“And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.” – Isaiah 21:9
It’s getting eerie how the biblical allusion in Babylon‘s title might not only have foreshadowed the trajectory of its plot, but its awards campaign as well. Yes, if you’ve been paying any attention to awards punditry at all these past few weeks, Damien Chazelle’s Babylon – once presumed to be a Best Picture frontrunner, prior to the start of the season – has been steadily slipping in countless categories, due to the increasingly divisive discourse surrounding the film. A 55% on Rotten Tomatoes (with a 49% Audience Score), a 59 on Metacritic (with six perfect scores, to be fair), and a C+ CinemaScore. So yeah. Things could be going a bit better.
However – and I’m sure some of you are already thinking this yourselves – it’s not like there hasn’t been divisive films in the Best Picture line-up before. There’s 2009’s The Blind Side (66% RT, 53 MC), 2011’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (45% RT, 46 MC), 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody (60% RT, 49 MC), 2018’s Vice (65% RT, 61 MC), 2019’s Joker (68% RT, 59 MC), 2019’s Jojo Rabbit (58 MC), and 2021’s Don’t Look Up (56% RT, 49 MC), just to name a few. Why do divisive films still sometimes get in at the end of the day? Well, that’s because, although the Internet tends to hyperfixate on the negative takes for said films, we overlook the inverse – the rabid and overwhelming adoration for said film on the other side. If critics scores are split down the middle like this (as they are for Babylon too), it means there are just as many people who love the movie as there are those who hate it. And ultimately, passion is what pushes you to a Best Picture nomination, especially in an expanded line-up.
Perhaps the best comparison for Babylon is another divisive, hard-R-rated, three-hour-long industry epic released by Paramount on Christmas nine years ago that similarly centered around debauchery, depravity, and the subsequent downfall of its protagonists (and starred Margot Robbie): Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Though its RT and MC scores have improved in recent years – an 80% and 75, respectively – support for this film was also split down the middle upon its release, and audiences initially weren’t too thrilled by it either, giving it a C CinemaScore (which is a grade worse than Babylon‘s). Still, it ended up with five Oscar nominations when all was said and done (Best Picture, Best Director for Martin Scorsese, Best Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio, Best Supporting Actor for Jonah Hill, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Terence Winter) and even won DiCaprio his second Golden Globe Award.
The big difference between The Wolf of Wall Street and Babylon? TWOWS was a big hit at the box office, and Babylon is an unmitigated bomb. The former earned $117 million domestically and $407 million worldwide, while the latter couldn’t even gross $5 million throughout its first four days in wide release – and both sported budgets of $100 million. There are a lot of theories as to why Babylon performed as badly as it did (the marketplace is much different for adult-targeted films in 2022 than it was in 2013, movies about Hollywood have historically never connected with the mainstream, and the film was essentially unmarketable for a mass audience due to the subject matter and graphic content), but what matters above all else is the numbers. And they’re not great.
But how much does box office matter in the Best Picture race these days, when every other contender that isn’t a blockbuster (Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, The Woman King), a bombastic musical biopic (Elvis), or a once-in-a-century word-of-mouth-driven indie smash hit sensation (Everything Everywhere All at Once) has fallen flat on its face? Look at what we’re working with here:
- The Banshees of Inisherin: $20 million worldwide
- Triangle of Sadness: $17 million worldwide
- She Said: $11 million worldwide
- The Fabelmans: $11 million worldwide
- Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody: $9 million worldwide
- Till: $9 million worldwide
- TÁR: $6 million worldwide
- The Whale: $3 million worldwide
- Aftersun: $2 million worldwide
- Empire of Light: $723,000 worldwide
- Women Talking: $55,000 worldwide
At the very least, Babylon could come close to topping this paltry pack, and that’s got to count for something, right? The only thing is, when you go straight into wide release and bomb, the headlines are a lot harsher (as She Said found out just last month) – and that “stink” can be harder to shake.
So, if a lot of people don’t like the movie and it’s losing an insane amount of money, how exactly does Babylon bounce back from all of this? Well, let’s not forget the point made earlier about how division ≠ unanimous negativity. There are a lot of artists and critics who have really rallied around the film and will continue to do so all year long (some of the craftsmanship is just simply undeniable), and again, passion is what gets you a Best Picture nomination. Might some even be more emboldened to support Babylon and Chazelle after it bombed as a way from preventing it from being perceived as a complete failure and protecting artistic ambition in the studio system going forward? Perhaps. And let’s also remember that the film is already branded a “big awards contender” thanks to its five Golden Globe nominations and nine Critics Choice Awards nominations.
What does it need to do next? It’s simple: win over the guilds. Though those Golden Globe and Critics Choice nominations are promising, the HFPA and BFCA have no overlapping votership with The Academy. We need to see genuine support for Babylon within the industry to be sure of where it stands in the Oscar race. Certain guilds will be easier to win over than others, especially when it comes to recognizing the film’s aforementioned craftsmanship (the cinematographers, the costume designers, the art directors, the make-up artists and hairstylists, the sound editors, etc etc etc), but it really needs a few of the biggest branches on its side to be “safe” – the writers, the directors, the producers, and arguably most importantly, the actors.
I remain skeptical at Damien Chazelle’s ability to crack the Best Director race at the moment (a consensus five is quickly forming around James Cameron, Daniels, Todd Field, Martin McDonagh, and Steven Spielberg, and Chazelle was snubbed at the Golden Globes and only got into the Critics Choice line-up in a field of ten), so I don’t see DGA being Babylon‘s saving grace. Same goes for WGA, even though The Banshees of Inisherin‘s ineligibility there opens up a spot in the Best Original Screenplay race – the screenplay has been the most commonly criticized element of the film, and I think writers will look elsewhere for a fifth nominee. So that leaves us with SAG and PGA, and to be in the best shape, Babylon needs nominations from both guilds.
I wouldn’t say it necessarily needs an ensemble nomination from SAG – though it would certainly help – but if Margot Robbie (or her co-stars Diego Calva and/or Brad Pitt, who are lower acting priorities for the film but still potential contenders) can’t pull off a nod, that’s a bad look for a movie that can’t take any more beatdowns. And given that PGA has a field of ten for its Best Picture nominees, just as the Oscars do, Babylon better be strong enough to squeak into a spot there to convince many pundits that it’s not being purposely left off. And preferably, it should have a PGA nomination to complement its SAG nomination(s), otherwise, it’ll look like yet another divisive movie that actors adored (like Bombshell and House of Gucci, which showed up at SAG but almost nowhere else) and everyone else ignored.
If it is snubbed by some of these major guilds, is it DOA? It’ll sure start to look like it is, but let’s remember what happened with Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley just last year. No PGA nomination and no DGA nomination – only one SAG nomination (for Cate Blanchett, a Best Supporting Actress contender that showed up at no other precursor last season), a WGA nomination, and a slew of notices for its craftsmanship. And ultimately, it was that crafts support that pushed Nightmare Alley to a surprise Best Picture nomination, accompanied only by nods for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design. Could the same happen for Babylon? I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: the crafts in this are simply staggering, from Linus Sandgren’s consuming cinematography to Mary Zophres’ colorful costuming to Tom Cross’ exhilarating editing to Florencia Martin’s pristine production design and, of course, Justin Hurwitz’s sensational score. They’re all so strong – and so unignorable – that they may be all Babylon needs to stay in the race above-the-line, too (especially with many having cited it as an early frontrunner to win Best Original Score and Best Production Design).
The bottom line is this: Babylon is not in great shape right now, but it’s not dead yet, and there are many more pieces to this puzzle that need to fall into place before we have a solid idea of its spot in the broader awards race this season. It’s up to the guilds to save it and take it off life support at this point, and if that assistance isn’t offered, it’ll start running out of roads to the Dolby Theatre pretty quickly.