Kenneth Anger, an underground film maker and former child actor, released Hollywood Babylon in 1975. The New York Times summarised the book as “Picking through the slag heap of the Hollywood Dream factory”. It reeled in stories about actors, directors, screen writers and the coterie of Hollywood creatives and wannabes and their decadent and, at times, illegal behaviour. Anything was possible and allowed for those with influence and those who wanted to achieve success, fame and stardom by whatever means.
The book stripped bare the background of the Hollywood machine that churned out movie magic for its adoring audiences and that, in turn, allowed the same actors and directors to live their extravagant, unrealistic lifestyles that were in a league of the fantasies that they portrayed on cinema screens.
Some time later, Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss published her book, You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again, a tell-all revelation of Hollywood stars and their sordid inclinations who indulged in her services.
Dierctor and scriptwriter Damien Chazelle has channelled the tales of decadence and debauchery exposed in Hollywood Babylon and You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again into his own mosaic of Hollywood’s early years in Babylon. Babylon is not based on these books but definitely reflects the sensationalised events and personalities described in Anger and Fleiss’s books.
The salacious cover of Jayne Mansfield on Kenneth Anger’s cover of Hollywood Babylon gives you an unambiguous notion of what to expect, textually and photographically, in Hollywood Babylon.
"Hollywood Babylon has been derided by some readers as a work of dangerous libel for its embellishments and, in some cases, outright fictions about real people and events. Others have celebrated Anger’s bitchy tome as the ultimate camp trolling of the movie industry and all of its sordid hypocrisy and corruption.
The cover of Hollywood Babylon & the Babylon set from D. W. Griffith's movie Intolerance
The phrase “Hollywood Babylon” entered the vernacular thanks to D.W. Griffith, one of Hollywood’s first great directors, who followed up his racist smash movie,The Birth of a Nation, with a less-successful historical epic called Intolerance.
Anger’s use of that film’s Babylon set, which was left to stand and decay for years after the film came and went, as the structuring image of his gossip bible, helps to set the ironic tone of the book".
From You Must Remember This: The podcast about the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century
All the grit, grim and other bodily excretions are evident in Babylon. The three characters central to Babylon’s story are amalgams of Hollywood's maladies exposed by a Hollywood denizen, Babylon director Damien Chazelle, of the very establishment he and the movie dissect. Chazelle strips the veneer of Hollywood’s glamour.
“Strip the phoney tinsel off Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath”
Oscar Levant [American comedian, composer, pianist & actor (1906-1972)]
Famous, ultra-wealthy and self-indulgent silent film star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) epitomises the self-centred entity called a star. Conrad is an amalgam of 1920s silent movie star Rudolph Valentino with hints of John Gilbert and a touch of Errol Flynn. He believes his success, fame and influence will never end, until he faces the reality, that as Hollywood moves into the era of talkies and new stars emerge to eclipse his own brand of stardom, his light, like a spectacular sunset that ends a movie, will simply sink and fade away.
Nellie Roy & Jack Conrad
If ever a star’s name identified star power by her name alone, it’s Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie). Nellie doesn’t think she will become a star. She believes she is a star. According to Nellie, you don’t become a star; you’re either a star or you’re not. And she contrives her way into getting noticed and noticed she gets. Her rise to stardom is accompanied by all the gossip mongers and backstabbers who see her as a disposable commodity to be exploited until the next exploitable commodity is discovered. She is so enamoured with her own stardom that she fails to recognise the people who believe in her and are emotionally tied to her.
The person who has the biggest connection with Nellie is Mexican immigrant Manny Torres (Diego Calva). He falls in love with her from the beginning and slowly climbs the studio corporate system to become a successful film producer while maintaining his humanity.
Manny, Nellie & Elinor St. John
Another figure that embodies the intemperate nature of Hollywood gossip is columnist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), a blend of Hollywood’s most well-known and notorious purveyors of gossip, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. In an excruciating scene showing Conrad confronting Elinor about a savage dissembling of his star power she has written, Elinor provides Jack with a sober and frank assessment of his reality that is far wider in its characterisation of the Hollywood system as a whole.
Babylon is not an homage or love letter. It is a forensic exploration and, at times, an evisceration of Hollywood mores and manners, an autopsy that reveals the entrails on the boulevard of broken dreams. Depictions of drunkenness, debauchery, narcissism and illicit drug use form the structure that builds the frenetic pace of Babylon. The true indecency of Babylon is the shameless disposal of human emotions that characterise real feelings and the identification of what makes people decent humans rather than wealth and consumption of peripheral distractions.
Babylon is a magical place. It is the factory where dreams are made. Conrad, Nellie and Manny are sacrificed at the altar of dreams. Director Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is not about the magic that happens in the studio lots and the stars that generate star power in order to amass vast fortunes for everyone involved in the production of movie magic. Babylon is about the expectation of magic that happens for everyone one of us who attend cinemas to be awestruck by the spectacle of movies that range from costume dramas, space operas and melodramas to comedies and experimental films in full length feature films, short films or even for anyone who has picked up an 8mm camera or a digital phone to make their own movies and then be surprised and delighted by the magic they created using their imagination.
When for a micro second the lights dim and the screen lights up with the electric shadows that flicker images across the screen and you sink into the cinema seat to be transported to worlds that can only exist through the work of everyone involved in the magical place where movies are made, we all bring meaning and receive satisfaction and gratification from those images. A seat in a cinema is the magical place where dreams happen. And we define the magic that appears on the screen as much as the people behind the scenes who act, direct, produce, edit, film, make costumes, build sets and transport elephants on set.
This is true for actors Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, director Damien Chazelle and all the other creatives making this movie. They are caught in the cogs that make magic in the movie factory and they will be discarded and new talent will merge over time. We are all cogs. That’s not a negative view. We are intertwined in making, sharing, viewing and being part of a much bigger picture.
Before you condemn the actions and behaviours depicted in Babylon, remember that we enable them to do what they do. We are complicit and willing participants in these magical cinematic worlds. We are the only ones who exist. Flms are for us in the company of others or in the privacy of our own imaginary world in a crowed cinema. But I would say it’s not as compelling in your lounge room regardless of how large your TV is because there are too many distractions that can occur. You need to be seated in a cinema in front of a screen for the magic to truly unfold. That is the true magic and cinemas are the place where the magic happens.
Babylon is often a frenetic series of scenarios that propel and confront us in a specific time and place but, regardless of the time, place, story and characters or whether the world created on the screen is in a galaxy far, far away or the bawdy contortions of deranged performers in a Hollywood producer’s mansion, it is about the pleasure palace that is cinema.
Babylon is a discovery of film references for film fanatics to examine, explore and study. It may not suit everyone’s style of movie with its energetic portrayal of a specific time in the history of Hollywood movie making but you won’t forget how and why we continue to be seduced every time we buy a ticket to watch the magic on a cinema screen.
Official Trailer Babylon
Babylon Full movie runtime: 3 hours 9 minutes
To counteract the contentious content of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and Heidi Fleiss’s You Won’t Make Love in This Town Again, consider reading a recently published book (February, 2023), Hollywood: The Oral History, that promises to be a more robust study of Hollywood based on the words of the people who invented Hollywood.
Hollywood: The Oral History, written by Sam Wasson and Jeanine Basinger, covers the history of Hollywood from the Silent era up to the 21st century. Be forewarned, it is epic—800 pages—in size. What makes this book unique from any other survey of Hollywood's history is that it is the history of an art form through the words of those people who created it - from Harold Lloyd to Katharine Hepburn to Warren Beatty to Jane Fonda and beyond, including directors, writers, producers, editors, designers of sets and costumes. As such, the authenticity of the text appears irrefutable. The material in the book - gathered over the decades by the American Film Institute - has never been published before, has never been heard before.
FILM EXTRAS: HOLLYWOOD & THE DREAM FACTORY
Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950)
An ageing silent film queen (Gloria Swanson) refuses to accept that her stardom has ended. She hires a young screenwriter (William Holden) to help set up her movie comeback. The screenwriter believes he can manipulate her, but he soon finds out he is wrong. Sunset Boulevard is noteworthy for being a ruthlessly accurate depiction of the way Hollywood destroys its own legacies. The general ideas in Sunset Boulevard are alive and well in Hollywood today, perhaps even more than they were in 1950.
The film's iconic line is a memorable piece of dialogue: ”All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in...Hollywood (2019)
Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) gained fame and fortune by starring in a 1950s television Western, but is now struggling to find meaningful work in a Hollywood that he doesn't recognize anymore. He spends most of his time drinking and palling around with Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his easygoing best friend and longtime stunt double. Rick also happens to live next door to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)— the filmmaker and budding actress whose futures will forever be altered by members of the Manson Family.
Robert Altman’s The Player (1992)
Certain that the anonymous threats he's been receiving are the work of David Kahane (Vincent D'Onofrio), producer Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) tries to fix things over cocktails. Things do not go as expected for Griffin. As police investigate what happened, Griffin concentrates on a prestigious film that might reinvigorate his career. But he soon learns that his actions haven't been forgotten by everyone in Hollywood. The opening tracking shot is a beautiful piece of camera work similar to the tracking shot through the skylight in Citizen Kane and the continuous single tracking shot at the beginning of Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night.
Rolf De Heer’s Dr. Plonk (2007)
A scientist & inventor in 1907, Dr Plonk, predicts that the world will end in 101 years, unless something is done about it.
An Australian black & white, silent comedy in the Charlie Chaplin / Buster Keaton tradition
Dr. Plonk doesn't appear to be available from any streaming services.