Nellie LaRoy — the kind of pretty girl who always has dirt under her fingernails and stains on her party dresses — runs with the direction like a horse with a bit in her mouth. The scene is exhilarating, brimming with a feral sexuality that sees one of her costars get an erection. It’s 1920s Hollywood, and LaRoy’s broad Jersey twang, hungover miasma and grubby je ne sais quoi are protected by the limitations of technology.
This doesn’t last long, and thus is the central premise of Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, a movie that in its best moments is a gritty, harrowing documentation of lonely people addicted to a dying craft. Along with Robbie, the film stars Diego Calva, Brad Pitt, Jean Smart and Olivia Wilde.
Robbie — who is in Sydney to promote the film alongside co-star Diego Calva — is perched in front of me in an immaculate champagne silk suit, with buffed nails and hair so fresh I feel cleaner for being in her presence.
Robbie tells me that Chazelle’s “love letter” to old Hollywood was inspired by one of the bleakest eras in the film industry, and the “seismic changes” that the shift from the silent film to the talkies caused in the film industry.
She recalls Chazelle telling her that “he noticed an uptick in young people dying, an uptick in suicides, overdoses and early deaths”.
In an interview with Den of Geek, Chazelle spoke about the transitional period from the silent film era to the introduction of the “talkies”, concluding that the introduction of sound was “traumatic” for those working in the industry.
As the industry evolved, many actors, directors, producers and agents struggled to adapt, losing clients and haemorrhaging money as they fell out of the business. Along with them went assistants, set runners, costume designers and makeup artists who lost contacts.
“It drove people to literal death,” Chazelle told Den of Geek. “It grabbed my mind as a window into the rest of the movie.”
In Babylon, both Robbie and Calva play Hollywood outsiders who manage to break into the industry — something both actors were able to relate to when taking on the roles.
“I think for a lot of people in this movie, it was art imitating life in a lot of instances,” Robbie tells The Latch. “I can relate to that drive Nellie has to make it — she [takes] a leap and doesn’t have anything to fall back on and if this doesn’t work out, she’s kind of screwed.
“I definitely felt that way when I came to America. I was like ‘I have to make it, I don’t have a return ticket so I need this to happen’,” she adds.
Calva, meanwhile, plays Manny Torres, a Mexican-born elephant wrangler enchanted by cinema, and it’s through his eyes we see the rise and fall of these Hollywood power players. Reflecting on Manny, Calva says he relates to his character “a lot”.
“I tried so many things before I landed into acting,” he tells The Latch. “I went to college work in sound department, in construction, been the coffee guy, so I was literally Manny, trying to find a way. I relate in a lot of senses.”
Throughout the film, the characters ability (or inability) to adapt is crucial to their success in the fast-changing industry. While many of the characters implode and explode, Calva’s Manny experiences a slow burn conflict, much of which is internal.
“I mean, I am literally staring half of the movie,” he says. Robbie laughs also.
“The movie plays like this,” she says, framing Calva’s face with her hands, “and for good reason, he can convey so much with his eyes.”
Calva expresses tenderness, contempt and cunning in a single glance, and his moral degradation is in many ways the most compelling and stomach churning aspect of the film.
“For Diego’s character the transition that they all go through is where he kind of thrives,” says Robbie, “whereas Nellie is the opposite.”
Issues of race, class and privilege are central to Babylon. Nellie flukes into stardom despite a flat chest and a less-than-professional attitude, but finds herself derided by the men who dragged her up, dismissed as “a piece of trash” with a voice “like a squealing pig.” Meanwhile, Manny is lifted up by the same powerful people, his innate adaptability seeming suddenly mercurial.
With success comes ethical compromises, though, and as he participates in the new Hollywood PR machine, Manny tries to repackage Nellie while toeing the line between kindness, coercion and cruelty.
While Manny is able to adapt to the changes in the industry, Nellie struggles.
“It was just a different medium to suddenly be performing in, with microphones and sound studio,” Robbie explains, adding: “there is one hilarious sequence in Babylon where everyone, particularly my character, cannot figure it out.”
For anyone with performance anxiety, the scene is perhaps less than hilarious. Nellie is playing a college girl who is instructed to walk into her bedroom, drop her bag and deliver her line, but the scene is shot over again and again.
With her mark perfectly positioned under the mic, the fluidity of Nellie’s movement is restricted, and continually throws her off. Her voice is too loud, her bag drop too heavy, and when she finally nails the scene, somebody sneezes. By the end of the sequence, directors and ADs are screaming expletives and Nellie is frenzied, the roaring sound and movement of a silent set transformed into the suffocating silence of a “talkie.”
“It was a different time as far as what was acceptable, for better or worse, things have changed,” Robbie says.
Babylon is in HOYTS cinemas from January 19. Buy tickets here.
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