I don’t fancy myself a movie critic but I have some hard-to-ignore thoughts about two recent films, both about the movie “industry,” both wrenchingly hard to watch.
Blonde is of a genre that annoys the hell out of me, the one in which famous people are fair game for fictionalizing while the storytellers keep said famous people’s names on the characters. The writer of the book the film’s based on, Joyce Carol Oates, is a giant among fiction writers and seems to have felt entitled to make Marilyn Monroe, a real person, a larger than life symbol of obsession in pursuit of an impossible goal. Monroe’s life was “material” for Oates’ epic. There are enough facts in the epic to make viewers think they’re seeing Monroe’s life. But they aren’t. They’re seeing Oates’ Moby Dick.
The Hollywood depicted in Blonde is brutal, savage, devouring, just as it is in Babylon, which we watched the night after we saw Blonde.
Babylon is a 21st Century riff on Singing in the Rain which was a 1950s look at Hollywood in the 1920s as talkies upended the silent era. Singing in the Rain was delightful movie-making, a classic, a lark, innocent and wide-eyed, full of laughter and great dance moves.
Babylon takes the same era, same array of characters, same arrival of the talkies, and goes dark. Really dark, deliberately and artfully. I kept seeing Singing references, marveling at the power of taking those archetypal people and scenes and rubbing the viewer’s nose in the harsh reality behind all that cheeriness.
Last night we re-watched Singing in the Rain, decades after first seeing it and Lo!—there were even more congruencies in Babylon than I’d realized—scenes, characters, situations, facial expressions, camera angles, dialogue, whole production numbers are references to Singing. But Babylon is so far from that happy film it could be called Screaming in the Tornado.
The Hollywood of Babylon and Blonde enchants innocents, wounds them, uses them up, then spits them out to die.
And still the magic enchants. Babylon screenwriter/director Damien Chazelle gives the great Jean Smart a magnificent aria of words about that enchantment and destruction, about the endless stream of bright-eyed hopefuls who would always walk into the danger zone, about the magnificent power of a great film to—perhaps—make it worth whatever harm it wreaks on those involved.
For this old broad who was once a cute young actress, Blonde and Babylon were reminders of almost getting sucked in when a door opened into being cast in a movie. But. I actually got it that being an introvert, an observer, a writer at heart, was a bad fit for the acting life. I knew it would destroy me.
Babylon and Blonde actually have me smiling now. That was one smart kid, one who realized that Singing in the Rain wasn’t real, the kid who said No and chose a path that would work for her—that still works. Now, back to finishing another book—the exact thing I should be doing.