‘Babylon’: Meet the Real Old Hollywood Stars Who Inspired the Characters of Damien Chazelle’s Wild Epic

Damien Chazelle's ode to the movies of yesteryear is populated with many characters inspired by real legends. So, who is who?
Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in Babylon from Paramount Pictures.
Scott Garfield

In the late 1920s, silent era filmmaking was at the height of its artistry, and Hollywood was one big, debaucherous party. This was the roaring twenties, after all. In fact, it was the depravity — on screen and off — of this era that led to the creation of the Production Code that would handicap studio films for decades to come.

Although many films have paid tribute to these wild, early days like James Ivory’s “The Wild Party” or Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist,” few have boasted as impressive a grasp the magic and darkness of its history and mythology as Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon.” This era is a perfect collision of all the Oscar winner’s interests.

In his three-hour epic “Babylon,” the romantic cinephilia of “La La Land” meets the obsessive jazz rhythms of “Whiplash” meets the detailed history of “First Man.” Inspired in part by the racier (though often debunked) tales in Kenneth Anger’s sensational book “Hollywood Babylon” and the oral histories of film historian Kevin Brownlow’s “The Parade’s Gone By…,” the film opens with an impressive twenty-minute set piece during an orgiastic party hosted by the head of the fictional Kinoscope Studios. The celebration is overflowing with drugs and booze and gambling, a jazz band and elephants, and people fucking in every corner of every room.

Amid the chaotic cacophony, Chazelle places Hollywood urban legends like Easter eggs and introduces a cadre of fictional characters, all of them based on some of Hollywood’s real-life shining stars.

There’s Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), an irrepressible star-to-be from Jersey who crashes the party and leaves with a job working for director Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton). Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a jazz trumpeter whose talent goes largely underappreciated until the advent of sound. Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican-American assistant tasked with wrangling the party’s entertainment whose ability to fix any problem helps him climb the industry ladder. Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a Chinese-American actress and scriptwriter whose ethnicity is exoticized and talents ignored. Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), a matinee idol at the peak of fame. And Elinor St. John (Jean Smart), a journalist who can make and break careers.

True to the stories of many real life stars and moviemakers, their highs are unbelievably high, and their downfalls sudden and bleak.

Although a few actors play real people, like Max Minghella, who bobs in and out of the story as MGM’s boy wonder Irving Thalberg, or Alexandre Chen, who embodies pioneering Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe early in his career, most of these characters are a composite of several figures. Through these characters, Chazelle synthesizes the lore from the silent era’s last gasp as Hollywood transitioned to synchronized sound into an epic ode to a lost time and place.

So, who is playing who?

Paramount will release “Babylon” in theaters on Friday, December 23.

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