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5 things you should know before you watch Babylon

From character inspirations to costumes made by Mary Zophres

5 things you should know before you watch Babylon  From character inspirations to costumes made by Mary Zophres

Since its first details and images began to leak out a few months ago, Babylon has become one of the most anticipated films of 2023, thanks to a star-studded cast led by Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, a plot that takes us back to 1920s Hollywood, and costumes that could be awarded at the upcoming Oscars. On Jan. 19, the new project by Damien Chazelle, director of La La Land, arrived in theaters, dividing audiences and critics between those who loved it madly and those who hated it. Among the adjectives most often used to describe the more than three-hour film are wild, hybrid, unbridled, hedonistic, incandescent, desperate, incorrect, and flawed. Discordant comments that do not, however, affect the hype around the film that remains among the most interesting releases of the beginning of the year. To best approach the viewing of Babylon, it is best to arrive at the cinema prepared, investigating a bit about the plot that tells the story of Hollywood at the time of the transition from silent to sound films, the protagonists and many other small details that can help in understanding Chazelle's elaborate project.

Here are five things you should know before you see Babylon. No fear, there are no spoilers.

The plot recreates a historic moment in Hollywood

"It is a film that gives an insight into the society of the time, those who worked in the movie business and extreme parties. I look at Hollywood through the prism of entertainment and sets." Explains Damien Chazelle, who in his latest film takes us to 1920s Hollywood, at the time of the crucial transition from silent to sound that coincided with a changing of the guard of the stars, between actors who saw their careers crumble forever and new talents who went from unknowns who could not make ends meet to stars hailed by the public. As also happens to the protagonists of Babylon. There is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a super-rich, ultra-famous star known for his profligate private life of partying, alcohol abuse, divorce, and shady dealings who sees his career and life go down the drain with the rise of sound; there's Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), the naive and rebellious actress who comes from the provinces to break through in the big city and ends up succeeding after being noticed at a party; there's Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a dreamy-eyed aspiring Hispanic-American actor who is an assistant on Jack Conrad's set while waiting for his big break. Their stories, along with those of other secondary characters, intertwine several times, amid decadent parties, orgies, movie sets, and vices, showing when classic Hollywood with its veneer of perfection hid sin, rot, and excess.

Many of the Babylon's characters are inspired by real-life figures

The majority of the characters in Babylon are inspired by real people who existed in the star system of the time. For example, Margot Robbie's, Nellie La Roy, is loosely based on several actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Jeanne Eagels, but her main reference is Clara Bow. With the iconic It Girl of the Jazz Age that scandalized America she shares a horrible childhood of neglect, minimal schooling and physical and sexual abuse, a restless and unpredictable disposition, great sex appeal and the ability to cry on command, even with one eye. Jack Conrad's story, however, closely resembles the life of John Gilbert. Now largely forgotten, he was a talented and hugely popular actor, best known for costume dramas, many affairs, and alcohol abuse. His "thin" voice is said to have been one of the reasons he fell into oblivion with the arrival of sound. To bring Torres di Calva to the screen, he sought inspiration in Rene Cadorna, who came to Hollywood from Cuba and had managed to establish himself in the studio world, although he worked mainly in Mexico. The three of them are not the only characters reminiscent of real-life figures, also worth mentioning are Li Jun Li as Lady Fay Zhu who is practically Anna May Wong; jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer, played by Jovan Adepo, is Duke Ellington; while meddlesome reporter Elinor St. John, played by Jean Smart, is a mix of Elinor Glyn and Louella Parsons.

The costumes are Oscar-worthy

Damien Chazelle commissioned costume designer Mary Zophres (already at work on La La Land) to design nearly 10,000 costumes for the film. A monumental undertaking made even more complicated by the fact that the director specified that there was no room for repetition because the script did not allow the same looks to be used for multiple scenes. The most complicated creation to achieve was Margot Robbie's red dress, which, according to the directions, had to be able to "convey debauchery without revealing too much" and not look like "another 1920s dress," so no flapper dresses, no cloche hats, and no feathers. Thus was born the look we see in the film's opening scene consisting of a vintage Chinese silk scarf, tied around the body, tucked into a pair of tap shorts and the let it drape over the hip. The result is a perfect mix of strength, power, anger, passion. For Pitt's Jack Conrad, the idea was, on the other hand, a sexy movie star in high-waisted button-down pants who never wears a jacket and tie or zipper. He is a bon vivant who goes to parties in a tuxedo but wears sportswear at home or on the set. 

The "stolen" kiss 

Kisses have an important moment on screen, especially those starring Nellie La Roy. The former has been much talked about lately. Apparently, in intertwining the aspiring actress Margot Robbie allowed herself to improvise and began kissing Brad Pitt. At the cry of "this opportunity may never come again," she explained to the director that she thought that's what her character would have done and succeeded in convincing him. Thus the lips of the two joined, arousing the envy of their respective fans. During the film, Nellie/Margot also kisses actress Li Jun Li. Although the moment looks very hot on screen, it seems that in reality it was not very hot since the scene was filmed in the desert and Robbie had a prosthesis on her neck filled with honey that recreated the bite of a venomous snake and mixed with the surrounding sand. 

There are 3 important movie references

Babylon is a love-hate declaration of Hollywood that draws heavily from reality and emphasizes it. Whether in terms of the mood of the time or the fact that behind the dream machine fame the star system hid excess and decadence, or the inspiration of the characters. Within the film, however, the director also cites three famous films: at several points he pays homage to Singing in the Rain, the Hollywood classic starring Gene Kelly that the recounts transition from silent to sound film; but also, in the long opening sequence of the party, among elephants, drugs, alcohol and orgies, where La Dolce Vita, 8½ and Eyes Wide Shut come to mind.