With the film industry as we know it—A-list stars swanning around studio lots amid the swirling winds of an entire city bellowing buzzwords about makin’ pictures—essentially nonexistent at the moment, here’s an especially provocative idea as we contemplate its eventual return: What if Hollywood was... better?
Not in terms of quality of output, though if we’ve learned anything through the industry’s glacial inching toward progress, that will follow suit. But what if the industry was more inclusive? What if it was less afraid of change? What if it allowed gay people, people of color, women, and minorities to tell their own stories, to be in charge—and what if the people accepted it?
Better yet, what if it was always that way?
Like the loud, harsh clack of a clapboard coming down on 70 years of motion picture history, Ryan Murphy’s revisionist manifesto Hollywood arrives Friday on Netflix with blinding, blaring, technicolor confidence. Hardly subtle, deliciously ostentatious, and admirably mischievous, the lavish seven-episode series is a love letter to Hollywood by way of 2020 think piece.
It is messy and thrilling, upsetting yet profound; as uneven and as enthralling as any of Murphy’s big-swing, genre-contorting efforts: Glee, American Horror Story, or The Politician. But as with his soapy historical study Feud: Bette and Joan, it is a fastidious celebration of a glamorized time in Hollywood that mines nostalgia for modern meaning—a fragile undertaking swaddled in the dazzle of unmatched production design and talent pedigree.
Hollywood flops as often as it soars, but never rests in its grandiosity and ambition. The result is something escapist and frothy at a time when a retreat to a Hollywood happy ending is as alluring a fantasy as they come.
There is brilliant acting and there is bad acting. There are ovation-worthy ideas and there are off-putting ones. But, above all, there is reason to watch: It is gay, it is sexy, it is Patti LuPone.
Hollywood is a revisionist history of cinema’s golden age. It’s the 1940s in all their glamour and art: Casablanca! Citizen Kane! Alfred Hitchcock! Jimmy Stewart! Rita Hayworth! Cary Grant! It’s an era that’s been romanticized for so long that we’ve internalized it, morphing our own lifestyle aspirations to conform to its very heteronormative, very patriarchal, very (very) white ideas about sex and gender roles. These were ideas, however, that the industry was telegraphing, but not living in real life. Not at all.
Murphy and his team’s rewriting of history pulls the curtain back, exposing the sexually fluid proclivities of the stars—leading men sleeping with male escorts; Oscar-winning actresses in bisexual affairs—and the damning, racist barriers to inclusion fortified by studio heads thwarting any opportunity for progress.
Then, and here’s the crux of the whole thing: Hollywood changes that narrative. We glimpse the power dynamics inside Tinseltown’s gilded cage, and watch them being dismantled.
Some of the players’ narratives are real, and some are fiction. That makes for an amusing parlor game for viewers, attempting to separate the true history from the imagined one, and should birth a cottage industry of “The Real Story Behind…” stories in the weeks to come. But these are actual people who never had the opportunity to live authentically or see true, equal opportunity in the industry. Expect there to be a split among those who find happier, reimagined fates for them a sweet gesture, and those who find it in bad taste.
The story trains in on Jack (David Corenswet), a World War II veteran arriving wide-eyed in Hollywood, hoping some gumption and a jawline God shed a tear after creating will be enough to get him into the pictures. But he’s got a pregnant wife (Maude Apatow) to think about. Until he catches the eye of a casting director, he has to find some way to pay the bills. That cash flow comes surreptitiously from a gas station owner (Dylan McDermott), whose dashed Hollywood ambitions leave a soft spot for attractive dreamers like Jack—particularly ones who prove lucrative in his under-the-table prostitution business. A customer comes in for a fill-up, so to speak, and whispers the code, “I want to go to Dreamland,” and, well, you know the rest—and hopefully get the hardly nuanced metaphor about sex, power, sacrifices, and Hollywood.
This gas station business is without a doubt inspired by Scotty Bowers, the notorious L.A. hustler who died last year at 96, following a scandalizing, dishy documentary and memoir revealing the brothel he ran out of a petrol stand, sleeping with (allegedly) Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh, Gary Cooper, J. Edgar Hoover, and Rock Hudson.
McDermott’s character, however, is not actually Scotty Bowers, a distinction that’s necessary because Rock Hudson actually is a character, played by Jake Picking. So is Henry Willson, the monstrous, closeted Hollywood agent played by Jim Parsons, who trades blowjobs for representation. Elsewhere, real-life trailblazers like Hattie MacDaniel, Vivien Leigh, and George Cukor show up. Their presence, on the one hand, lends credibility and grounds the fantasia of diversity and acceptance that Hollywood builds to. It’s also morally amorphous.
Hudson was closeted until the day he died of HIV/AIDS. He didn’t get the happy ending imagined here, publicly coming out of the closet by attending the Academy Awards with his fictional black, gay screenwriting boyfriend, holding hands on the red carpet, and staying on track on his ascension to Hollywood hunk. There’s also no evidence that Willson, as caustic and self-loathing as the devil himself when we meet him in the show, had a change of heart and becomes a LGBT crusader seeking amends and atonement.
The wishful thinking is nice. But the bleakness of the reality shouldn’t be forgotten. There’s no clean place to land there, other than to consider both.
But these are just a handful of Hollywood’s players, and not even the true engine of the plot. In typical Murphyland fashion, there is a dizzying constellation of characters and their errant business to keep tabs on.
At the forefront is Patti LuPone’s Avis, the bored wife of a studio head (a scene-stealing Rob Reiner) who is first introduced as a client of Jack’s—hence all the press about the Tony winner’s explicit sex scenes that you’ve likely been reading—and eventually put in charge of the studio itself when her husband is incapacitated by a heart attack.
If it’s novel now to think of a female in charge of greenlighting projects and making commercial creative decisions, imagine it seven decades ago. And Avis shakes things up. With a casting director (Holland Taylor, perfect) and producer (Joe Mantello, heartbreaking) as her conspirators, she greenlights and positions as the studio’s next blockbuster a film called Meg, with its historically diverse creative team intact.
That means half-Filipino director Raymond (Darren Criss), black screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope), black leading lady Camille (Laura Harrier), and Jack and Rock in supporting roles. It takes willfulness to bulldoze the fortresses that bar progress. That is invigorating and moving to watch, especially as Hollywood dances between comedy, camp, earnestness, and tragedy with all the glee, if you will, that you’d expect from a Ryan Murphy production.
There’s sex—hot sex, gay sex, interracial sex, intergenerational sex—and there’s farce and there’s a wardrobe and set budget to sweep you away like a riptide.
There are scenes from Parsons and LuPone that will win them Emmys. Mantello and Taylor have a two-hander together that shattered me into so many pieces I am billing Ryan Murphy the cleaning fee. I worry that even with his Netflix money it won’t be enough—that’s how good it is.
Mira Sorvino and Queen Latifah give so much in their scenes as guest stars that you wish they were in more but are grateful for the flawless blips of bliss, while Michelle Krusiec as Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star, is the epitome of an actor making a monumental moment out of limited material.
Criss solidifies his leading-man status—he’s captivating in every scene, even without much to do—and Corenswet brings glimmers of gravitas to eye candy. But the rest of the kids nearly torpedo the whole damn thing, they’re so miscast. The scenes with the older generation are so rich and such an utter joy to watch, it only makes the woodenness of performers like Picking and Harrier all the more egregious. Thankfully, there’s a larger message to it all that acts as absolution.
If Hollywood were a treatise on how society interacts with movies and TV both then and now, then the thesis could likely be boiled down to an early conversation between Raymond, Criss’ director character, and Dick, Mantello’s studio exec. It’s Raymond’s dream to direct a movie starring Anna May Wong. Dick kills the pitch, saying no one will pay to see a movie with an Asian lead, or any lead of color.
Raymond doesn’t stand for that. How does he know? No one’s tried. “Sometimes I think folks in this town don’t really understand the power they have. Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show how the world can be. If we change the way that movies are made, you take a chance and you make a different kind of story, I think you can change the world.”
It’s not a stretch to argue that as the mission statement of Murphy’s entire career. He’s proved it time and again, from Glee to Pose: Bring the marginalized out of the margins and watch how things change. Someone just has to be the one to do it.
In essence, Hollywood sees Murphy dramatizing the progress that he played a part in catalyzing today, but imagining if it had come at a different turning point in cinema history—70 years ago. More tantalizingly, he raises the question of what society today might be like had it actually happened then.
Is it a little self-congratulatory? Sure. But, hey, that’s showbiz, kid.