there in Babylon.
Hollywood’s hedonism is also a subject that Chazelle comes by honestly: He has spent the past 15 years deep in research on its history. So much so that studio Paramount Pictures might be wise to issue a syllabus to accompany Babylon’s release: Start with Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust before moving onto the sordid tell-alls of Kenneth Anger (Hollywood Babylon) and Scotty Bowers (Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars).
“It’s funny to mention a syllabus because that’s almost how it started. I had this basic concept years ago, and knew it was going to be fictional, but I had to root it in fact, so I approached it first as a history project,” Chazelle recalls. “It kept going until one of my producers joked I was making a dissertation, not a script. I knew the movie was in there, though, it was just 100-plus pages of research and notes that was maybe not that decipherable to the outside world.”
Chazelle then began “taking a machete” to the document and carving out a story that was fantastical, depraved and aspirational, all told through the prism of an outsider. And to play that outsider, relative newcomer Calva (best known for Narcos: Mexico) worked closely with Chazelle to balance history and fantasy, insanity and sincerity.
“Damian told me something useful and important right away, which was to look at Pacino’s performance in The Godfather, the arc that he did there was perfect in seeing how this smart, innocent character loses his soul gradually,” Calva said during a separate interview. “It was wild and crazy making the film, but I always had Damien by my side.”
Babylon’s main characters are fictional creations with shades of real-life figures: Robbie’s has elements of Clara Bow and Jeanne Eagels, while Pitt’s is an amalgam of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert (with a big nod to John Barrymore’s performance in 1932′s Grand Hotel). But there is one name that shares space in our history and Babylon’s: Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder” studio chief who turned MGM into a behemoth, and in Chazelle’s film is played by Max Minghella.
“There was something about having all the studios named in the film being fake that worried me, because I’m not going to buy that this is Hollywood at the time if we’re pretending that MGM isn’t a place,” Chazelle explains. “I felt that Pitt’s character would be at the biggest movie studio at the time working with the biggest producer of the time. And if I’m going to call that anything other than MGM we might as well not call Hollywood ‘Hollywood.’”
Certainly, Chazelle could have called it “Sodom.” Or “Gomorrah.” But Hollywood works, too. And Babylon guarantees that all of La La Land will be watching what the director might dub the town next time around.
Babylon opens in theatres Dec. 23