The film Babylon is about the early days of Hollywood, the sunny place where the film industry took its first steps with silent black-and-white movies. The story follows an aging Hollywood star, a fresh young woman yearning for Hollywood glamour in her life and others drawn by the freedom and creativity that films offer. The title Babylon refers to an ancient city-state in the Middle East, which sometimes symbolizes debauchery and excess, but also the decline from glory. This theme of rise and fall seems to be an eternal one in Hollywood.
Old and New Stars
You know you’re getting older when you can barely recognize the new stars in movies. Yes, Brad Pitt (who’s in this film) is a name that rings a bell. But with Margot Robbie, I have to remind myself that she’s already done so much. And the fact that Tobey Maguire was Spider-Man back in 2002 is also a shock (over 20 years ago!). In Babylon Brad Pitt aptly portrays an aging film star who was once a leading man in silent films. But with the advent of sound in films, he must adapt, and the question is: can he?
Young Nellie already knows she’s a star, even before setting foot on a film set. She has “it”, that special quality. She’s destined for stardom. Her slightly mischievous allure combined with the ability to cry on command makes her a femme fatale in silent films. She’s on her way to becoming the fresh face of the industry when sound films make their entrance.
The Roaring Twenties: Decadence and Freedom
It’s important to remember that the 1920s were a tumultuous time. Women gained the right to vote in many countries, fashion shifted from tight corsets and long dresses to short skirts and freedom of movement. At the same time, an upper class experienced a wealth previously reserved for the aristocracy. Just look at the Hollywood stars and their grand homes – anything was possible. This explains why the film begins with a decadent party where anything goes – drugs, scandalous dancing, and, of course, plenty of sex. And an elephant.
We know, as the audience, that this decadence preceded a massive economic crisis. It was also a surprise that some stars couldn’t transition to sound films. There is a bit of a parallel to today: back then, theater actors scoffed at film stars and wouldn’t stoop to perform in silent films, considering theater to be a higher art form. But sound suddenly made films intriguing because actors had to deliver convincing performances. And now, a few years ago, film stars shied away from television series, but the success of streaming (and the lucrative opportunities it brings) has made such crossovers appealing. Are we experiencing a similar situation 100 years later?
Fiction and Facts
There’s another film that also explores Hollywood during the transition to sound films: Singin’ in the Rain. It also features an older film star (Gene Kelly – see also: The Pirate) and a younger actress (Debbie Reynolds – mother of Carrie Fisher). Both films revolve around the same era! But Singin’ in the Rain approaches it humorously, Babylon is at times poignant and heart-wrenching.
Yet, both films pay homage to Hollywood and are made with a kind of love. They shed light on the strange place where an illusion is sold to the public (and sometimes to wannabe stars). It’s a place of creativity too, one that can exact a high price and sometimes even tread on ethics, especially when commerce comes into play. It might all sound quite heavy, but I’d encourage you to watch Babylon and form your own judgment.