Some of these pictures and descriptions may give away plot details that you might not want to know before watching the film.
This is an ambitious three hour comic drama set in 1920s and 1930s Hollywood during the transition from silent to sound films. It is deliberately shocking from one wild scene to the next, including a long and crazy scene of a snake fight that's a combination of comedy, horror, and romance. The synopsis describes the movie like this: "A tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess, it traces the rise and fall of multiple characters during an era of unbridled decadence and depravity in early Hollywood." The film has generated a mountain of commentary both positive and negative, and it has so many memorable sequences and images that you should definitely watch it, and not just for the snake scene.
It begins with about half an hour of wild partying with lots of sex, drugs, and great jazz music, then it moves on to the business and art of making movies until at the half way point, we see the snake fight scene. I didn't think the snake scene was very important to the plot, but obviously Damien Chazelle the director did or it would have been cut. Lauren Huff writes in an interview with him: ' The pool party and ensuing snake fight later in the film epitomize the idea that "the wheels are starting to come off the wagon a little bit," Chazelle says. "Something's dying here, something that's either not going to last or we've already passed the end." '
The characters in the snake scene are:
Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie), a drug-addicted actress who rocketed to stardom who is based on the actress Clara Bow (more about her below);
Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a go-fer who becomes an influential producer. (He is one of the most important people in the film, but not in the snake scene);
Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li) an Asian lesbian actress based on actress Anna May Wong;
Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt) the highest-paid silent movie star who becomes a has-been after sound is introduced to the industry; and
Robert Roy (Eric Roberts) Nellie's father and business manager, and the man whose stories about fighting a rattlesnake bring about the snake scene.
The Snake Fight Is Forshadowed
We first see Nellie and her father Robert at the premier of one of her movies. He tells the ticket-taker that he once fought a rattlesnake, which is against the law now because he fought the snake and lived.
The Snake Fight Is Incited
Later at a huge Hollywood party, Robert starts to tell his snake story when Nellie arrives. At this point in the story, Nellie has just realized that her star is fading. In the bathroom she overhears people talking about her failures with speaking parts and about her father being a buffoon. She leaves the bathroom, hears her father talking about his snake fight, then starts to goad him into fighting one. It's almost as if she's hoping to get him killed. When she screams "Who wants to see my dad fight a f**king snake" everyone cheers and some of them get in cars and drive out somewhere to find a rattlesnake.
Everybody seems to be having fun at a wild Hollywood party, so why would they want to leave the party to drive around the dusty middle of nowhere to look for a rattlesnake? They must be very bored and desperate for something new to do that. Where do they go to snake hunt, and do they know that they might have to drive for hours before finding one, and that they may never find one? These are trivial questions that I as a snake hunter would like to know, but the movie is wisely not concerned with.
The Snake Fight - False Start
As they're driving Nellie sees a snake and screams to stop the car. Everybody gets out to see a rattlesnake illuminated in their headlights. Roy walks out to the snake, letting every body know he's going to fight the snake, saying "One must assume the position of a mongoose." a notorious snake predator. But before he can pick up the snake, he passes out and falls to the ground drunk to everybody's disappointment.
Nellie Fights The Snake
Nellie is so fired up to see a snake fight that she tries to convince someone else to fight the snake but nobody wants to. Finally she decides to do it herself. She walks out to the snake, picks it up, and says "See? You see that?" just before it bites her on the throat.
I don't understand how simply picking up a snake can be considered fighting a snake. What exactly were Roy and Nellie planning to do? Was she going to whip it on the ground or bite its head off? Roy never explained that part. But before we can find out Nellie gets bitten, and this is where the scene gets really cartoonish. The snake's fangs get stuck in her throat and she can't pull them out so she runs around screaming, which makes everybody else run around in circles screaming like maniacs. They're all drunk or on drugs and it's a comic scene so we probably shouldn't care how ridiculous this is. Finally, Manny tries to pull the snake off her neck, but somehow Nellie accidentally swings her arms and knocks him out. Now both her father and Manny are passed out on the ground. Jack's wife goads him into helping but when he finally steps up to do something he's hit by a car. Why was someone driving a car all of a sudden and why was nobody else trying to help Nellie? Who cares, it's all very funny.
Nellie is Saved By Lady Fay Zhu
Finally, Lady Fay calmly pulls out her switchblade, walks over to Nellie and makes a clean cut through the snake's neck. That must be a very sharp knife - snake skin is very tough. The snake's body falls to the ground and she pulls the fangs out of Nellie's neck and throws the head away. Nellie falls to the ground with her eyes rolled back and we can see that she is foaming at the mouth. We see a close-up of the bloody fang marks in her neck. Then Lady Fay leans down and sucks the wound and spits out the venom. She pours alcohol from her thigh flask onto Nellie's face and she wakes up, apparently unharmed. Then the two women kiss.
We saw earlier that Lady Fay was interested in Nellie. She even chose Nellie as a dance party at the party before the snake fight. This is the beginning of a relationship we never see but one we read about later. It's a relationship that Manny is forced to end when he asks Lady Fay to stop seeing Nellie because Nellie's wild reputation is hurting her career and the public won't accept a romantic relationship between women.
Nellie's incredibly fast revival is a big problem with the snake scene. It would not be a problem if Nellie was bitten by the rattlesnake and the snake did not inject any venom into her - a "dry bite." But after being bitten we see her passed out and foaming at the mouth, which tells us that venom was injected into her neck, in which case sucking the venom out of the wound would not cure her immediately. It could be possible that Nellie's foaming at the mouth was due to shock, but the visuals say otherwise and in an interview, Li Jun Li who plays Lady Fay describes sucking out fake venom which was made with honey from the prosthetic wound on Robbie's neck which proves that there was supposed to be venom. I understand that the writers wanted to show the beginning of the relationship with Lady Fay saving Nellie and their first kiss, but it's very disappointing that they relied on the long-held false notion that snake venom can be sucked out to save a snakebite victim. That treatment may have been standard in the 1930s, but it was discredited decades ago. Venom spreads so quickly, there is no hope of sucking out enough to help someone.
That's the end of the snake scene. We get no more information about Nellie's recovery, or if she went to a hospital.
Nellie and Clara Bow
Earlier I mentioned that Nellie is partly based on Clara Bow, one of the biggest stars of the late silent era. There are a number of similarities with them. Just like Nellie, Bow was raised in poverty, she had a mother who was diagnosed as mentally ill, her father was her business manager, and she also had trouble making the transition from silent to talking pictures. She was so anxious about making the change because of her nasal voice and heavy Brooklyn accent (which is similar to Nellie's voice) that she eventually had a mental breakdown and left Hollywood for good.
Another similarity between the two actresses is that both were victims of scandal magazines reporting their involvement in sex scandals. Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger's sleazy 1983 book about Hollywood scandals, which probably gave this movie its title, reports that Clara Bow had orgies with the entire USC football team, and that has become part of her legacy. It's a rumor that has been debunked by the Snopes website: Bow was known to entertain the UC team and their opponents at her house after games and in hotels and pool parties, but without the orgies. We also see Nellie with the USC football team. She comes to the party before the snake fight with a group of shirtless football players who have red writing on their chests, probably from her lipstick. Nellie tells someone later that she beat the foofball players in a game of craps and they are all her slaves for the day.
Here's one more similarity between Clara Bow and Nellie that might be the inspiration for Nellie's snake fight scene:
In Clara Bow's 1932 comeback movie "Call Her Savage" (shown above ) she actually fights a snake!
Bow plays a "savage" young woman named Nasa Springer, After a rattlesnake scares her horse and she falls to the ground near the snake, Nasa uses her horse whip to frantically whip the snake until it crawls away. Then she whips a friend of hers because he laughed at her savage snake whipping. Unlike Nellie, Nasa wins the snake fight. There are more pictures and information about "Call Her Savage" here.
In the first trailer for the movie that I saw, Nellie says "Who wants to see me fight a f**king snake?" and of course I did, and couldn't wait to see it. But I was disappointed when I saw that they had changed the line in the movie to "Who wants to see my dad fight a f**king snake?" I thought the trailer had lied to us. But when the snake scene happened and it was actually Nellie who fought the snake I realized that the trailer had lied to us in order to better tell us what was going to happen. To do that they needed to use dialog that was never used in the movie. It's a good example of why we are often see and hear things in trailers that are not in the final movie.
Some of snakes we see in the film are real live rattlesnakes. As far as I can tell, they used two or more different live snakes. When we see Nellie picking up the snake, it's a dead snake or a very good artificial snake. When she holds the snake at her neck and runs around with it, it's what she called in an interview "a puppet snake." Robbie also said in an interview that there was no plexiglass between her and the live snake and since the snake wrangler couldn't give her information about where she would be treated if the snake bit her, she was prepared to run from it if necessary.