The long take: cinema’s cries for help

Hollywood loves to look at itself in the mirror, even when what it sees is sordid and ugly.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Babylon is full of shit. And also vomit. Not to mention blood, sweat and tears. All of which makes it a harder proposition to stomach than, say, Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1951) – but that should hardly be surprising. Damien Chazelle’s epic drama, which is set during silent Hollywood’s transition to sound, is many things, but the fact that it is relentlessly scatological is perhaps the least shocking thing about it. Give or take the odd elephant-sphinctered jump scare.

Chazelle was heavily inspired by Kenneth Anger’s notoriously unreliable exposé Hollywood Babylon (1959), which is not to say that he believes every scurrilous story on its pages. “It could be complete bullshit, and very often is,” he told Marya E. Gates in an interview with “But I do think there’s a certain kind of truth to the spirit of it.” By telling the stories of stars felled by the transition to talkies, touching on Hollywood scandals – including the notorious Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle allegations – and dressing it all in buckets of excrement and puke, Chazelle is rubbing our noses in the spirit of Hollywood Babylon. The urge to call bullshit on the wholesome image that Hollywood projects in its studio publicity seems a healthy one, even though Chazelle’s set pieces can be sickening. You might ask why an Oscar-winning Tinseltown director would be so keen to make his own business look so… grimy? Let alone cast second-hand aspersions on the real-life figures, from Clara Bow to John Gilbert, whose stories are cannibalised to flesh out his debauched creations.

Babylon (2022)

Then again, Hollywood has been undermining itself for at least a century. F. Richard Jones’s The Extra Girl, released in 1923, is a Hollywood-studio comedy made in a similar spirit to Babylon, substituting slapstick for bodily fluids. Mabel Normand plays Sue, a winsome hopeful who arrives in town hoping to become a star. She fails a screen test and her parents fall victim to scammers. But don’t fret: the film wrestles a happy ending out of this mess, which involves Sue heading home to the small town of River Bend, “a long way from Hollywood”. She escapes from the hellhole to start a family, just as Chazelle’s hero does. The knowledge that Normand had only seven years left to live, and her career would soon decline due to a series of scandals and her own failing health, casts a darker shadow over the film’s optimism.

A more harrowing riff on the same theme arrived in 1928, with the avant-garde short film The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra, depicting another wannabe who is dehumanised by the movie business, but this time without the jokes. It was written and directed by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapić, based on their own bruising experience of the film business. That independent artists should want to expose the studio system might seem understandable. But industry insiders such as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr and executive Joseph M. Schenck supported the short film, and Florey and Vorkapić both continued to work in Hollywood for years to come.

That is before we come to the 1937 and 1954 versions of A Star Is Born, in which depression, alcoholism and the loss of selfhood are the wages of Hollywood success for both parties in a cursed marriage – another cautionary tale cooked up by those in the know. The tale is very similar to 1932’s What Price Hollywood?, directed by George Cukor (who would go on to direct the 1954 A Star Is Born) and written by the film journalist Adela Rogers St Johns – one inspiration for Jean Smart’s character, the similarly named Elinor St John, in Babylon.

A Star is Born (1937)

It was in the 1930s, too, that Billy Wilder arrived in Hollywood, where he would eventually concoct 1950’s Hollywood gothic nightmare: Norma Desmond, silent cinema’s Miss Havisham, ensconced in her lonely mansion on Sunset Blvd. In the 1930s Nathanael West toiled as a screenwriter for three different studios, moving him to write the 1939 novella The Day of the Locust, in which Hollywood’s moral corruption and ugliness is expressed in the hero’s Goyaesque paintings and then punished by a destructive earthquake. John Schlesinger filmed it spectacularly in 1975. More or less halfway between that and Babylon, Golden Age legend Ann Miller played the resident grotesque in David Lynch’s impeccably horrific Mulholland Dr. (2001), spiritual heir to Sunset Blvd. All of these films constitute a distasteful reminder that Hollywood is a horror story – for the people who work there at least.

These films are not love letters to the movies, they’re cries for help. I’ve been lucky enough to spend most of the past year showing fairly unfiltered Hollywood films from the early 1930s at venues around the country, as part of a touring package I co-curated with Christina Newland, ‘PreCode Hollywood: Rules Are Made to Be Broken’. For much of the time that I’ve been talking about Hollywood’s historic attempts to censor itself, Harvey Weinstein’s latest trial and its fallout have been in the news. I didn’t enjoy Babylon, to put it mildly, but I could see the point of all that ordure. Just another scream of rage from inside the system: a call for someone to take notice of the fact that Hollywood can treat its own workers like crap.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

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