Published Apr 29, 2020In 1932, at the age of 24, actress Peg Entwistle climbed a workman's ladder to the top of the Hollywood sign and jumped to her death. This tragic tale is at the heart of Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan's latest Netflix series, Hollywood, and it illustrates that the flashy perfection of Hollywood stardom was always a veneer. Fantasies turning into crushed dreams. The pristine and fascinating image of the Golden Age of Hollywood revealing itself to be fake, unpleasant. The shades were pulled down onto the window of that side of Dreamland, but Murphy and Brennan lift them to tell a parable about how Hollywood treats an outsider.
The show opens with young veteran Jack Castello (David Corenswet) watching a newsreel. It's about Hollywood, a piece of propaganda drenched in southern California sun. The appeal of Dreamland on full display, with promises to whoever is watching that they'll become the next big thing. "If you make all the right moves," the narrator says, "you too could be living in Beverly Hills, splashing in your private pool with invitations to all the right parties."
Struggling to get work after the war, many like Jack flocked outside studio gates hoping to land bit parts. Ace Studios is king in town, and many young hopefuls vie for a place in its court. Along with Jack are other aspiring contract players like Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) and Claire Wood (Samara Weaving). They see themselves as competition, but there's a clear winner from the start, as Claire is the white daughter of the studio head and Camille is black, automatically typecast as a domestic worker. There's Roy Scherer, a young kid from small-town Illinois, renamed Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), and groomed by infamous talent agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons) into the next heartthrob.
There's also those behind the camera: Rock's boyfriend, a young screenwriter named Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), whose fate is to have his name erased from his work because he's a gay black man. There's an up-in-coming director named Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), half-Filipino, and doesn't seem to be able to grasp the privilege he has being able to "pass" as white. Some have been forgotten, like Ernie (Dylan McDermott), whose Hollywood dreams never came to fruition so he had to open a gas station, but secretly, it's an escort service. (His closest step into any studio is his brush with stars when they need a good beefcake.) Or there's Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone); once a star in silent film, she lost it all like many when talkies came along. Now she's just a Norma Desmond-type: an older woman who still dreams of fame but is no longer desirable. What's worse, she has to play housewife to her husband Ace (Rob Reiner), who's the head of Ace Studios.
Hollywood's representation of what it was like to live in Tinseltown in the 1940s is a mix of fact and fiction. In a town of torrid affairs, mafia, jazz, drugs and cocktails, Murphy and Brennan play around with their fantasies, but also incorporate elements that are a real treat for classic film fans: name-drops, iconic quotes (a fabulous quip by Tallulah Bankhead, played by Paget Brewster, about a martini and an olive for example), famous locations, and appearances from everyone from Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) to Vivien Leigh (Katie McGuinness) to Eleanor Rosevelt (Harriet Sansom Harris) to George Cukor (Daniel London).
The creators touch on the star-making machine, how everyone was treated like a piece of meat: their names changed, no longer able to even carry their own voice, playing the parts written for them and losing themselves in the process. The glitz and glamour are all there, and so is the star power from the acting prowess of its grand cast, but Murphy and Brennan make sure to ignore the studio-fed image and remind the audience that, if you were gay, you had to choose love or your career; that stars like Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) could see their roles given to a white actress in yellowface, and being awarded an Oscar for it; that if you were African American, your name would never be up there in lights; that there were disgusting men like Henry Willson who preyed on young men, forcing them into sexual relationships to advance their career; likewise, if women didn't get on their knees, they would be dropped from their contract. Incorporating all of these themes makes for a series that often feels unnecessary, as it presents reiterations of facts we've already read about and seen on screen dozens of times before. It starts to lack the focus, depth, and complexity that Feud: Bette and Joan had, seeming like a series just for Murphy to emphasize how gay and horny everyone was in Tinseltown. Up until past its halfway mark, you're not sure what the point of the series is or where it's going, but then its tagline, "What if you could rewrite the story?" comes into play.
Hollywood takes way too long to get into the revisionist narrative it's leading towards. But when it does arrive, it's emotional, satisfying, and triumphant. Murphy asks, what if McDaniel had been able to go on to play complex female characters and get leading roles after her 1939 Oscar win? What if other actresses of colour like Wong were given the chance of a comeback? What if the gap between Oscar wins for people of colour wasn't over two decades? But, more importantly, what if Hollywood hadn't been afraid of firsts? Studios in those days – and frankly still now – only cared about making money and making hits, and the "star power" they so desperately searched for only came in one colour. They only saw the backlash, violence and monetary losses that came from representation and not its benefits to filmmaking or the country. But with the right people in the room, the show's creators argue that Hollywood could have become much more inclusive with more emphasis on stories that weren't straight and white. Where people of colour could have sat at the same table as their white peers. But Hollywood was never made up of those people.
Hollywood is wrapped in a stylish package with all the deliciously camp aesthetics that go hand in hand with the men who wrap it. Murphy and Brennan don't hold back when it comes to the more shocking side of the old Tinseltown, and this also applies to their dialogue, which is affecting, humorous and vulgar in the appropriate moments. The revisionist take it establishes is hard-hitting enough to make up for a pretty muddled start. It holds a mirror to how the industry continues to treat the people the show categorizes as outsiders. Struck by the majesty of the Hollywood sign, they shouldn't be overtaken by the cruelty it often represents, but rather be able to look out onto Dreamland and want to climb back down. (Netflix)