Monday, December 26, 2022

Babylon: Damien Chazelle, Have a Little Respect

I knew I was going to have a strong reaction to "Babylon," but I just had to see it for myself. And I just had a small, teeny tiny bit of hope that the greats of the era would not be disrespected. Alas.

I've seen most reviews that pretty much call this a hot, steaming mess and I can't disagree. There are, however, moments that capture the incredible and emotional impact of the movies that kept me engaged and hoping, hoping, hoping.

As a fan of silent film and early Hollywood and all that jazz, the references to actual people and to film and literary sources are hard to ignore. Brad Pitt's character of Jack Conrad is clearly based on John Gilbert, although it is not completely factual. His is the most compelling character, and Pitt is very good. His portrayal of a self-aware star in twilight is probably the most insightful one in the film. Pitt is getting that world-weary bon vivant thing down pat.

The Real Deal: John Gilbert

Margot Robbie's Nellie LaRoy is a cruel portrayal of a star based, I'm sure, on Clara Bow. She is wild, her ridiculous father is her manager, her mother is in an asylum, she can cry on cue by thinking of home and, horror of horrors, she comes from New Jersey and sounds it. I can hear Louise Brooks in Kevin Brownlow's series "Hollywood" talking about Bow and the fact that nobody would know what Clara would do at a party because she was from Brooklyn. But if the character is based on Clara Bow, this great star with a truly tragic life deserves better. Margo Robbie is fine in a poorly written role, but I pray someday David Stenns' "Runnin' Wild" is made into a film and that Clara's life is treated with the respect she deserves. And honestly, I don't think anyone ran around town quite as naked as Ms. Robbie's character.

The Real Deal: Clara Bow

Speaking of respect, nobody in this film seems to have any for themselves or anyone else. And the scenes of ridiculously wild parties - well, I'd just say to the director that you don't have to actually become a debaucher yourself in order to show debauchery. 

Jean Smart probably makes the most sense as a gossip queen with the deliciously mashed up name of Elinor St. John (Elinor Glynn + Adela Rogers St. John), She gives Pitt's Jack Conrad a dose of reality amid his world of fantasy: namely that your career is dead, but you'll live forever on celluloid. Deal with it.

There is a character who is sort of Anna May Wong and a particularly nasty caricature of a Fatty Arbuckle type. It can be kind of fun trying to pick out the thinly disguised celebrities of the era.

I could go on and on about this thing, but the sad part is that every once in a while the love of the magic of film that sneaks in and that makes it tolerable. It's all wrapped up with a character from the silent era watching "Singin' in the Rain" in a theater and, at first weeping with nostalgia for that time and then, finally, becoming one of Norma Desmond's wonderful people out there in the dark, caught up in the story, lost in the magic of movies.

See it if you're curious or just watch Gene Kelly and company. 


Blondie6 said...

Thanks for this, Marsha. I was dying to know what you thought, and it sounds about right, according to other reviews I’ve read. The late silent/early talkie era is by far my favorite, and I had such high hopes for this one. It’s a shame it got so out of hand.

FlickChick said...

It's a shame, really There was a ton of money and talent up there on the screen.

Karen said...

When I first heard about this movie, a while back, I thought it was going to be great, but just seeing the clips started to turn me off. And now, every review I read seems to make it less and less likely that I will see this. It's a real bummer, because I really like Robbie, Pitt, and Smart, and I really wanted to like this movie. Thank you for your insights, Marsha!

FlickChick said...

I wanted to like it, too, Karen. It really is a crime and such a disappointment. In the midst of super hero movies, this looked like a topic I would enjoy. Alas.