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Back when it came out in theaters, folks asked us to review Babylon (2022), which was receiving a lot of hype at the time because the movie is packed with stars (Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie) and had a big budget. I suspected that it was playing fast and loose with history just from the preview pix, and yes indeed it’s a Snark Week worthy train wreck!
The flick purports to show the “real,” meaning dark, sexy, sleazy, violent, gross, abusive, and disgusting to pointlessness, side of early Hollywood before talkies and the Hayes Code. What the movie does is regurgitate the plot of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) as a gritty reboot — although this movie actually has one of the main characters watch Singin’ in the Rain at the very end of this movie as a flash-forward finale. In between is over three hours of all kinds of bullshit (starting with elephant shit INTO THE CAMERA) that bears little relationship to the 1920s / early 1930s period. The plot wildly exaggerates how awful early Hollywood was, using every myth and cliché ever heard, and yet also wants you to think all this degradation and people killed is 110% worth it because movies are MAGIC.
That this movie only got an “R” rating and not “NC-17” or no rating just shows how stupid the American rating system is. There’s not much sex in this, but a ton of nudity, violence, and so very many disgusting bodily functions used as jokes / plot points. It’s also fat-phobic in gross ways, and I deeply hope all the animal violence was faked because it’s horrifyingly staged. None of that was necessary to further the story; it’s just excess to show excess.
Putting the rotten cherry on the actual shit sundae that is Babylon, the costumes suck! Title cards keep popping up stating each year as 1926 through 1932, and hardly anything the characters wear reflects the period. You’ve probably seen this first outfit Margot Robbie wears as Nellie, a rising starlet:
“She comes from the East Coast and is probably a former dancer. Nellie goes to the party to be discovered and wraps this scarf around her body, tucks it into her shorts and lets it drape at the hip. She is kind of covered up, and it makes her look less naughty.”
As if. This is pure Leading Character Syndrome where she gets the least historical costumes so she stands out. Like so much crap in this movie, it’s unnecessary. This character is supposedly inspired by ’20s silent-screen actresses like Clara Bow, Jeanne Eagels, and Alma Rubens, yet they could be sexy and wild-looking in the clothing of their own times.
To film her first movie, Nellie wears an almost 1920s dress — looks like it might have a drop waist? But her hair is still totally modern to go with her dancing.
Mostly, Nellie gets modern clothes for this flick, like the blue sequined two-piece she shows up in at the premiere of that first movie.
Filming her first talkie, she’s wearing stuff that looks like rejects from her Barbie movie (just put it in pink and you’ve got “Barbie Goes to College”).
Nothing like an actual ’20s movie…
Further proving the Leading Character Syndrome, it’s the side characters who get semi-decent historical costumes. Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) is first presented as a lesbian cross-dressing cabaret singer, sort of a cross between Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich.
Later she wears a cheongsam because of course she does.
The journalist Elinor St. John (Jean Smart) wears the only historical-ish outfit seen in the first 30 minutes of the movie, which is otherwise an entirely nutballs party scene.
Though I feel like her outfit is more inspired by a 1970s-does-1910s costume worn by Marisa Berenson to portray the Marchesa Casati. This was for the elaborate Bal Proust held by the Rothschilds in 1971 and photographed by Cecil Beaton. I’ve been low-key obsessed with this photo, and it was cool to see a riff on it in the movie (the only highlight!).
Both Elinor and Nellie get period-esque outfits for a fancy party in 1932. Look, Nellie’s hair can be styled, it is possible!
Of course, in this scene, she makes a point of how uncomfortable she feels and how awful this kind of party is for her, then she throws food around and projectile vomits on the host.
So if you hate actual 1920s fashion and you love poop and puke, this might be the film for you!