I share with director Damien Chazelle a craving for the golden years of Hollywood, which cover the decades from the 1920s to the 1940s. It was the time when stars lived in their palaces on Sunset Boulevard, and off-screen, stratospheric exceptions were allowed. The director of La La Land signs the already controversial Babylon, in which he brings characters inspired by some of the legends of cinema. Brad Pitt is a John Gilbert and Margot Robbie steals the show as Nellie LaRoy, an aspiring actress who puts her brakes on drugs and parties in the film capital.
Nellie is openly inspired by one of Hollywood’s all-time greats, Clara Bow, one of the stars of the silent era who helped popularize the flapper image. Clara’s story is so amazing and yielded several books and characters (Betty Boop is a copy of her look) and the most famous allusion before Babylon, although unfair, was the character Lina Lamont, from Singing in the Rain, also “inspired” by the actress. Everything about Clara seems to be controversial.
Starting with her age: her tombstone says she was born in 1906, but there are those who bet 1904 and experts claim that it was 1905. The daughter of poor emigrants, she was born and raised in New York and had a tough childhood, constantly changing addresses. She had a complicated relationship with her mother, diagnosed as psychotic after a fall, Clara always said that she had to be more of a mother to her than a daughter. The clashes were so violent between them that there was even a threat of death with knives, with Clara narrowly escaping death. Then her mother was admitted to a sanatorium.
It gets worse. Soon after all that, some biographers accuse Clara’s father of having raped her. She was only 16 years old. Her mother died soon after and the young woman became even more isolated. It is not surprising that she projected herself in the films that were starting to be successful and started to dream about the cinema. Her look – somewhat masculine for the time – did not make her an ideal candidate, but participating in a talent contest in a magazine, and managing to stand out was the shortcut she needed to go to California.
After making a few films in New York, she was discovered and taken to Hollywood, where she rose to become one of the public’s favorite actresses, topping the box office and being adored by renowned directors. She liked to play with her image, flirting with androgyny. After she starred in a film called “It”, in 1927, with the plot inspired by Cinderella, she became known as the “it girl”, a term used in cinema until today to rank charismatic and in-demand actresses.
With the arrival of talkies, Clara Bow was one of the rare stars to make the transition without denting her stardom, but she also resented “the loss of freedom” that speech brought to her Art. Her Brooklyn accent did not hinder her with the public, but it is still highlighted every time her career is referred to (as in Singing in the Rain).
But it was backstage that would shorten his trajectory. Her bohemian lifestyle was even better known than other stars. The pressures of fame, public scandals, and overwork affected the fragile emotional health of the actress who had a breakdown, aged 25, and was admitted to a sanatorium. When she was released, she left Hollywood for a ranch in Nevada and married Rex Bell. Recovered, she went back to work, but recognized her fame as a “party girl”. “My life in Hollywood contained a lot of hustle and bustle. I’m really sorry about that. I never did anything to hurt anyone,” she said at the time. “I’m a curiosity in Hollywood. A freak, because I am myself!”, she also reflected.
The actress had two children with Rex Bell (later elected Lieutenant Governor of Nevada) and retired for good in 1933. She and her husband opened The ‘It’ Cafe, at the Hollywood Plaza Hotel, but the venture only lasted a few years. Her last public performance was on a radio show in 1947.
Perhaps due to genetic inheritance, it is not known, but Clara Bow eventually began to show symptoms of psychiatric illness, starting to deal with depression, isolation, and even a suicide attempt. She was admitted to be treated for chronic insomnia and abdominal pain, with shock treatment and psychological testing. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but biographers claim she never had auditory or visual hallucinations. The actress rejected the diagnosis and when she left the hospital, she did not return to her family, isolating herself until her death, aged 60, in 1965, due to cardiac arrest.
With 46 silent films and 11 talkies, it was Clara’s personal life that became legendary. Her intensity and enjoyment of partying, drugs, and drinking epitomized the joy and permissiveness of the jazz age. Her figure became the symbol of this period of “madness”. Intelligent, she knew what the public identified in her. “All the time the flapper is laughing and dancing, there’s a sense of tragedy underneath,” she once said. “She’s unhappy and disillusioned, and that’s what people feel.”
Unfortunately, not even with Babylon is his memory treated with the necessary respect and distance. Will we ever have a careful version of his life? She deserves it.