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A freewheeling guide to who’s who in ‘Babylon’

From Margot Robbie’s wannabe actress to Brad Pitt’s unflappable film star and Jean Smart’s gossip queen, here are some of the real-life inspirations for the over-the-top confections in Damien Chazelle’s spectacle about the end of the silent-movie era

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in "Babylon" from Paramount Pictures.Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

When Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” opens in theaters on Dec. 23, moviegoers will be treated to an orgiastic re-creation of Silent Era Hollywood at the edge of industrial disaster — a.k.a. the Talkie Revolution. Clocking in at over three hours, the movie doesn’t just remind audiences that the early days of the flickers were an offscreen riot of sex, drugs, and jazz; it wallows in them. (Any film with this much snow going up its characters’ noses has to count as a Christmas movie.)

Look past all the glorious excess, though, and you can spy the real-life tragedies, and farces, on which Chazelle (“La La Land,” “Whiplash”) has based his epic Tinseltown mashup. Here’s a cheat sheet to help tell historical truth from cinematic fiction. (Warning: Some spoilers ensue.)


Margot Robbie as Nellie LaRoy in "Babylon."Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Who’s Margot Robbie’s character based on?

In “Babylon,” Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy, a wild-child wannabe actress who becomes a star of the Silents before being felled in the sound era by various addictions and an unpurgeable Brooklyn accent. Nellie’s inspirations include a young Joan Crawford (who broke out as a late Silent Era star in flapper roles, dancing on tables as Nellie does in the movie) as well as Jeanne Eagels and Alma Rubens, both of whom struggled with alcohol and heroin and died young, in 1929 and 1931 respectively.

But the main model for the character is Clara Bow, who, like Nellie, rose from a dire Brooklyn childhood — Bow’s schizophrenic mother once attacked her with a knife; Nellie visits her mentally ill mother (Vanessa Bednar) in a New York sanatorium — to become the icon of Roaring Twenties hedonism in films like “It,” “Mantrap,” and “Rough House Rosie.” Hugely popular, Bow was notorious for her brazen sexuality and the subject of endlessly reported scandals, many invented: As portrayed in “Babylon,” she did party down with the USC football team but did not take them all on in the bedroom as Kenneth Anger’s infamous book “Hollywood Babylon” claims. Bow’s career was damaged by the talkies but killed by the tabloids; she died at the age of 60 in 1965.


Brad Pitt plays Jack Conrad and Diego Calva plays Manny Torres in "Babylon" from Paramount Pictures. Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Brad Pitt’s character, Jack Conrad — real or invented?

Effortlessly cool and forever in evening dress (even among a writhing crowd of nude revelers), Jack has the athletic savoir faire of Douglas Fairbanks — the Tom Cruise of his day and, with wife Mary Pickford, half of the Silent Era’s chief power couple. He also has the bad luck of John Gilbert, the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome, whose speaking voice was supposedly too high-pitched and squeaky for audiences craving matinee idols who talked.

But was it? The canard persists that MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who detested Gilbert, had the actor’s vocal tracks on 1929′s “His Glorious Night” sped up to make him sound effeminate. “Babylon” gets it right when it shows a preview audience howling with laughter not at Jack’s voice but at the florid romantic dialogue that seemed fine on a silent film title card but sounded ridiculous when you heard it said out loud. Unlike his onscreen counterpart, who chooses a quick and permanent end to his career, Gilbert lost himself to the bottle and died of heart failure at 38 in 1936.

How many times did stars get married back then, anyway?

A running joke in “Babylon” is that Jack has a new wife practically every time we see him. One is Olga Putti (Karolina Szymczak), a tempestuous European star à la Pola Negri and Olga Baclanova, femmes fatales whose careers were over when it turned out no one could understand a word they said (early microphone quality didn’t help). Another wife (Katherine Waterston) is a snooty Broadway thespian, reflecting Hollywood’s insecurity about “real” actors who could talk.


Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu and Jovan Adepo (back right) plays Sidney Palmer in "Babylon" from Paramount Pictures. Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Was there really an Asian movie star in silent Hollywood?

The character of Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li), a sultry, bisexual screen icon in “Babylon,” is drawn from various sources, mostly Anna May Wong’s run as an exotic vamp in early talkies. The scene where a top-hatted Lady Fay performs a cabaret act in which she kisses a lady audience member is lifted intact from 1932′s “Blonde Venus,” where it’s Marlene Dietrich who offers the taboo smooch. There may have not been a female Asian star of the Silent Era, but Japan’s Sessue Hayakawa was an American movie heartthrob in films like “The Cheat” (1915) decades before being nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957).

Jovan Adepo plays Sidney Palmer in "Babylon" from Paramount Pictures. Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

How about a Black star of early talkie musicals?

The presence of Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a jazz trumpeter who becomes an early talkie star, represents perhaps the biggest reach in “Babylon.” The character’s chops and swagger seem borrowed from Louis Armstrong, but while a few Black jazz bandleaders appeared in early sound musicals (Cab Calloway) or in their own short films (Duke Ellington) — and performers like the Nicholas Brothers sustained careers as featured players as the 1930s rolled on — Palmer’s arc seems as ahead of its era as the style of jazz he plays. There was a separate and segregated world of Black movies and moviemakers like Oscar Micheaux, but that’s outside of Chazelle’s purview here.


Jean Smart plays Elinor St. John in "Babylon" from Paramount Pictures. Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Jean Smart’s all-knowing gossip queen Elinor St. John — true?

Pretty much so: The character’s a portmanteau of Adela Rogers St. Johns, the chief celebrity journalist of the Jazz Age — and arguably the first celebrity journalist, period — and Elinor Glyn, the author of “It,” which before it was the title of a Stephen King novel was a scandalous bestseller about female sex appeal. As a film, it made a star of Clara Bow.

Other real or semi-real characters?

Look fast for “boy wonder” producer Irving Thalberg (Max Minghella), media baron William Randolph Hearst (Pat Skipper), and his actress-mistress Marion Davies (Chloe Fineman). Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton), Nellie’s harried director, is a stand-in for women filmmakers like Lois Weber, just as Lady Fay’s sideline as a screenwriter nods to powerful women scripters like Frances Marion, June Mathis, and Anita Loos. Adler’s Asian-American cameraman is a tip of the beret to pioneering cinematographer James Wong Howe.

Margot Robbie plays Nellie LaRoy in "Babylon" from Paramount Pictures. Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

How true is the movie’s depiction of the transition to talking pictures?

Very. From crude soundstage microphones that picked up everything but the dialogue to cameras encased in sweltering sound-proof boxes to stars desperately signing up for elocution lessons, “Babylon” barely exaggerates the movie industry’s torturous paradigm shift. Interestingly, we glimpse the filming of the “Singin’ in the Rain” musical number from MGM’s all-star “Hollywood Revue of 1929,” and then, much later in the film, scenes from “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), the first movie to dramatize (or comedicize) the same period as “Babylon.” Holy meta-movie.


Were Gary Cooper and Charlie Chaplin really as, um, gifted in a certain department as one character implies?

To quote an old movie, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Ty Burr was the Globe’s movie critic from 2002 to 2021. He now writes the Substack newsletter “Ty Burr’s Watch List” (tyburrswatchlist.substack.com).