Was Babylon’s Jack Conrad a Real Actor?

Image Credit: Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures

Directed by Damien Chazelle, ‘Babylon’ is the story of a group of characters who try to adapt to the shift from silent movies to talkies. While there are some who are in the early years of their career and are still trying to make a mark in Hollywood, there is also the story of an actor who is already one of the most successful figures in the film industry. Played by Brad Pitt, Jack Conrad is an established actor who realizes that the world of films is about to be revolutionized by sound. Despite his efforts, he finds it difficult to transition to the new phase of filmmaking. The film captures his struggle with a realistic lens. If this makes you wonder whether Jack Conrad was a real actor or is based on one, then we’ve got you covered.

Jack Conrad: Reflects John Gilbert’s Essence

While Jack Conrad is an original character created by Damien Chazelle, the writer-director revealed that he was inspired, in particular, by John Gilbert, in addition to a couple of other movie stars. One of the most successful actors during the 20s, John Gilbert was one of the highest-paid actors of his time and was employed by MGM, much like Jack. Like Pitt’s character, Gilbert was also married a couple of times. The character played by Olivia Wilde shares her first name with Gilbert’s wife Ina Claire.

Jack’s other wives in the film are also inspired by real-life people. His Hungarian wife, Olga Putti is a tribute to Lya De Putti, and Katherine Waterston’s Estelle is inspired by Virginia Bruce, who made a name for herself in both Broadway and movies. Reportedly, Jack’s friendship with George Munn is a reflection of Gilbert’s friendship with Paul Bern, who also died by suicide. In tracing the fall of Jack when the movies transitioned to sound, the film uses a few details from Gilbert’s life, who was comparatively more successful in sustaining his career.

In an interview with Roger Ebert, Damien Chazelle revealed he didn’t know much about Gilbert before making ‘Babylon’. “I had in my mind the idea of a character who was the King of Hollywood character in the silent era, but who had a voice where it was a little bit like a male version of Jean Hagen in “Singin’ in the Rain.” It was a voice where you knew right away oh, well, they’re going to be f**ked when sound comes. That was a little bit of the idea I had in my head of what the John Gilbert situation was,” he said. The fact that the actor’s image was drastically altered after the audience got to hear his voice in the movie was one of the key elements that Chazelle brought into Jack’s story.

Even though his voice did become a key component in deciding the trajectory of his career, Gilbert’s voice is believed to have fared much better with the audience than Jack’s does in the movie. Calling it the “law of Hollywood”, the director explained: “He was a star, and then he wasn’t. Something about how people had grown up with him as a silent star, and then they see him and maybe they’re seeing him say, I love you, they’re seeing him kiss someone, it’s with sound, and there’s just something about that doesn’t work. It’s not that he’s doing it wrong. It’s just that they weren’t ready for it. It was just bad luck. It’s this idea that being a star ultimately can come down to timing and this weird congruence of things that you can’t really control. There’s no diagnosis where you can get a piece of medicine and fix it. It’s just what it is.”

After the ridicule of his movie, Jack finds it difficult to receive more projects, and even MGM starts to keep a distance from him. His final role appears to be in a movie that is clearly not something he would have done in his prime. This is a reference to Gilbert’s final role in ‘The Captain Hates the Sea’, two years after which Gilbert died at the age of 38. In the movie, Jack dies by suicide. Gilbert, however, died of natural reasons. In fact, much like Jack, Gilbert, too, suffered from alcoholism, which is what deteriorated his health, eventually leading to his death. Chazelle used all these details from Gilbert’s life and incorporated them into Jack Conrad to make him as realistic as possible.

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