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Margot Robbie, barely clad in a dazzling fire-red dress with a neckline slashed to the waist, manoeuvres through an orgy of writhing bodies, mountains of cocaine and a giant elephant toppling tables and chairs at the wildest party imaginable.
The debauched scene sets the tone for what’s to come in the Australian star’s latest movie, Babylon, co-starring Brad Pitt and Tobey Maguire. A Jazz Age homage to Hollywood decadence in the Roaring Twenties, opening in America next week and in the UK next month, Babylon is an epic three hours and eight minutes-long extravaganza and early Oscar front-runner from Damien Chazelle, the daring director of La La Land and Whiplash.
Set in a Prohibition-be-damned Hollywood undergoing a cataclysmic change with the advent of sound in film, with many silent era stars failing to make the transition, a reckless hedonism and decadence gripped the 1920s movie industry.
“There’s a dizzying amount of debauchery,” says Robbie, aged 32, who plays ferociously ambitious movie star Nellie LaRoy.
“One of the most disturbing, chaotic scenes I’ve ever witnessed is in this film, and it involved a fight with a snake. I won’t tell you who wins or loses that fight, but trust me: it’s insane.”
When starring opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s acclaimed 2013 hit The Wolf Of Wall Street Robbie saw grotesque scenes of sex, drugs, wild partying and even dwarf-tossing, and says: “I remember being on set and thinking, ‘I’ll never be in a film as crazy as this ever again.’ And then I made Babylon!”
“A lot of it is based on real people or on an amalgamation of a number of people,” says Robbie.
Murders, rapes and scandals shocked Hollywood in the 1920s, earning its reputation as a modern Gomorrah.
“There was this rash of suicides, deaths that could have been suicidal, drug overdoses, a little bit coalescing with the drug epidemic going on at the time,” says Chazelle.
“Twenties Hollywood really was a cesspool of vice, hubris and excess. We tried to put that on screen. All of it.”
Hollywood’s reality a century ago was every bit as sordid as Babylon portrays. Comedy star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, appearing in more than 150 movies, when his career crashed after an anarchic three-day bacchanal: a sex- and drug-fuelled party that culminated in the rape and death of actress Virginia Rappe, aged 30, in September 1921.
Arbuckle, who was a mentor to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Bob Hope, partied in a San Francisco hotel with friends and a bevy of beautiful women, including starlet Rappe.
Arbuckle was accused of raping Rappe, whose death four days later was attributed to Arbuckle’s extreme weight.
After two trials ended in a hung jury, Arbuckle, then 34, was finally acquitted in his third trial.
“I believe I am due for a comeback,” declared Arbuckle, but his reputation was beyond saving, his films banned and his career over.
Spiralling into alcoholism, he died 12 years later, aged 46.
As Arbuckle’s trials dragged on, Hollywood was shaken by the murder of popular director William Desmond Taylor, shot in the back in his Los Angeles home in February 1922. Investigators found a deserted wife, mistresses, secret love letters and an embezzling valet. Suspects included comedian Mabel Normand – a frequent co-star of Fatty Arbuckle – and former child star Mary Miles Minter, caught in a love triangle.
Police found a love note from teenager Minter to Taylor, aged 50, along with her nightgown in his bedroom.
Minter’s protective mother was also revealed to have threatened to kill another director who tried to seduce her daughter.
Decades later director King Vidor claimed that Minter had admitted that her mother killed Taylor, but no charges were ever filed and the case remains unsolved.
Months later Hollywood silent movie heartthrob Wallace Reid died of morphine addiction. He had been shooting Valley Of The Giants in 1919 when he suffered deep lacerations to his head and arm in a train crash.
Given morphine by doctors to help him complete filming, he became addicted, dying in 1923, aged 31.
Hollywood beauty Barbara La Marr, a wild partying flapper – she famously said: “I take lovers like roses, by the dozen” – was given heroin by doctors to keep filming through the pain after spraining an ankle, and like Reid became addicted.
She died of an overdose in 1926 aged just 29.
Clara Bow was Hollywood’s original “It Girl,” a petite wide-eyed bob-haired beauty with Cupid’s bow lips who became the first movie sex symbol, despite a tragic past.
Raised in abject poverty in New York, she was abused by her alcoholic father and tormented by a schizophrenic mother who threatened to kill her.
“I never had any clothes, and lots of time didn’t have anything to eat,” she recalled of her childhood.
Bow later spiralled into schizophrenia, retired from acting in 1931, and slipped into obscurity.
Margot Robbie reveals that her Babylon character Nellie LaRoy is based on Bow.
“I would say that a lot of her is inspired by Clara Bow,” says Robbie.
“I took a lot of Clara Bow’s real history, which is as bad a childhood as anyone can have.”
Robbie found the role “exhausting”, saying: “She just demanded everything, physically, emotionally.”
The death of producer-director Thomas Ince in November 1924 added to Hollywood’s scandalous reputation.
He was allegedly shot by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst by accident.
He had been aiming at Charlie Chaplin, suspected of having an affair with Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies, who was 34 years his junior.
Chaplin’s valet, Toraichi Kono, claimed to have seen Ince “bleeding from a bullet wound” to the head.
The Los Angeles Times reported: “Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht”.
But Ince’s doctor signed the death certificate citing heart failure, and his body was quickly cremated. No charges were ever filed.
Charlie Chaplin’s penchant for young girls scandalised much of Hollywood. He was 29 when he married 17-year-old child actor Mildred Harris and, after their divorce, impregnated 15-year-old child actress Lita Grey. She married 35-year-old Chaplin and had two children with him before they divorced, all while still in her teens.
Capping the era’s self-destructive streak came Peg Entwistle, a British actress who went to Hollywood to find fame.
She appeared on stage opposite Humphrey Bogart, and on-screen in the thriller Thirteen Women with Myrna Loy and Irene Dunne, but then her career faltered.
In September 1932, she climbed to the top of the “H” in the famed Hollywood sign and threw herself 45 feet to her death.
“I am sorry for everything,” she said in her suicide note. “If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain.”
Her death cemented Hollywood’s notoriety as a contemporary Babylon.
Faced with mounting criticism, Hollywood created the Hays Office, under clean-cut Postmaster General Will Hays, to police depravity on screen.
He barred the display of sex, profanity and other vices. Off-screen the debauchery continued, yet out of the mayhem came movie magic.
Adds Chazelle: “Hollywood back then was a place where, from the most depraved animalistic behaviour, emerged these works of art that were so beautiful and alluring.”
And also shocking and mesmerising – like Babylon.
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