The end of the year brings another big budget epic about old Hollywood starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt. It’s called Babylon, from Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man director Damien Chazelle, and it goes all the way back to the late 1920s, during the film industry’s uneasy transition from the “silent” era to the infancy of synch sound. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Robbie played a real historical figure (albeit one who avoided the same grisly fate). But is she (or Pitt) playing a real person in Babylon?
The answer is no. Robbie’s character, starlet Nellie LaRoy, may not have ever existed, but like most of the cast, she’s playing a composite, a mash-up of sorts comprised of Clara Bow, Jeanne Eagels, Joan Crawford, and Alma Rubens. The same goes for Pitt’s aging matinee idol Jack Conrad, who has bits of John Gilbert, Clark Gable, and Douglas Fairbanks in his DNA.
In fact, right now it appears only one actor is playing an actual person. That would be Max Minghella, who’s taking on the role of Irvin Thalberg, the “Boy Wonder,” who became the head of production at MGM at the ripe age of 26. He died young, too, succumbing to pneumonia just over a decade later, at the age of 37.
Babylon follows a Mexican-American immigrant (Diego Calva) as he enters the Hollywood system, first as an editor, during perhaps its wildest era (though you wouldn’t know it watching the more lighthearted depiction in the classic musical Singin’ in the Rain). It was a time of debauched Jazz Age bacchanalias, as witnessed in the film’s bonkers trailer, which features such sights as a hopped-up Robbie threatening to fight a dangerous snake. Meanwhile, the industry was in the midst of being upturned by new technology, which would create new jobs while also destroying many others, and not just the “silent” stars who never transitioned to a medium that suddenly boasted speech.
When Babylon hits theaters on December 23. It will be a bumpy — and long (read: 188 minutes) — ride.