Is Babylon based on a true story?

Watch the trailer for Babylon

Damien Chazelle’s highly anticipated Babylon hits the big screen in the UK on January 20. The three-hour epic from the Oscar-winning director of La La Land and First Man gives a brilliant overview of the scandalous debauchery of the Golden Age of Hollywood during the tumultuous transition from silent films to talkies.

Set in the Roaring Twenties, this R-rated movie stars Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie along with a host of big names including Tobey Maguire, Jovan Adepo, Diego Calva and Jean Smart.

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A bold synopsis promises: “Babylon, a tale of unparalleled ambition and outrageous excess, follows the rise and fall of many characters in an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood.”

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon. (Highlight Pictures)

Babylon certainly kicks off in a truly bombastic style with a chaotic and elaborate party scene filled with jazz, drugs, alcohol, and even an elephant thrown in for good measure. As the movie progresses, things get crazier and more ridiculous.

Given the film’s historical background, fans of the film are already wondering if the characters are based on real figures in the industry, and if Tinsel Town really was that scandalous in the 1920s.

The True Story of Babylon

Director Damien Chazelle on the set of Babylon with Paramount Pictures.

Director Damien Chazelle on the set of Babylon. (Highlight Pictures)

While director and writer Damien Chazelle draws inspiration from Hollywood history, the film’s characters are a mix of fictional and many real Hollywood players, taking great liberties when necessary.

Chazelle is said to have drawn his early Hollywood research from Kevin Brownlow’s classic silent film study The Parade’s Gone By, the definitive account of early Hollywood with all its decadence and depravity.

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Babylon is set in a time of immense wealth, but also captures the tumultuous transformation of Los Angeles as the film industry gradually transitioned from silent films to talkies between 1926 and 1930.

“I wanted to look under the microscope at the origins of the art form and industry when both were still on their feet,” Chazelle said in a commentary accompanying the film’s production notes.

“And on a deeper level, I liked the idea of ​​looking at a changing society.”

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon. (Highlight Pictures)

With the big leaps in technology and new audience expectations, many celebrities were also unable to successfully switch to talkies, and those that did recklessly indulged in their newfound publicity.

In a recent interview with Collider, the Oscar-winning director claims he has only “scratched the surface” of Hollywood’s dark impulses – which include multiple on-set accidents, drug-related deaths and even cold-blooded murder.

It was a time of sensational news and disgusting scandals, with young stars rampaging on and off the screen, many of whom met their tragic demise due to exploitative and ruthless industry.

Acclaimed filmmaker Paul Schrader questioned the correctness of the film’s period, with Taxi Driver screenwriter saying “Babylon is many things, but well researched is not one of them.”

Who inspired the characters of Babylon?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 16: (LR) Damien Chazelle, Jovan Adepo, Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart and Li Jun Li attend the New York Special Screening and Q&A in support of Paramount Pictures'

(LR) Damien Chazelle, Jovan Adepo, Diego Calva, Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart and Li Jun Li at the Babylon show. (Monica Schipper/Getty Images)

A self-proclaimed fan of early Hollywood, Chazelle worked with an all-star cast to carefully craft complex characters who embodied the fast-living-and-death ethos of the young age of the changing celluloid.

“You’re starting to research some of the people Damien pointed out to us, and you’re starting to collect how many people died this time,” Babylon star Margot Robbie told Cinemablend.

Robbie also points out how “everyone was young” during this period of exploitation. “People went from being poor to being the biggest movie stars in the country … and if they were 20 … they were already dead by the time they were 25 or 30.”

So does the cast portray real wild kids from these turbulent times? It turns out that it is not so simple.

Producer Irving Thalberg, along with his wife, actress Norma Shearer, and their six-year-old son Irving Thalberg Jr.

Producer Irving Thalberg stands with his wife, actress Norma Shearer, and their six-year-old son Irving Thalberg Jr. (getty)

Max Minghella, who plays producer and original movie magnate Irving Thalberg, is the only real character featured in the film.

Thalberg, known as “Wunderkind,” has been credited with MGM’s stellar reputation for his ability to produce high-quality films, as well as his clever identification and development of talent.

The rest of the cast is a mix of many stars and key players in the industry, combined to paint a picture of the sordid side of showbiz.

Lukas Haas plays George Munn and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Lukas Haas plays George Munn and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in Babylon. (Highlight Pictures)

Manny Torres, played by Diego Calva, is modeled after several Hispanic filmmakers and actors, including René Cardona, a Cuban immigrant who pioneered the golden age of Mexican cinema.

According to Chazelle, Brad Pitt’s character Jack Conrad is “kind of a movie superstar.” “When we get to know him, he’s the most profitable top man in the world.”

Conrad is partly based on John Gilbert, the hugely successful silent movie star of the 1920s, who failed to make the transition to the new era of sound and watched his illustrious career fall apart.

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad in Babylon. (Highlight Pictures)

Margot Robbie plays one of the other leads, Nellie LaRoy. An aspiring actress and flapper girl heavily inspired by Clara Bow’s original It Girl, with a hint of Joan Crawford.

Bow had a meteoric rise and subsequent decline while cultivating an outrageous reputation as a sexually energetic party girl.

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Despite earning huge amounts of money for her studios, Bow was never considered classy enough to be a star, and after one too many tabloid exposures, she was dumped by Paramount Studios and eventually retired for good.

Clara Bow portrays Helena

Clara Bow portrays Helen “Bunny” O’Day in the 1931 film No Limit. (John Springer/CORBIS/Corbis Collection via Getty Images)

Aside from the good girl character, Bow has had a hard life marked by extreme poverty and violence, which Robbie took into account when drawing inspiration from Bow.

“Every time I try to create a character, I have to find out what their childhood was like,” Robbie said in a recent interview. “I can justify anything they do later in life if I just figure it out.”

“She probably had the scariest childhood I can imagine. You can justify anything [she] she does and says in this film, if you imagine she experienced something like that as a child.”

Diego Calva plays Manny Torres and Jean Smart plays Elinor St.  John in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Diego Calva plays Manny Torres and Jean Smart plays Elinor St. John in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.

Babylon has garnered mixed reviews from critics so far, and while many praise Chazelle’s depiction of the era’s outrageous excesses, some believe he overdid it.

“One of the richest and most ambitious films of the year,” writes Street Journal’s Kyle Smith Wall, while CNN’s Brian Lowry describes Babylon as “a sprawling, chaotic, three-plus-hour endurance test.”

Nearly a century later, it seems Hollywood is still a fickle place where dreams are both made and destroyed in equal measure.

Babylon in UK cinemas from January 20. Watch the clip below.

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