Once Upon a Time in ‘Hollywood’?

Ryan Murphy’s latest series is a woke fantasy of postwar Tinseltown

Hollywood, a new limited series on Netflix from executive producers Ryan Murphy (Glee, Feud, American Horror Story) and Ian Brennan (Glee, Scream Queens) aims to rewrite history, bringing those marginalized by the studio system into the spotlight. Is it a thought-provoking “what if” or just an excuse to play dress up?

 

The show follows several young people trying to make it in showbiz just after World War II. Actors Jack (David Corenswet), Roy (Jake Picking), Camille (Laura Harrier), and Claire (Samara Weaving), as well as director Raymond (Darren Criss) and screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope) all cross paths at Ace Studios, a fictional place which physically resembles the real Paramount lot. These kids are hungry for a break, but disappointed with what little opportunity comes their way.

When the show begins, Archie, who is black and gay, has already sold Ace his screenplay about Peg Entwhistle, a real actress who committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign in 1932. Raymond, who is half-Filipino and straight, signs on to direct “Peg.” They soon change Peg to the fictional “Meg,” opening the door for a black actress, who also happens to be Raymond’s girlfriend, to take the lead role. (And once again, Hollywood pushes poor Peg Entwhistle aside.) There are also plot lines about a gay actor and his abusive and powerful agent, as well as an ex-GI who does sex work out of a gas station run by a benevolent pimp-to-the-stars.

The two-part premiere establishes the many characters and their intersecting storylines. Then late in the third episode, the plot starts down the path of alternative history and explores the idea: What if a film was made in 1947, starring a black actress and written by an openly gay man, with the full support of the studio? Could one movie break down the barriers of prejudice in the film industry, and thus society at large? Each episode ventures further into fantasy land and by the time Eleanor Roosevelt shows up to say that Ace Studios can change the world, well, we’ve gone in some weird directions.

All the Kinds of Sex
Hollywood
Pimps, the real heroes: Dylan McDermott as Ernie West in “Hollywood.”

The cast features a murderer’s row of theatre veterans, including Patti LuPone as the studio head’s wife, and Joe Mantello and Holland Taylor as Ace higher-ups. Jim Parsons, clearly relishing his potty-mouth dialogue, portrays the truly awful Henry Willson, an exploitative agent and one of the few real-life figures who plays a major role in the story. To a person, these members of the old guard are more compelling than the young leads. LuPone schools everyone in how to make unremarkable dialogue pop and Mantello is simply the best actor on the show. When the plot brings those two together to temporarily run Ace Studios, we get a glimpse of a more intriguing show that Hollywood could have been.

The weakest link among the cast is Laura Harrier as black ingenue Camille, whom we are repeatedly told is the best actress on the lot. This might be plausible if we didn’t see anyone else act. Unfortunately, hinging the plot on Camille’s ability to carry a movie makes the whole endeavor even more implausible.

At its core, Hollywood the series is about celebrating the outsiders and iconoclasts that Hollywood the industry so often dismissed. But it is also about sex. All the kinds of sex! Sex between older women and younger men, sex between men and men, interracial sex, sex with Tallulah Bankhead.

Despite all the sex talk, I wouldn’t call the show sexy. Aside from a couple glimpses of nudity, most of the love scenes are PG-13 level kissing in underwear. It would be more accurate to call the show sex-positive. Take the example of Ernie (Dylan McDermott), the proprietor of a gas station which is a front for male prostitutes. We meet him as he recruits struggling actor Jack to turn tricks. Predatory and manipulative, Ernie seems like a candidate for series villain. However, the show regards him as a hero because he doesn’t judge showbiz folk for their sexuality. He gives these “great artists of our time” access to sexual fulfillment, so that they can continue the sacred work of making movies.

Because in the world of Murphy & Brennan’s Hollywood making movies is the most important thing a person can do. To be prevented from making a movie is tragic beyond comprehension. One character, upon hearing the story of Chinese actress Anna May Wong losing the lead role in The Good Earth, says, “That’s the saddest story I ever heard.” Really? Have you forgotten the World War that just happened? Heck, have you read The Good Earth? That one’s got death, famine, and dirt soup.

By the end of the series, the industry and the public have embraced Meg, smashing #oscarssowhite out of existence 60 years before Twitter was even invented. Black, Asian, and queer people around the country rejoice. Curiously, Latinx artists, or characters of any kind, remain conspicuously absent from the revolution. Rita Hayworth and Katy Jurado will have to wait for next season.

I can understand the impulse to go back in time and, a la Quantum Leap’s Dr. Sam Beckett, right what once went wrong. It feels good. However, changing history can also feel disrespectful to those who lived it. As if to say, if only they had been as brave as these fictional characters; if only they had stood up for themselves. Racism and homophobia could have melted away if only they had made a good enough movie!

I enjoyed the campy fun of Hollywood – martini fixins in the conference room, Patti in a turban, parties at George Cukor’s! However, the social commentary fell flat. The glimpses we get of real figures from classic Hollywood like Wong (Michelle Krusiec) and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) just made me wish for a show that actually told their stories, rather than placing them on the sidelines yet again.

To quote one of the characters on Hollywood, “I want to rewrite Hollywood.”

 

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Lani Gonzalez

Lani Gonzalez has appeared as a guest programmer on Turner Classic Movies and occasionally writes about what she sees at Cinema Then and Now.

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