With its riotous orgies, perilous sets, and nonstop meltdowns, Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a Hollywood fantasy—but one that constantly leans on history.
Though the film has its own unorthodox versions of the hair and makeup of the period, Babylon is set primarily in the last days of silent film through the early talkies, from 1926 to about 1933. Characters like ambitious starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), established leading man Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), and a handful of supporting players are fictional, but if they feel familiar, that’s because they should. Those savvy about film history will also recognize some tall tales from Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, which lends part of its title and a lot of its attitude to Chazelle’s epic.
Ahead, a guide to where Babylon draws from reality—and where it diverges from it—plus some silent films and early talkies worth catching up with if you want to know more about what happened and why this era is worth remembering.
Our leading lady is Nellie LaRoy, played by Margot Robbie as a hedonistic wild child whom the camera loves. Babylon’s official press materials describe Nellie as a mix of several stars, but the main model couldn’t be more obvious: Clara Bow, born and raised in Brooklyn, then one of the toughest parts of a notoriously tough city. She endured a horrific childhood of neglect, minimal schooling, and physical and sexual abuse. Like Clara Bow, Nellie has a broad accent, though Nellie’s is said to be from across the river in New Jersey. Babylon also adds drug addictions that Clara didn’t have. Still, Nellie’s character hits beat after beat familiar from David Stenn’s definitive biography, Runnin’ Wild: the mental illness in the family, the sleazy and sniveling father (Eric Roberts), Bow’s rejection by the Hollywood elite.
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