Margot Robbie, Jean Smart, Cast on Queerness, Gender, Race in Babylon
Author: Tracy E. Gilchrist
By all accounts, early Hollywood was one big bacchanal for those at the top before the Hayes Code and censorship more closely monitored the public and private lives of celebrities. La La Land director Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (a call-out to problematic but influential director D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance, which included a story about the fall of Babylon) begins with a debaucherous party scene replete with cocaine, nudity, water sports, a nod to Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (Margot Robbie as Nellie and Li Jun Li as Lady Fae in the lead photo).
Epic in scope, Babylon introduces various characters via the party scene at a loaded mogul’s mansion set high in the Hollywood Hills. There’s Brad Pitt’s aging matinee idol, Jack Conrad, and Jean Smart’s Elinor St. John, a gossip columnist with the power to make and break careers in the vein of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Margot Robbie’s untamed Nellie becomes the ingenue who takes the industry by storm (that is until the talkies come in — a clear nod to Singin’ in the Rain). An assistant who rises through the ranks, Diego Calva’s Manny, takes a liking to Nellie, whose wild heart can’t be contained. Meanwhile, Jovan Adepo’s trumpet virtuoso, Sidney, represents Black performers in Classical Hollywood who were confined only to the stage without being given narratives of their own. And Li Jun Li’s queer cabaret performer, Lady Fay Zhu, is modeled after the acclaimed actor Anna May Wong, who never fully got her due in a business that truly only elevated white performers. Race, sexuality, and privilege come to a head at one point in the film when Manny shuts down a burgeoning relationship between Nellie and Lady Fay that’s made its way into the tabloids.
The Advocate chats with Robbie, Calva, Adepo, Li, and Smart about how Babylon addresses race, queerness, and gender in Hollywood’s early years.
Li Jun Li as Lady Fay
Margot Robbie and Diego Calva
Margot Robbie on Babylon‘s queerness:
“A lot of things in this movie touch on real-life situations, even though we’re all amalgamated characters and fictional characters. But I think a lot of people have heard of the [lesbian] sewing circle. If people know a little bit about Hollywood history, you know that Anna May Wong had same-sex relationships with different actresses,” Robbie tells The Advocate.
“The wonderful actress [Li Jun Li] plays Lady Fay, but she’s based a lot on Anna May Wong, who was an incredible actress at the time that also, we’ve all heard the stories that maybe she had a relationship with Marlene Dietrich, or whoever. I think the Nellie-Lady Fay relationship is inspired by some of those stories and the fact that once the moral code came in, they were suddenly not allowed to kind of be who they really were. And they all started being pushed into little boxes.”
Diego Calva on playing a complex character:
What I love about Manny is Damien [Chazelle] told me one day something about Al Pacino’s performance in The Godfather. He told me that it is very interesting to watch a smart character losing his soul, step by step. It’s not evil or good. No, it’s more like a complex character. And that was very helpful because I think Manny is a dreamer, but he also pays the price of success. If you want something, you have to pay for it. There’s a cost.”
Jean Smart as Elinor St. John
Li Jun Li and Jovan Adepo
Jovan Adepo on playing a groundbreaker in Hollywood:
“I think I approach it as a responsibility. Whoever Sidney represents, which is he [that] represents a handful of people in that time that were experiencing this moment in the shift in Hollywood for the first time. I think it was wanting to be sincere about the excitement of getting to feel like a trailblazer, which I think Sidney did, but then also feeling like I’ve made it…. There’s a tenderness that that I tried to bring to Sidney. Even though he was brash at times and very intense, especially musically, but yet just wanting to be sincere and pay respects to the people who have paved the way so that, you know, myself and he can be on the screen and do what we love to do.”
Lu Jun Li on honoring Anna May Wong:
“There is that responsibility to tell the story because she’s also based on Anna May Wong, who went through very close to identical things…. It was important to me that we told not just her story that you see and read about, but to be able to convey these feelings so that the audience…seeing her, can feel exactly what she’s going through.”
Jovan Adepo as Sidney and Diego Calva as Manny
Jean Smart on actors:
“I have found, at least in my experience, that actors kind of infantilized themselves a little bit. I think it took me a very long time to not think of Well, we’re the kids and the directors and the producers are the grown-ups. And you kind of are. They hold all the cards. I’ve written recently started producing, so I sort of feel like a grown-up for the first time in this industry. But it’s true in a way when you look at any other artistic endeavor, actors have to be given permission to do what they do. They have to sort of be invited and asked to do what they do, whereas a painter can paint all day long if he wants.”
Margot Robbie as Nellie
Babylon is in theaters now.
Original Article on The Advocate
Author: Tracy E. Gilchrist