Is Babylon’s Elinor St. John Inspired by a Real Movie Critic?

Set in the late 1920s, ‘Babylon’ follows the story of a group of characters as they try to find success in the changing environment of Hollywood. The era of silent films is about to end and talkies are to be the new rage in the town. In between this, a new actress, an established actor, and a young film producer become the focus of the story. Their ups and downs are noted by Elinor St. John, a gossip columnist who holds in her pen the power of changing the tide of one’s career. Played by Jean Smart, Elinor is a witty and influential character, who plays an important role in the movie. If you are wondering whether she is based on an actual person, then here’s what you should know.

Elinor St. John’s Character Drawn from Vintage Columnists

Image Credits: Scott Garfield/ Paramount Pictures

In creating the character of Elinor St. John, writer-director Damien Chazelle looked towards several writers and columnists of that time. “He was just trying to think about women and the kind of women who would have been involved in the early years of this … new technology,” Smart explained. The actress based certain aspects of her role on Master of Ceremonies from 1972’s ‘Cabaret’ played by Joel Grey. For the most part, however, Elinor was influenced by the real-life writer and gossip columnist, Elinor Glyn.

Glyn is best known for penning ‘It’, which was further adapted into a film starring Clara Bow, leading to the coining of the term “the it girl”. She started her career in Britain where she worked as a screenwriter while also writing several novels, one of which, titled ‘Three Weeks’, could be considered a version of ‘50 Shades of Grey’ for that time. Glyn came to Hollywood in the 1920s and wrote about everything that could become a saucy gossip about a celebrity, which later gained her notoriety.

Her writings also brought her the power to make or break a career, which is why she was also consulted while trying to change the image of a certain actor, much like Elinor does for Nellie in ‘Babylon’. In some ways, Glyn played a role in shooting Clara Bow to the stardom that she enjoyed in the early years of her career, becoming “the it girl” that Glyn created in her story. “Glyn was employed by Hollywood to contain the excess and sexuality of the vamp by setting up a social etiquette for screen stars … she dispenses with or indeed inverts narrative conventions from this earlier period which insist on the destruction of the male who has become entangled with a vampire,” Nickianne Moody stated.

Calling her an “unconventional person”, Smart noted that for “a woman in the industry at the time… it took a strong and maybe also extremely vulnerable personality to do” what she did. Glyn looked for something that could stimulate her mind and give her something outrageous to write about, which is why perhaps she moved to Hollywood at the time that everyone interested in the business of storytelling was trying to get their foot inside the door. Smart brought this understanding in her portrayal of Elinor. ”I think for all of her seeming to be kind of an objective observer, you see towards the end that she’s also caught up in the magic of filmmaking and how it makes people literally immortal,” the ‘Hacks’ actress said, talking, in particular, about her monologue in the film.

Smart also noted that the film’s focus on the extremely wild side of Hollywood at that time might make people question whether all of that could be real, which is what she wondered too when she read the script. “I think what we see is based on reality, but when you put it all together in a film, it’s overwhelming. So I mean, it’s not as if those parties were your average day in Hollywood and things like that, but I just think the sort of freewheeling, no holds barred feeling is exactly what fuelled the industry,” she explained. Keeping up with the tone of the movie, she molded her character in the same manner, making sure to keep her as real for the audience as possible.

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