Everybody comes to Hollywood
They wanna make it in the neighborhood
They like the smell of it in Hollywood
How could it hurt you when it looks so good?
Madonna and Mirwais Ahmadzaï, Hollywood, 2003
Only time will tell the lasting industry-wide impact of today’s overdue conversations around increasing diversity in entertainment, but Ryan Murphy has certainly used his not inconsiderable presence in the business to shake things up. Less than a year after launching his Half initiative, 60% of the directors hired by Ryan Murphy Television were women, while 90% of directors used on RMT’s projects “met its women and minority requirement” (according to Half’s website.) With Hollywood, trans trailblazer Janet Mock directs and co-writes two episodes, as well as being an executive producer on the series, while Asian American Oscar-winner Jessica Yu directs an episode featuring Michelle Krusiec portraying Hollywood’s first Asian American movie star, Anna May Wong. But what if this kind of meaningful change, diversity both in front of and behind the camera, had somehow happened seven decades ago?
Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s seven episode Netflix limited series Hollywood, launching Friday May 1st, takes us back to the post-Second World War Golden Age of the studio system with exquisite production design, a stellar cast and an intriguing mix of characters, both real and invented. These characters’ struggles are intended to remind us that the period wasn’t golden for everyone (with echoes of the issues highlighted by #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite). Institutional and societal racism, misogyny and homophobia, made the dream of making it the neighbourhood out of reach for the likes of Hollywood’s heroes: a gay African American screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) and his boyfriend, a young actor wanting to start his career out of the closet, Rock Hudson (Jake Picking); a contract player ingénue who is a woman of colour, Camille Washington (Laura Harrier); and a budding half Filipino movie director, Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss).
After establishing the world more or less as it was at the time, Hollywood begins to move into fantasy, or wilfully naive revisionism, speculating what might have happened if a Hollywood couple like Coleman and Hudson went public, in an age where the personas of stars were manufactured and controlled by the studios, and homosexual sex was illegal? Or if Camille was given the romantic lead in a major studio motion picture, in a mixed relationship, both on screen, with Jack Costello (David Coreenswet) and off-screen with her director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss)? At a time when “interracial romance” was forbidden by the Hays code and mixed marriage was illegal.
With studio head Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner) conveniently out of the way, and his assertive wife Avis (Patti LuPone) left in charge, she decides to make a new kind of motion picture, Meg, which brings together this unlikely band of creatives. Based on the tragic real life story of a British actress, Peg Entwistle, who threw herself to her death from the 30 foot ‘H’ of the Hollywoodland sign 1932; her name is changed and she’s given a Hollywood ending.
It goes without saying that Patti Lupone is fabulous in every scene, though once the fantasy element kicks in, her character, along with the those of the other leads, feels increasing more like a like plot device than a real person, making the cast’s efforts somewhat thankless. Nevertheless, there is some fine work here. Jeremy Pope delivers a nuanced and engaging performance as Archie. Mira Sorvino is fantastic as Jeanne Crandall and makes a memorable impact with limited screen time, as does Rob Reiner. Samara Weaving, as Ace and Avis’s daughter is hilarious in her scenes in Meg, while Jake Picking’s screen test as Rock Hudson had me in hoots of laughter.
The strongest performance though, and the most intriguing, layered character, is Jim Parsons as Henry Wilson; a gossip columnist turned agent to stars with a disturbingly active casting coach. He takes advantage of his clients with the promise of building their careers and the threat of ruining them if they refuse to conform to his demands, with the threat of exposure in the press at the poisonous pen of Hedda Hopper. In real life Wilson ended his days penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave, whereas the Hollywood version of events hints at redemption for the man.
One of the most successful elements of the series is the Golden Tip service station setting, where several of the show’s young dreamers work. For those who have read My Adventures in Hollywood and and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, the autobiography of Scotty Bowers, or seen the fascinating 2017 documentary Scotty and the Secret History it will be familiar territory. Customers expect the attendants, with matinee idol looks carefully curated by the Golden Tip’s owner, to service more than their cars and pump more than gas, when they ask to be taken to ‘dreamland’. Not only is this a way to make some fast cash, but it provides a backdoor introduction to the world of star-studded poolside parties at the houses of Hollywood legends like George Cuckor. At one such house party at Cuckor’s we meet the likes of Noël Coward and Vivien Leigh, leaving me wanting more of this kind of insight into the behind-closed-doors happenings of the Tinseltown. Hollywood’s version of the actor turned service station owner and pimp is Ernie, played with panache by Dylan McDermott. Some of my favourite scenes revolve around the Golden Tip, and the comings and goings there would make for a great spin-off series.
Once Hollywood enters its own dreamland, there is some acknowledgment of resistance to the making of Meg, with pickets, death threats and boycotts but it’s not sufficient to make it plausible enough for us to suspend disbelief. As the fantasy continues too many of the obstacles in the young hopefuls’ way begin to fall from sight, and with them the series’ potential for tension and drama. Everything happens that little bit too easily, making it the kind of show you sit back and let happen in front of your eyes rather than get emotionally invested in. Hollywood is definitely worth sticking with though, and there are some wonderful moments throughout, but it is the first few episodes before the fantasy really takes flight that are by far the strongest, and made me wish they’d just stuck to the facts to skewer the inequalities of contemporary Hollywood.
By James Kleinmann
Hollywood launches on Netflix Friday May 1st 2020.