Brad Pitt turned up at the AMC Lincoln Square last week to promote his new film, “Babylon,” a 188-minute epic written and directed by Damien Chazelle set in 1920s Hollywood. To say the excitement level to see the megastar was at a fever pitch would be an understatement.
Seemingly unaware of the fuss, Pitt was nonchalant and seemed in good spirits at the Q&As following both screenings, where he was joined by co-star Margot Robbie and Chazelle, along with ensemble cast members Diego Calva, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li and Jean Smart.
I’m not sure if audience members knew of the three-hour-plus running time of “Babylon,” but you can bet no one left before the Q&As ended.
“Babylon” is scheduled for a December 25 limited release, delayed by a year because of the pandemic. Paramount asked that no reviews appear before the opening, so I will say only that the film is a shocker.
“La La Land” does not prepare you for “Babylon,” except for the evocative musical soundtrack. And both films celebrate the magic and fascination of movies, but otherwise are polar opposites in tone. While “La La,” about Hollywood dreamers in love, is a tribute to 1940s musicals, ”Babylon” is an excavation of the seamy side of filmmaking in the silent pre-Code Hollywood era.
Movies were made in open fields, not sound stages. Silent films were a level well below vaudeville. Homeless people were pulled off the street to play extras in chaotic 700-men battle scenes where they would sometimes get speared for real. Who cared? Parties held in Hollywood mansions were an endless round of cocaine-fueled bacchanals. Overdoses were commonplace and bodies were quietly carted off. No one said a word. It was a time and place of unbridled excess and decadence.
“Babylon” charts the rise and fall of Jack Conrad (Pitt) and Nellie LaRoy (Robbie). Both characters are born poor but dream big and attain stardom. After they attain stardom they find success slipping away as the silent era turns to sound. The film is crammed with period images. There’s so much going on it can be sensory overload. Elephant feces, drug-and-sex-fueled parties with naked people copulating everywhere. Not to mention Robbie’s character who projectile vomits on a rich snob in a tux, is a standout.
Robbie’s character is based on real-life “It Girl” actor Clara Bow, who had a thick New Jersey accent. Clara Blow was never taken seriously in Hollywood even after making some 80 movies in less than a decade. Her career wouldn’t have survived when movies became talkies but she burned out anyway and at age 28 wisely abandoned Hollywood for motherhood. Another fate awaits Nellie.
During the Q&A, Robbie said of her character, “I always forget that everyone’s only going to see what’s on screen, but I feel like I know her so completely that I, in my head, can justify anything she would ever do and say.” Her scenes are the wildest and Robbie admitted as much as she loved her character keeping up the feverish pitch was “exhausting.”By the way, she can really dance!
Pitt conceded that before making the film he didn’t know much about the era.
“Beyond Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, I kind of dismissed it. And it was a lot of conversations with Damien, just describing to us now about the era. About the Wild West of it all. Certainly about Jack, coming from low means and wanting to prove himself.… He was chasing that respect” until the end.
Pitt described playing Jack Conrad as “a full-circle emotional balancing act” because even when his character “is at the top and he’s the king of Hollywood and seems like nothing could go wrong and he’s talking about progress, we see something there. We’re wondering if he’s going to get there as well.”
Pitt added, “First of all, he’s weirdly old. It’s really weird.”
At any mention of age, Jean Smart cackled. She is 71 and gorgeous.
She plays a powerful gossip columnist, gimlet-eyed but as obsessed and fascinated by Hollywood as the other main characters.
“I didn’t realize how many uninhibited extras there were in Hollywood,” she quipped about the drug-and-alcohol fueled party scenes where nude extras simulate sex all too realistically.
Smart’s character is in one of these scenes, as an observer.
“I learned never to look down or back up,” she cracked.
The Q&A ended with Robbie marveling about “Babylon,” that for $15 bucks” you get that much movie.
“It’s insane! This movie is insane and the sheer dedication of it is so thrilling! And I don’t know if I’ll ever get to be a part of a movie like this again in my life. I don’t know if I’ll ever be on a set where there’s 700 extras. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to be in a movie where we do the craziest things. Yeah, I mean it just, it really took an absolute genius like Damien who had the drive to push it to happen and everyone here, of course. But it’s, I mean, it’s Babylon.”