The ‘Babylon’ Ensemble Goes All In on Excess

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Photo Source: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

As we prepare for the 29th Screen Actors Guild Awards, Backstage is breaking down this year’s film and television ensemble nominees for your consideration.

Main Cast: Jovan Adepo, Diego Calva, Lukas Haas, Li Jun Li, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Jean Smart, Katherine Waterston, Samara Weaving, Olivia Wilde 
Casting by: Francine Maisler 
Directed by: Damien Chazelle 
Written by: Damien Chazelle 
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures

Amid the genre tentpoles that have overtaken the film industry, Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” is poised to stake a claim in the SAG Awards’ best ensemble category—and likely nab nominations elsewhere, too. This bawdy epic, whose runtime clocks in at more than three hours, checks all the boxes for the kind of projects SAG has recognized in years past. There’s even a shiny new star in the mix. Diego Calva is already earning raves for his turn as Manny Torres, an errand boy who rises through the ranks to become a studio executive during Hollywood’s transition from silent movies to talkies. But “Babylon” is also jam-packed with outsize performances from actors the guild has honored before.

Five-time SAG nominee Margot Robbie writhes, thrashes, and dances her way through Chazelle’s hedonistic Los Angeles as Nellie LaRoy, a wannabe starlet who stumbles into an acting career after her ability to cry on cue catches the eye of studio honchos. It’s a big performance that has earned the actor comparisons to Elizabeth Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Robbie has said that it left her shattered by the end of production. Her emotionally and physically intense turn operates at an 11; but Robbie also finds moments to convey Nellie’s rock-bottom sadness over the broken home life she left behind for stardom. As her party-girl front disintegrates under all the pressure, Robbie’s performance recalls her multilayered SAG- and Oscar-nominated work in “I, Tonya.”


With a sense of controlled chaos, “Babylon” orbits around a host of actors who all get ample screen time to burn the house down. Brad Pitt channels his own marquee status as Jack Conrad, a fading, alcoholic, Errol Flynn–esque star who struggles to make the leap from silents to talkies. His funny, charismatic performance harks back to his SAG- and Oscar-winning work in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” another movie about making movies. The industry loves to honor films and performances that hold up a mirror—however grotesque the reflection—to their own craft; Pitt’s all-in performance will likely continue that trend this awards season. 

Up-and-comer Calva wows as Manny, who functions as the film’s audience surrogate. Amid Chazelle’s dizzying, depraved fresco of burnouts and success stories, he’s the only truly likable character. Near the end of the film, the actor gets the chance to play a big emotional moment—and his performance is irresistible. SAG and Emmy winner Jean Smart is wickedly conniving in the key supporting role of gossip columnist Elinor St. John, especially in her takedown of Jack.

Though “Babylon” may struggle to connect with mainstream audiences due to its long runtime and relentlessly visceral set pieces, SAG voters will find plenty to love. Whatever your opinion, it’s undeniable that this cast is at the top of their game in a film electrified by high-voltage feats of acting that will no doubt earn the attention of their peers.

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