Ryan Murphy’s ‘Hollywood’—the True Stories of Henry Willson, Hattie McDaniel, Tallulah Bankhead and More
Was Henry Willson really a sexual predator? Were Hattie McDaniel and Tallulah Bankhead an item? And was Rock Hudson’s first screen test really that awful?
Ryan Murphy’s latest Netflix series, Hollywood, is a wish-fulfilling fantasy that, given some of the choices it makes, was always bound to be divisive. But historical revisions aside, this series will likely unite us all in one pursuit: Parsing which parts of the series are fact from those that were fabricated. Murphy is a known Old Hollywood obsessive, so it comes as little surprise that in creating his semi-fictional version, he folded in a lot of gossip—some true, some unconfirmed, and some completely fabricated. For those who haven’t spent their lives poring over celebrity memoirs and the “Personal life” section of various actors’ Wikipedia pages, here’s a quick guide to some of the show’s juiciest and darkest stories.
Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign
One of Hollywood’s most popular legends is that its iconic sign, which decades ago read “Hollywoodland,” is haunted. As described in the show and Vanity Fair, British aspiring actress Peg Entwistle jumped off the “H” in 1932 after her dreams of making it big failed to come true. The inciting incident? Her role in David O. Selznick’s Thirteen Women—which she’d hoped would be her break—was cut from the film. Devastated and reportedly intoxicated, she climbed 45 feet and jumped. A note found near her body read, “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.”
In the years since Entwistle’s suicide, some passersby have claimed to see her ghost near the sign, accompanied by her signature scent—gardenias. In Hollywood, she becomes something of a patron saint as struggling actors and crew work to tell the story of being a Tinseltown outsider. Thanks to its aspirational bent, however, Murphy’s story ends a lot more happily than its inspiration.
Henry Willson and Rock Hudson
As seen in Hollywood, Rock Hudson did, indeed, owe his career to his agent, who renamed him and molded him into a leading man. Henry Willson helped usher in the industry’s “beefcake” craze with similarly fashioned clients including Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, and Rory Calhoun. Willson has been credited with helping his clients, including Hudson, who was gay, learn to “act straight.” But as Hudson biographer Mark Griffin has noted, Hudson had already learned some of these skills before he met Willson. His stepfather was abusive, and abhorred any behavior he saw as effeminate.
“Most people assume that this reconditioning of Roy Fitzgerald, former truck driver from Winnetka, Illinois, into this Hollywood Adonis began when he met his notorious but very influential agent Henry Willson,” Griffin told NPR in 2018. But that’s not entirely the case. “Rock tells this sort of tragic story that when he built up the courage to tell his stepfather that he had these ambitions to be an actor, his stepfather hit him—and not only that but I think confiscated any toys that he thought were in some way effeminate and discouraged any theatrical ambitions that Rock may have had,” Griffin said.
Still, Willson played a pivotal role in creating Rock Hudson as we know him. As Vanity Fair notes, he would smack Hudson’s wrists when they went limp and his hips when they swayed—and personally paid for a makeover, including, as seen in Hollywood, getting the actor’s teeth capped. As Griffin put it, “I think there was a fair amount of butching [Hudson] up so that he seemed matinee idol ready.”
Hudson did struggle with acting at first; his early screen test for Twentieth Century Fox was so notoriously bad that it was used for years as an example of what not to do. (That Hollywood legend also makes an appearance in the show, as Hudson struggles through his lines in an excruciating screen test for the show’s movie-within-a-show.)
As for Willson, Griffin said, “He was a very influential figure in Hollywood... And Henry, unfortunately, did not have the most sterling reputation in the industry. I think it was fairly well-known that if you were a Henry Willson client, as Tony Curtis once expressed it, you probably had to sexually express yourself to Henry.”
That villainous streak is also seen in Murphy’s series, albeit through an ultimately almost forgiving lens. He ultimately died of cirrhosis after a life of alcoholism, buried in an unmarked grave because he could not afford a headstone. One was later placed, which read “Star—Star Maker.”
Tallulah Bankhead and Hattie McDaniel
Rumors of Tallulah Bankhead and Hattie McDaniel’s alleged love affair go back decades, but neither actress ever confirmed them. Kenneth Anger said they were an item in his seamy Hollywood exposé Hollywood Babylon, first published in 1965.
There have been rumors over the years that Hattie McDaniel was bisexual, while Tallulah Bankhead enjoyed stoking rumors regarding her own sexuality. According to The New Yorker, Bankhead once greeted a stranger at a party by proclaiming, “I’m a lesbian! What do you do?” But she also later told a friend, “I could never become a lesbian, because they have no sense of humor!” She would often describe her sexuality as “ambisextrous.”
Anna May Wong, Luise Rainer, and ‘The Good Earth’
One of the most heartbreaking stories in Hollywood is also true: the mistreatment of Anna May Wong, which in many ways reflects challenges Asian-American actors still face today.
As seen in the series, Wong was frequently cast in stereotypical roles, forced to play “exotic” villains and concubines. In a 1933 magazine interview, the Los Angeles Times notes, Wong said, “I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that.”
“How should we be, with a civilization that’s so many times older than that of the West?” Wong continued. “We have our own virtues. We have our rigid code of behavior, of honor. Why do they never show these on the screen? Why should we always scheme, rob, kill? I got so weary of it all—of the scenarist’s concept of Chinese characters. You remember Fu Manchu? Daughter of the Dragon? So wicked.”
As seen in Hollywood, one slight probably smarted the worst. It came as MGM made The Good Earth, a film about Chinese farmers struggling to survive. According to the Times, Wong said at one point that the studio had asked her to test for the role of a concubine named Lotus, and that she’d responded, “I’ll be glad to take the test, but I won’t play the part. If you let me play O-lan, I’ll be very glad. But you’re asking me—with Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”
Nonetheless, MGM gave the lead role to Luise Rainer—making her up to “look” Chinese—and tried to cast Wong as Lotus. She refused. Rainer went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress for the role in 1938.
Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar Win
Queen Latifah’s turn as Hattie McDaniel is one of the most exciting guest appearances in Hollywood—and while the character’s description of her Oscar win is mostly accurate, Murphy appears to have fudged the details just a hair.
In the series, Hattie mentors young aspiring actress Camille Washington—and tells her about the degradation she faced while accepting her award for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars in 1940. McDaniel was the first Black performer to receive the award, and in the series she notes that she was not even allowed in the room as the awards were being given out, because the hotel was segregated. Right as she won, she says, she was shuffled in through a back entrance.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the 12th Oscars ceremony was held in The Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub—which, at the time, was still segregated. Although she was actually allowed in the room, McDaniel was barred from sitting at the Gone with the Wind table—forced, instead, to sit against a far wall with her escort and her agent. And even that insulting concession, THR notes, only happened because producer David O. Selznick called in a personal favor.
But Hollywood’s depiction of the treatment McDaniel received after her Oscar win is spot-on; in fact, the show nails her direct quote on the subject verbatim: “It was as if I had done something wrong [by winning].” McDaniel continued to be typecast as “mammy” characters and eventually Warner Bros. bought out her contract.
Despite her wish to be buried in Hollywood Cemetery, now called Hollywood Forever Cemetery, THR notes that McDaniel was instead buried in the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery due to Hollywood Cemetery’s whites-only policy. In 1999, McDaniel’s grandnephew Edgar Goff was able to get a marble memorial to McDaniel placed in her cemetery of choice—decades after her death.
Vivien Leigh’s ‘Manic Depression’
Hollywood’s depiction of Vivien Leigh (played by Katie McGuinness) is as lovable as it is heartbreaking. In the series, she’s both vivacious and vulnerable—the life of the party, until she begins to struggle with nervous “episodes” that gas station pimp Ernie occasionally helps her through.
Vivien Leigh’s real-life struggles with mental illness are well documented; she had bipolar disorder, known at the time as manic depression, which at times hindered her career and relationships—largely because of the lack of effective treatments at the time. (A few remedies: being wrapped in wet sheets, and electric shock therapy.) In one notorious instance, Elizabeth Taylor took over the film Elephant Walk after Leigh suffered a breakdown following a bout of insomnia and hallucinations.
As biographer Kendra Bean notes, “The Fifties were an experimental time for mental-health treatment and [Leigh] could have been helped so much more by the therapy and medication available today; it was only her professionalism and will that kept her working.”
Leigh’s erratic behavior led to frequent comparisons to her Oscar-winning portrayal of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. According to biographer Alan Strahan, her bipolar disorder fueled a lot of that—including her drinking and extramarital affairs.
“Today, actors like Catherine Zeta Jones and Carrie Fisher can talk openly about their bipolar disorder without fear it will ruin their careers,” Bean points out, “but Leigh was terrified of revealing the truth.”
Dylan McDermott’s “Ernie” and the Real Scotty Bowers
If you’re hungry for more Hollywood dish after watching Hollywood, Scotty Bowers’ book—Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Live of the Stars—is a solid place to start. (Or if you’d rather watch the story, there’s the documentary based on the book—Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood.)
Bowers does not appear in the series—but Dylan McDermott’s gas station boss, Ernie, is a homage to him. Bowers claimed that at age 23, he was working as a gas station attendant when actor Walter Pidgeon asked him to hop in his Lincoln. Pidgeon began spreading the good word about Bowers around town, and his clientele grew.
In his book, Bowers claims to have slept with a nearly exhaustive list of Hollywood legends, male and female. Among his alleged exploits? A threesome with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner.
Bowers, like Hollywood’s central character Jack Castello (David Corenswet), got into his gas station hustle after returning from World War II to limited job prospects. Ultimately, he decided he’d rather make $20 sleeping with celebrities than $10 digging ditches. As The Guardian notes, Bowers insists in the documentary that he does not see himself as a victim: “I did what I wanted to do.” And at a time when homosexuality was a great risk to anyone’s life and career, Bowers felt he was providing a safe space for many to actually be themselves. (An example: He claimed to have set up Cary Grant and Rock Hudson before he was “Rock Hudson.”)
McDermott’s character seems to have a similar relish for his chosen profession, although not all of his gas station attendants seem to feel the same.
One key difference between Bowers and McDermott’s character, however, is that Bowers did not take a cut of his attendants’ money—which, as far as he saw it, meant he was not a pimp. Instead, he said, “The most important thing was company.”