The character of Jack Conrad in Damien Chazelle’s film, “Babylon,” could be said to be inspired by many silent-era actors. We detect shades of John Gilbert and a few eccentricities of Doughlas Fairbank, though Brad Pitt hasn’t refrained from adding his own bit to the scheme of things. Jack Conrad was the quintessential “hero” of the film industry, and he had the aura and the kind of fan following which ensured that his name on the poster meant sure success. He wasn’t above a tantrum or two, and obviously, he could become a potential nightmare for the producers. However, even after not being so accommodating so many times, there was something about him that people respected and, more importantly, trusted.
Now, having bouts of anger and stubbornness is a privilege that the industry grants to almost every famous star, and as much as we may criticize it, it is practiced even today. Yes, with the advent of social media and multiple OTT platforms, the veil of secrecy has been lifted to some extent, and it has had an adverse impact on the so-called phenomenon of stardom. Yet, there exists a breed of actors who enjoy those privileges. There are two types of performers: actors who have studied the art form and are good at what they do and stars who are idolized. It doesn’t matter what the latter does on screen as long as it is them doing it. Jack Conrad belonged to that breed, and he had no qualms about it. In fact, he did not obstruct progress in the stereotypical sense, but little did he realize that his desire to bring about change would become an impediment in its own right.
Conrad had a very special place for his friend George, who probably worked as a producer in one of the leading studios and, in his time, had been an important person in the fraternity. But of late, he had become a liability, and Conrad knew that nobody had the time or the patience to entertain him. Being a big star, he could have easily walked over him without batting an eye, but Conrad put up with him. We don’t find out why Conrad gave him such special treatment until the second half of “Babylon.”
The boy wonder, Irvin Thalberg, gave a call to Conrad and informed him about George’s sudden demise. Conrad was rehearsing a script with his wife, Estelle, at the time, and hearing the news not only shocked him but made him feel as if a part of him had been lost forever. That’s when we come to know why Conrad gave so much importance to George in his life. George was the first person to tell Conrad that he was talented. It might have been just a compliment for a normal person, but for Conrad, it was the first time he had realized his worth. It was also probably the first time that his efforts were validated, and he was told that he amounted to something. It is difficult to make others understand, but some people come into your life who don’t help you financially or professionally but end up saying or doing something that gives you the strength to move ahead and conquer the world. George was that person in Conrad’s life, and that is why he felt like the loss was personal. He was triggered at that moment, and he deemed it fit to give a reply to his wife, who always considered the films that Conrad did as low art.
I personally believe that everybody is entitled to have their opinion, and defining anything as being inferior or superior is not justified. Conrad said that what he did moved millions of people around the globe, and they connected with him and the stories he brought to the screen. Maybe his stories and characterizations were illogical and larger than life, but they suited the taste of the masses, and Conrad didn’t feel the need to intellectualize them in any manner. Conrad was always under peer pressure to do something more realistic and meaningful that would satisfy the tastes of society’s intellectuals and elites, but at that moment, he shed his pretentiousness and stood up for what he believed in.
It was the year 1930, and Conrad had a tough time coping with the transition from silent films to ones that talked. He didn’t take it seriously at first, but then, after back-to-back flops, people started losing faith in him, and producers stopped betting money on him. Conrad was not averse to change, but he didn’t know how to blend into it. He was trying his best, but still, it was not enough for the people. Once he entered the cinema hall to check the reaction of the crowd, he saw people laughing at one of the more emotional scenes. It was an actor’s nightmare, and he was never able to heal from that experience. Probably, it was at that moment that he accepted defeat and realized that his time was over.
Just after that debacle, a gossip columnist for a notable magazine, Elinor St. John, wrote an article talking about how Conrad’s time was now over, and the headline of the same hurt his ego, and he went to confront her. Elinor told him that what bothered him was not why she wrote that article but why the audience laughed at him. Elinor was a sensible woman, and she made him understand that it was the intrinsic nature of the industry to add pearls to an actor’s crown one day and, the very next day, snatch everything that they delusionally believed to be theirs.
Conrad’s personal life had always been botched up, and he had no great expectations from it. On his last day, he met Lady Fay Zhu, one of those few people in Hollywood whom he knew he could trust and for whom he had an immense amount of respect and admiration too. She was probably the only person who actually cared about how Conrad was doing in his life.
Conrad was tired of the mundanity of life, and the magic of cinema was fast dissipating for him, and others like him. He had no place in this new world, and that is why he decided to end his misery. After saying his goodbyes to Fay, he went inside his suit and shot himself in the bathroom. Conrad was always grateful for what he got, and he showed a lot of character even in his defeat. He was the personification of showmanship, and as Elinor had said, though there would be 100 more Jack Conrads, anytime anyone pulled out his film from a vault, he would be alive once again.