Well, Chazelle is asking us to believe precisely that, though he doesn’t seem to mind whether that’s a half-truth or not. Hollywood of the era was a young place, still rural and full of ranchers; it was peopled with chancers and hustlers who did not necessarily believe that motion pictures were much more than a fad or a get-rich-quick phase. It became a second Wild West of sorts, attracting the unusual (gangsters, as represented in Babylon by a crazed Tobey Maguire, former Gold Rush miners, cowboys), the opportunistic (Eric Roberts is spot-on as Nellie’s grasping stage dad) and the immigrant (like the Mexican-American Manny). If the movies and all they have given us did come from a gaggle of drunks and degenerates – and frankly, at least some of them were, from the sozzled Wallace Beery to the cocaine-loving Tallulah Bankhead – it’s all the more impressive that silent era Hollywood produced such masterpieces as Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), Greed (1924), The General (1926), and everything Charlie Chaplin ever made.
Jean Smart’s St John’s monologue to Brad Pitt’s fading matinee idol about the immortality afforded to you by appearing in motion pictures, very much of a piece with the real St John’s hyperbolic prose style, seems like the closest we get to an actual thesis in Chazelle’s deranged, swing-for-the-fences blockbuster – and is combined in its conclusion with an utterly unexpected and probably ill-judged “love of the movies” montage. Babylon will never be for everyone, but for those of us who appreciate what Chazelle is trying to express about this moment in film history, it really is a delightful viewing experience. As the real St John wrote: “Hollywood was a gilded slum with tinsel covering the drama and heartbreak, a centre of the beautiful and damned.” Chazelle couldn’t have come up with a better epilogue for Babylon.
Babylon is out US cinemas now, and is released in UK cinemas on 20 January 2023
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