Beach Blanket ‘Babylon’

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Two flapper girls on Colony Beach, circa 1929. Contributed photo.

Robbie, Bow, Brad, Balzary: Five Malibu Connections to Damien Chazelle’s film on Old Hollywood

By Benjamin Marcus 

During this fractured, tech-turbulent 21st century, when motion pictures are caught in a tug of war between faintly flickering theaters and ever-strengthening streaming, “Babylon” looks back almost 100 years to a similar fracture: The late 1920s, when America was roaring and the movies were silent but the “talkies” were the usurper shaking up Hollywood. Sound technology forced established silent stars, execs, producers, and technicians to adapt or take the bus back to Kansas.

Caught up in the push-me/pull-you of this digital century, Malibu resident Damien Chazelle’s $78 million, 189-minute (!) “Babylon” went all in on the big screen and opened Dec. 23, 2022, in theaters only. Starring Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Tobey Maguire, an elephant, and a cast of thousands, Babylon opened to a disappointing $5.3 million over the four-day Christmas weekend. As of the first week of January, Babylon had grossed just over $12 million — leading some short-sighted snarkers to call it “Bombylon.”

Actually seeing “Babylon” in a theater would require — gasp — leaving Malibu and driving to the Valley — gasp, gasp — and sitting quietly in a theater with strangers — gasp, gasp, gasp — to watch a complicated, three-hour-long movie with no pausing for bathroom breaks, no reading closed captions to catch missed lines, and no rewinding to figure out what the heck is going on with all that elephant dung and such.

So we’re gonna wait until “Babylon” comes streaming into the finer homes of Malibu. But with help from The New Yorker reviewers Richard Brody and Anthony Lane — who double-damned the movie with confused praise — and writer Marya E. Gates from indiewire.com, here are the ways “Babylon” is Malibu-relevant:

Director’s wife plays a director

The Oscar-winning (for “La La Land”) director Damian Chaziel lives in Malibu with Olivia Hamilton, whose “Babylon” role as fictional Ruth Adler was explained by Gates in IndieWire.com for Dec. 21, 2022: 

“Unlike many films about the silent era, Chazelle corrects the myth that women were not involved in the technical side of the early years of Hollywood filmmaking. ‘Babylon’ is filled with homages to the women who worked as writers, producers, editors, and directors.”

In a big set piece on the outdoor Kinoscope lot, the fictional Adler is one of the two filmmakers shown simultaneously directing their films. She is modeled mostly on studio-era pioneer Dorothy Arzner, who made 20 films between 1927 and 1943, working with actresses like Katherine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, and (of course) Clara Bow. 

Brad Pitt plays an aging movie star

Brad Pitt’s Jack Conrad was described as an “affable superstar” by Lane and “a breezy yet earnest leading man” by Brody. Pitt’s Malibu relevance in “Babylon” is buried in the rubble of history and the Malibu Colony, which burned to the ground in October 1929. 

According to Marya E. Gates on indiewire.com for Dec. 21, 2022:

“The main inspiration behind Pitt’s aging film star is the debonair matinee idol John Gilbert — nicknamed Jack — who was one of the most popular actors in the ’20s … At the peak of his career, Gilbert was the highest paid actor on MGM’s payroll.”

Gates finds many tragic parallels between the fictional Conrad and the real Gilbert, but according to James Cain in “The Widow’s Mite” for Vanity Fair in 1933, it was Gilbert’s house that was responsible for the firestorm that took out the Malibu Colony in 1929:

“But then Mrs. O’Leary’s cow got into it. The fire started from defective wiring at No. 83, what is now John Gilbert’s house, on October 26, 1929. It spread… Twentynine houses went up in flames that night…”

Jonah and Jonze

Spike Jonze is in “Babylon” as German film director Otto Van Strassberger — a guy who puts the “mental” in “temperamental.” Jonze is Malibu-relevant as a surf bro to Colony resident Jonah Hill. When Jonze isn’t winning Best Screenplay Oscars for “Her” or grossing out the world as a producer of “Jackass” and Hill isn’t saying funny things, the two can be seen trading waves and boards and jibes at Old Joe’s.

Flea that jazz

Before Colony resident Flea was the bassist for Red Hot Chili Peppers, he was Michael Balzary — a jazz guy, a trumpeter. Rock and roll didn’t enter into it. So for “Babylon,” Flea felt right at home portraying Bob Levine, a Jazz Era studio executive with a hot temper who helps to inflame all the emotions running rampant in “Babylon.”

Robbie’s LeRoy is Bow

The deepest Malibu-centricity goes back, back in time, as Margot Robbie’s Nellie LeRoy character is based on one of the first Malibu Colony residents: Clara Bow. Also known as “The It Girl,” Clara Bow was the Madonna of the 1920s, an actress equally comfortable portraying sexy flappers and tomboy boxers. At her peak — around the same time as Babylon is set — Bow was making $4,000 a week, the equivalent of $67,911.11 in 2022.

Righteous bucks!

Clara Bow roared with the ’20s and made the transition to talkies: “The Wild Party” was the first of three movies with sound Bow made in 1929, but she wasn’t comfortable with the tech: “I hate talkies … they’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness,” she said in Motion Picture Classic magazine for September 1930. “Because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.”

We know what you’re thinking. You are intrigued by this column and want to see this film, but you don’t want to drive all the way to the Valley and sit with strangers, so when will “Babylon” be available at the beach?

When will Babylon be on Paramount+?

Decider.com said while a Paramount+ release date for Babylon has not yet been announced, we can make an estimate based on a previous Paramount Pictures movie. “The Lost City,” which was released in theaters on March 25, came to the streaming platform on May 10 — about 45 days after its debut. If “Babylon” follows the same trajectory, we could be watching it from home by early February.

There’s plenty of action in “Babylon,” but if you’re waiting for it to invade the privacy of your home, you might want to watch “Don’t Make Waves”: the first in a series of “Movies Every Malibu Citizen Should Watch.” A 1967 movie Quentin Tarantino called a “silly comedy” with Tony Curtis, Claudia Cardinale, and Sharon Tate as a beach babe named Malibu who some say inspired the Malibu Barbie doll. Margot Robbie played Sharon Tate in “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” and will soon play the title role in Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie.” So there it is. It’s circular. Feel the flow. Coming soon.