Ryan Murphy’s latest show for Netflix is a glitzy alternate history that gives power to the marginalized.
In the second episode of the new Netflix limited series Hollywood, aspiring screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope) tells aspiring director Raymond (Darren Criss), “I wanna take the story of Hollywood, and give it a rewrite.”
At its core, this is the essence of Ryan Murphy’s latest collaboration with Netflix (part of his record-breaking development deal that’s already yielded The Politician). Murphy and co-writer/producer Ian Brennan have taken that classic Hollywood trope of the young aspiring artist and rewritten history into the image of our current politics. Murphy asks: What if those who have always been behind the scenes in entertainment were allowed to take center stage from the beginning? This alternate history puts the contributions of people of color, Jews, and queer people front and center in this take on making it big in Tinseltown.
The ensemble production follows the making of the film Meg during the height of the Hollywood studio system of the late 1940s. The road from concept to green lighting to finished product is long and winding, but the show focuses on a batch of fresh-faced newcomers. Jack Costello (David Corenswet) and a fictionalized Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) struggle to break into Hollywood after moving West.
Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), a Black actress from a poor family from Mississippi, and Claire Wood (Samara Weaving), the privileged daughter of the studio head, vie to become the latest starlets to grace the screen and tabloids. And of course, there’s Criss’ Raymond Ainslie, who wants to direct a groundbreaking film written by Pope’s young, black and queer Archie Coleman. And these dreamers are able to beat the odds, facing off against unbelieving studio heads and racists, and make the movie they want to make, starring the people they want to star.
Supporting these ingenues are a variety of veteran Angelenos, hoping the kids can accomplish what they failed to do in their youth. Ernie (Dylan McDermott) runs a gas station that serves as a cover for gigolos to go and employs Jack and Archie while they work towards their big break. Avis Amberg, played by the impeccable Patti Lupone, is the wife of Ace Pictures studio head Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner) and helps get Meg made. Studio executives Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello) and Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor) help push the envelope to have this groundbreaking get made, assisted by the conniving closeted agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons).
The film within a film, Meg, is a retelling of Peg Entwistle’s tragic suicide by jumping off the “H” from the Hollywoodland Sign. The final product transforms Peg to Meg, a young Black actress who steps down from the sign to live another day. The transformation from a tragic cautionary tale to a piece of inspiring hope mirrors Hollywood’s own retelling of cinema’s golden age.
Much like the films made in the 1940s, Hollywood gives us the traditional Hollywood happy ending, even when real life wasn’t nearly so kind to the types of people the cast portrays. In Murphy’s vision of the 1940’s studio system, people of color were allowed to be stars, and queer people could be out and proud. Not that Hollywood avoids the realities of society then (and now), some of the best moments come when Avis talks about being rejected for being too Jewish, when Archie and Camille discuss the struggles of being black, when the numerous queer characters lament the pain of the closet.
The transformation from a tragic cautionary tale to a piece of inspiring hope mirrors Hollywood’s own retelling of cinema’s golden age.
Also similar to Meg’s fictionalization of a real person, Hollywood merges real-life figures into this alternate history. Unlike the actor’s true story of a life hidden away, Hollywood’s Hudson refuses to stay closeted and pursues a relationship with Archie. Similarly, Henry Willson is based on Hudson’s agent, a man who helped create many a heartthrob, including Tab Hunter. While Willson is a slimier character than Rock at the start, he’s given the chance to grow.
Naturally, Hollywood doesn’t look that far into the future, but the viewer can wonder how history would have changed for queer people in this universe. Would Stonewall have happened? Would Rock Hudson have died of AIDS, and if he had, would he have been more open about his diagnosis?
Murphy and Brennan assemble a cast that offers up a great simulacrum of the clean-cut glamour of the ’40s. Corenswet and Picking are perfect examples of the barrel-chested beefcake aesthetic. Similarly, Weaving and Harrier ooze the sex appeal of the femme fatale, especially in scenes of screen tests and in-universe movies filmed in a black and white ‘40s style. Dialogue is quick and snappy, and scenes are evenly exposed, giving the series a Golden Ara feel, even if it’s in color.
Even though the younger stars bring excellent performances, Murphy gets to trot out his usual coterie of screen veterans and theater icons. Naturally, Lupone brings her classical stage presence to every scene she’s in; you could easily watch the show for her alone. But McDermott shines almost as brightly. Parsons gives the most nuanced performance; his Willson is a combination of Sheldon Cooper and Roy Cohn, a methodical thinker infused with closeted self-loathing. Despite his grosser tendencies, he has his moments of endearment. This doesn’t excuse his behavior, but Willson’s possibility for redemption keeps him sympathetic, and Parsons is always able to frame his character as a result of life in the closet.
Sometimes the fidelity to the classical movie style can come as a detriment to the modern viewer. The flat and even lighting and set composition is faithful to older films, but it does become a little bland to the eye. There are some exceptions: the dark, smoke-filled gay porn theater where Jack meets Archie seems like a glimpse into the real ‘40s LA, rather than an idealized setting. Emotions come too quickly to be believable in a few too many scenes, such as when Archie monologues to Jack about how Jack doesn’t know what it means to suffer.
While Murphy and Brennan use these classic Hollywood tropes as a template, it’s their updates to the formula that gives Hollywood its charm. This is most evident in the fact that the main characters work together in classic Murphy found-family style, rather than compete to achieve their goals. Gone is the All About Eve backstabbing: even though Rock is competing against Jack (and Camille against Claire) for roles, these actors end up befriending and helping each other. It’s honestly a refreshing take against the tired cliché of people stepping over one another to get ahead (even if that’s the reality).
In an age where COVID-19 has us locked in our drab homes with nothing to do, Murphy and company use Hollywood to fulfill the promise that escapism has always promised: the world as it should be. The things on screen didn’t really happen: a black woman didn’t star as a major romantic lead that early; queer people weren’t allowed to be openly in love; the films they make in Hollywood would never have been approved by the Hays Code. But for seven blissful episodes, it didn’t matter. I saw the world I wanted the world to be. In a world where so much is wrong, that felt right.
Hollywood hits the tiny silver screen of Netflix on May 1st.
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