In Damien Chazelle’s vivid portraits of aspiring actresses looking for their big break, mixing and mingling with industry players at social gatherings is a proven pathway to success. By Yasmin Omar
This article contains Babylon spoilers.
Damien Chazelle has described Babylon as the nightmare to La La Land’s dream, and it’s easy to see why: though tonally dissimilar, these films are drawn from the same thematic blueprint. Each centres a young ingénue – Margot Robbie’s attention-seeking Nellie LaRoy in the former, Emma Stone’s mild-mannered Mia Dolan in the latter – coming to LA to be a star, and documents the lengths she goes to in the name of ambition. Industry parties, where connections are made and talent is spotted, are crucial to the Hollywood ecosystem our protagonists are fighting to join, and Chazelle exalts their importance by staging splashy events in both films (Babylon is even structured around four key gatherings). More than opportunities for the writer-director to establish a time period or choreograph a musical number, these functions are designed to characterise our leads. Nellie and Mia’s very different approach to networking cuts to the core of who they are.
There are parties within the first 10 minutes of La La Land and Babylon, a narratively shrewd move if the old adage ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is to be believed – our wannabes need to meet a power broker to set their stories in motion. Demoralised after a humiliating audition, Mia is reluctant to attend the event her housemates are heading out to, griping ‘it’s not gonna be fun, it’s gonna be full of loads of social climbers’. The song that soundtracks this sequence, the peppy, uptempo ‘Someone in the Crowd’, essentially serves to snap Mia out of her funk and convince her to come along. Its beseeching lyrics – from ‘Tonight we’re on a mission/Tonight’s the casting call’ to ‘You make the right impression/Then everybody knows your name’ – remind her that showing face at this kind of party could bring her long-awaited star-making moment. Her high-energy friends go out of their way to implore Mia (in tracksuit bottoms and a defeated mood) to leave her comfort zone, dragging her up to dance with them and throwing fistfuls of glitter in the air. This early scene sows the seeds for the aspiring actress’ character arc: she’s too thin-skinned for the constant rejection the profession demands and, after six years hustling in LA with nothing to show for it, she’s seriously contemplating throwing in the towel (we later see her reconsider her dream when she travels home to Nevada, distraught by her failed one-woman show).
Her attitude could not be further removed from Nellie’s. Where Mia has an invitation and toys with the idea of staying at home, Nellie is not on the guestlist of Babylon’s opening party but uses every tool at her disposal to gain entry. Robbie’s character appears to have taken ‘Someone in the Crowd’s’ mantra ‘Do what you need to do/’Til they discover you’ to heart. Being seen at the Hollywood titan Don Wallach’s get-together means so much to her that she breaks social rules (lying to the doorman by impersonating the silent-movie star Billie Dove) and the actual law (stealing a car for the occasion, which she immediately crashes). Much has been made of how this party is a disorienting sensory overload, but equally key to note is that Nellie transcends the chaos and commands our gaze.
Once inside, she charges onto the dance floor to show off her moves, with Chazelle keeping her firmly in the centre of the frame throughout. Despite the Twenties setting, the prim leg twists of the Charleston are conspicuously absent. Instead, Nellie – in a revealing, fiery red minidress that sharply juxtaposes the demure blue frock Mia wears to the La La Land party – leans into her sex appeal, rubbing up against Diego Calva’s Manny, dipping her hips and running her hands through her messy blonde mane. She recognises that men run this town, and endeavours to make an impression on as many of them as possible. After leaving Manny in a lovestruck daze, she moves on to another guy, removing his cigarette and passionately kissing him, then snakes her arms around someone else. This party is heaving with executives and she’ll be damned if she doesn’t land one. At the scene’s climax, Robbie’s rising star literally ascends when she crowdsurfs above the mayhem and dances suggestively on a table. Desperate to replace an actress who has overdosed, a fixer spots this wild child dominating the room, takes a chance and gives her an acting gig. Nellie has been anointed.
No such luck for Mia at the La La Land event, who goes mostly unnoticed. As ‘Someone in the Crowd’ continues playing, she sits at the party, locked in a forced smile, trying to speak with two disinterested, eye-rolling women who get up to find more stimulating conversation partners. A man slides into their empty seats and puts his arm around Mia’s waist, prompting her to judgmentally widen her eyes and escape to the sanctuary of the bathroom. Unlike Nellie, Mia believes that if making it in the business means feigning romantic interest in some sleaze, she doesn’t want to. Her subsequent, melancholy solo, performed to her own reflection at a slower pace and in a minor key, questions whether it’s all worth it (‘Is someone in the crowd the only thing you really see?’). Self-doubt and insecurity have caused her to lose faith in industry hobnobbing and – although stepping back into the party’s whirling, Bob Fosse-style routine – Mia doesn’t join in their jubilance.
It’s not until an afternoon pool party that she dances in front of people besides her housemates, but this is at the expense of her career. A friend introduces her to an (admittedly self-absorbed) screenwriter who monologues pompously about how he’s ‘got a lot of heat right now, a lot of buzz’. Clearly exasperated by him, Mia excuses herself to get a drink, rejecting him and any networking opportunity he may have provided. She saunters over to the band covering Eighties hits and locks eyes with Ryan Gosling’s piano player Seb. The most animated we see Mia, up to this point, is when she dances for him, Chazelle zooming in on her expressive face lip-syncing along to ‘I Ran’. She has chosen flirtatious fun over work, and doubles down on this decision at the end of the party when she once again ditches the screenwriter (who has prospects) to leave with Seb (who has none). The next time Mia dances uninhibitedly it’s at a jazz club, and Seb’s the one who gets a job offer.
Mia may be an introvert and Nellie an extrovert, and yet the pair align on one central belief: they do not want to be actresses if it means toning down their true selves. The arrival of sound pictures and the morally repressive Hays Code changes the shape of the parties in Babylon: politesse replaces raucousness, tame string orchestras smother freewheeling jazz. Nellie, too, has undergone a transformation. Losing relevance as the silent era ends and audiences start to find her ‘pornographic’, she heeds Manny’s advice to update her image and attend a classy, if stuffy, event thrown by the newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst (Pat Skipper).
She previously turned up to a pool party in dungarees followed by the shirtless USC football team, chests branded with her lipstick; here she’s in a ruffled floor-length gown that covers her arms and neck, and has her hair styled in a bob. She’s also swapped out her ‘unseemly’ Jersey accent for a more moderate Mid Atlantic cadence, peppered with gobbledygook French she gets called out on. Robbie highlights Nellie’s discomfort with her manic, twitching performance and, after one veiled insult too many about her ‘low breeding’, explodes. It doesn’t matter that the people in this room have the power to revitalise her dwindling career, she has had enough. She smashes champagne flutes, smears jelly around her mouth, wipes a Rothschild’s fur stole on her backside, and deliberately vomits all over the ballroom floor and Hearst himself. Where Mia’s self-sabotage is quiet, Nellie’s is loud – but they both amount to the same thing. Behaving inappropriately at a party can be the difference between success and failure.
Just as it starts with a party, Nellie’s story ends with one. As Babylon draws to a close, she abandons her fiancé Manny – and therefore any chance of happiness outside Hollywood – to dance down the street into the night, and disappear into the darkness. Her rhythm is out of step with the times and she has made peace with her irrelevance. La La Land’s Mia, by contrast, finishes on a career high. She has achieved her dream and did not have to socially, or artistically, compromise herself in the process. Happening upon Seb’s jazz club one evening five years after they last saw each other, she nods at her former partner in proud recognition, for he too has reached his goal. Love has tussled with ambition and lost. With their bittersweet, typically Chazelle codas – where industry connections win out over romance – both films posit that hell can very well be other people. And yet, sometimes you need to descend into its depths to get what you want.
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