‘Babylon’: Boobs, Butts and Bodily Fluids ⭐️⭐️

The city Babylon has many meanings and what it means for Damien Chazelle’s period film has more to do with boobs, butts and bodily fluids than the real Hollywood of that error or the real city.

The Real Babylon

Babylon was the capital city of an empire and was located in what is now Hillah, Iraq. That means it was located in West Asia, but few people really think about that and many might not even realize that Mesopotamia was in Asia.

The name means “gate of the gods,” but in Jewish tradition, Babylon is a symbol of oppression and for Christians it symbolizes evil. According to Merriam-Webster, Babylon was “a city devoted to materialism and sensual pleasure.” 

But what does Babylon symbolize to Iraq? The archeological director of the ancient site told  the CS Monitor in 2014,  “Babylon is a symbol of strength. For those who want to take pride in Iraq, Babylon is the best we have. It is a symbol of unity from north to south.” The article was a call to save “the cradle of civilization” from mercenaries that were looting, damaging and selling artifacts.

According to another source, “The Lion of Babylon is a great symbol of the resiliency of ancient and modern Iraq.”

When Hollywood was a Babylon in the Merriam-Webster sense, the US was decidedly embracing both racism and Orientalism, and West Asia and North Africa was part of that craze. Look at the Egyptian which, like Grauman’s Chinese (now TCL Chinese Theater), was built in the 1920s. 

Damien Chazelle’s ‘Babylon’ 

In Damien Chazelle’s new period dramedy, “Babylon,” does strive to diversity in its excess of boobs, butts and bodily fluids as the audience witnesses the different fate of various characters as Hollywood transitions from silent films to sound in the late 1920s. Yet like many other dramas, fails to really address diversity in a way that touches Asians and people of Asian descent.

The poster should give you some hint that this isn’t a serious period costume drama. One of the main characters, Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), is clearly dressed in a fashion that would have been too shocking for that time period and hard to achieve without modern fabrics. 

Our point of view character is a Mexican American, Manuel “Manny” Torres (Mexican actor Diego Calva). Torres aspire to be something more than a film assistant. In the beginning of the film, he is arranging transport of an elephant to an orgy at the mansion of a Kinescope Studios’ executive. This is where we have the first exposure to the hilarity of bodily functions. The elephant takes a dump on Manny as he attempts to move it to the mansion.

The brash Nellie is party crashing and seems willing to do anything to get her chance at making connections and meets Manny. Chinese American lesbian singer Lady Fay Zhu and African American trumpeter Sidney Palmer are providing the music. While Nellie joins the party downstairs, Manny helps with a situation upstairs. The porcine actor Orville Pickwick was being accommodated by young actress Jane Thornton with a golden shower, but Thornton overdoses on drugs. How does one get a dead body past hundreds of drunken, drugged partygoers? 

Manny comes up with a solution. Jane’s death is a lucky break for Nellie, who replaces her in a silent movie. Manny, by helping silent film star Jack Conrad home, secures assistant jobs at Kinescope. By 1932, Jack suffers from a loss of popularity, but both Manny and Nellie find success. While Manny adapts to the new technology of sound films, Nellie struggles with adapting to sound and keeping her drug and gambling under control. 

Fay had been writing intertitles, but eventually is forced to leave because of her lesbianism (as opposed to the growing anti-Asian sentiment in California). Sidney is sickened by some of the concessions he’s made to please Southern audiences and also leaves Kinescope. 

Neither Manny, who weirdly asks Nellie to marry him, nor Nellie will get their dreams, but Manny has time to reflect on the transition from silent to sound at the end when he views a screening of “Singin’ in the Rain” and the audience will get to know the fate of Nellie, Jack and Manny.

Still Not a Historically Diverse Version 

While it’s great to have Manny as the lead character, the film “Babylon,” is very much a White heterosexual man’s vision of Hollywood that’s light on history, particularly the history of minorities. Yes, it’s rates better on the diversity meter than “Singin’ in the Rain,”, but there were silent era film stars and directors who were Mexican American or Latino. And I have to wonder if Latinos also played a significant role during Prohibition in Los Angeles because while liquor was illegal in California and thus Hollywood, it wasn’t in Mexico. Prohibition ran from 1920 to 1933. 

There were Mexicans and Mexican Americans involved in the film industry. 

To avoid prejudice, some changed their names. For example,  Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso became Gilbert Roland (1905-1994) and Alfredo Carlos Birabén became Barry Norton (1905-1956). Anthony Quinn’s father, Francisco, became a cinematographer. 

During the silent era, there were non-WASP leading men: Ramon Novarro and Sessue Hayakawa. (早川 金太郎).  Yet you wouldn’t know this from “Babylon.” Our POV character Manny depends upon a WASP actor to advance, but doesn’t seem to have any in roads through other Latinos, even during a time that encompasses Prohibition.

While the East Asian presence in the West Coast is represented by a lesbian singer who isn’t even an actress, somehow, having a sexy lesbian singer seems to be a trope of heterosexual male fantasies. Consider the reality. In 1911, Margaret Jessie Chung enrolled in USC Medical School and after graduating in 1916, she served her residency in Illinois, but eventually returned to accept a position as a surgeon at the Santa Fe Railroad Hospital. She treated celebrities, including Mary Pickford and she would later “adopt” service men during World War II, including John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, but also Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. 


While Chung was an outsider to the Hollywood entertainment industry (and perhaps a lesbian),  Hayakawa’s story, from sexy villain to victim of yellow perilism, is more representative of not only the transitional shift from silent to sound, but also from stereotype of sexually threatening foreign presence to neutered East Asian male. Imagine how unlikely his return to Hollywood for an Oscar nomination (for the 1957 “The Bridge on the River Kwai”)  in an Academy dominated by White men was. In some ways, Hayakawa’s return to Hollywood echoes the return of Ke Huy Quan in 2022’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Yet Quan in 2022 gets to play a hero; Hayakawa never did. But Hayakawa did have wild times as a host to parties well stocked with liquor during Prohibition. 

California has a history of anti-East Asian legislation and depicting racism in Hollywood without including East Asian actors and actresses when more AAPI people have been lynched in California than African American/Black people seems as if one is transplanting East Coast history to the West Coast. Likewise, a Hollywood story about Hearst and his smear campaigns and racism would not be complete without some references to his yellow perilism. 

Chazelle’s “Babylon” is, like the name suggests, steeped heavily in a WASP-y heterosexual view of Hollywood. Placement of diversity casting is more important than mere presence. “Babylon” premiered on 14 November 2022 and was released on 23 December 2022 in the US. It received five nominations for the Golden Globes and three nominations for the 95th Academy Awards (Best Costume Design, Best Original Score and Best Production Design). 


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