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Can ‘Babylon’ Bounce Back From Box-Office Bomb?

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When MGM’s Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical valentine to Hollywood’s silent film era as it transitioned into the world of talkies, opened in the spring of 1952, it instantly won over moviegoers. Writing in The New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther enthused, “Compounded generously of music, dance, color spectacle and a riotous abundance of Gene Kelly, Jean Hagen and Donald O’Connor on the screen, all elements in this rainbow program are carefully contrived and guaranteed to lift the dolors of winter and put you in a buttercup mood.” The movie went on to become a box office hit, ranking as the 10th highest-grossing film of the year in North America. The Writers Guild awarded Betty Comden and Adolph Green its prize for best-written American musical. The Directors Guild nominated Kelly and Donen for outstanding direction. And the Golden Globe Awards nominated it as best comedy or musical.

But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was not as impressed, giving the movie a relative cold shoulder. It granted the film just two noms — a supporting actress nomination for Hagen, who plays the petulant and petty silent film star with a voice that grates, and a nom for best scoring of a motion picture — neither of which it won. (For the record, that year’s best picture winner was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earthnow universally considered one of the worst best picture winners ever, although it does figure in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans as the movie that first inspired the nascent filmmaker.)

The Academy has certainly changed in 70 years, but, still, Singin’ in the Rain‘s failure to impress the old Academy doesn’t bode well for Damien Chazelle’s Babylon‘s chances with the new Academy, given that the new film revisits the same time period, Hollywood’s fraught and frenzied transition to talkies and, along the way, references Singin’ — both directly and indirectly.

From left: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain, which Kelly co-directed with Stanley Donen.

From left: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rainwhich Kelly co-directed with Stanley Donen.

From its very first screenings, the three-hour-plus Babylon earned the descriptor “divisive,” which is just a polite way of saying that for everyone who enjoyed the film, there were lots more who enjoyed dumping on it. Critics were definitely mixed, with Babylon scoring a middling 55 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a barely better 60 on Metacritic. The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis dismissed the film as “a bloated folly,” while the Los Angeles Times‘ Justin Chang was more appreciative of what he described as “a wild and pungent cinematic bacchanal.” Audiences were underwhelmed; it received a C+ CinemaScore rating.

If any further punctuation was needed, Babylon opened to a resounding belly flop at the box office. The $80 million Paramount release pulled in just $4.9 million over the four-day Christmas weekend from 3,343 theaters.

That would seem to seal Babylon‘s fate, sinking its awards hopes. For while the Academy doesn’t penalize small-scale films for failing to sell tickets, it tends to look askance at big-budget movies that play to empty theaters. But fortunately for Babylonbefore its box office epitaph was written, several critics and awards groups weighed in, lending support for the film.

When the Golden Globe nominations were unveiled Dec. 12, Babylon picked up a solid five nods. It did game the system a bit by competing in the comedy or musical category — while the film has some bitter laughs and almost nonstop music, its closing moments are much closer to elegiac drama. But working the comedy side of the ledger, it picked up noms for best picture, actress Margot Robbie and actor Diego Calva, along with a nom for Brad Pitt as supporting actor and another for score.

Two days later, when the Critics Choice Awards nominees — which can be quite predictive of Oscar noms — were revealed, Babylontying with The Banshees of Inisherin, collected nine noms. (Only Everything Everywhere All at Oncewith 14, and The Fabelmans, with 11, did better.) In addition to best picture, directing and actress, it collected six craft nominations. Its strength in the crafts categories — which could help boost it into the best picture Oscar circle — was further underlined when the Oscar shortlists were released Dec. 21, and Babylon earned spots for makeup and hairstyling, score and sound.

So, even though Babylon might be headed to box office oblivion, attention will be paid. In fact, it’s shaping up as one of the season’s most hotly debated awards hopefuls. “Babylon is truly terrible. The most obnoxious film in years,” Kim Jorgensen, the founder of Landmark Theaters, damned the movie in a Facebook post. But in another Facebook entry, film historian Joseph McBride wrote, “I saw Babylon last night and love it. Such a sad movie about the tragic decline and fall of a great film industry and the art form it helped create.”

That kind of heated argument may mean an Oscar is out of reach for Babylonbut it doesn’t preclude a bunch of nominations — probably more than the two Singin’ in the Rain achieved, which would lend itself to a certain irony.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.



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