By Alan Hurst
One of the few perks of being relegated to our homes over the last few weeks has been the fact that binging a series is no longer a source of guilt. Any new product that pops up on Netflix, Prime or any of the other streaming services is like oxygen these days. It’s a distraction, it’s something new, an escape.
I was practically salivating in anticipation of Netflix’ latest Ryan Murphy offering Hollywood. Based on the trailer it looked to be a titillating combination of pulp, fact and fiction all wrapped up in sumptuous period detail of the late 1940’s. It turns out to be all of those things, but ultimately just not very good. The conceit of having marginalized characters triumph over the restrictions of post-war Hollywood is intriguing, but the relative ease of the triumph for all the characters ultimately feels quite silly and condescending.
The story is built around a group of movie hungry misfits – actors, writers, directors – who want to break into the movie business. One of the group – Jeremy Pope as Archie – has written a screenplay based on a true story about an actress who committed suicide by jumping of the “H” in the landmark Hollywood (then Hollywoodland) sign. The film attracts the attention of Ace studios and gets put into production, with each of the character’s lives being altered by the process of filming the movie, and seeing it triumph at the box office and at the Academy Awards for 1947.
With Hollywood Murphy and his creative team have decided to challenge the power dynamics of old time Hollywood with a modern sensibility – and to imagine what could have happened if people had truly challenged the power dynamic. Never mind that this was an era when actors and artist were starting to be blacklisted for supposed communist affiliations – we’re supposed to park that and believe that a studio run by a woman (after her husband suffers a heart attack) with a closeted head of production would have greenlit a film to be directed by a mixed race director, written by a black gay writer, starring an unknown black actress, and co-starring a novice actor with a record for hustling would have a relatively smooth journey to movie theatres in 1947. We’re rooting for all of these people in the first few episodes when they hit barrier after barrier, but something happens around episode four that takes things into the realm of the uber positive but unfortunately leaves plausibility by the curb. I guess we still want them all to succeed, but ultimately it feels like a cheat.
The idea to pose a “what if” scenario could and should have been an intriguing way to re-look at Hollywood studio system as it was starting to crumble, when realism in the movies was on the rise, and television was nipping at its heels. But you can’t pose a “what if” without showing the real challenges of what actually was. The series does try to do that by incorporating some real-life characters into the fictional story, but it doesn’t pay them tribute in any way.
Anna May Wong (nicely played by Michelle Krusiec) was the only Asian movie star of the early sound era. Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) was the first black performer to win an Academy Award for Gone with the Wind in 1939. And the young Rock Hudson, played as a bit of dolt by Jake Picking here, became a movie star sex symbol despite his homosexuality. But all three of these people are really just here to be examples of Hollywood discrimination. We don’t get a sense of who they were as characters – they’re just platforms. Of the three, Hudson gets the harshest treatment as the series theorizes that he becomes an out and proud gay man by walking the Oscar red carpet with his screenwriter boyfriend in 1948. Hudson, of course, didn’t come out until just before his death in 1985. I’m not sure why but it feels here like that long journey is being trivialized.
Still, if you’re willing to park the reality and accept some earnest, ultra-lite revisionism Hollywood does entertain. Visually, it’s a major treat. The vintage cars are shiny, the people are very pretty, the clothes are beautiful, and everything is pumped up by some very snappy dialogue and a brisk pace. The series doesn’t lag – it’s full steam ahead for all seven episodes.
There are also some very fun – even daring – performances from the talented cast. Not surprisingly it’s the veterans who hit the home runs. Broadway legend Patti LuPone has the best film/TV opportunity she’s ever had and plays Avis, the studio head’s wife, to the hilt. She’s sexy, bold, bright and very funny. Rob Reiner is also a lot of fun as the bullying, bombastic head of Ace Studios.
Jim Parsons of Big Bang Theory fame casts aside Sheldon in a terrific performance as Hollywood agent Henry Willson. Willson was known for taking handsome, hunky actors and working his magic to turn them into movie stars and – sometimes – decent actors. Rock Hudson was his prime client. Hollywood lore confirms that Willson was a major creep, taking advantage of his clients and wrecking the careers of anyone who got in his way. Parsons doesn’t even attempt to make him likeable, and it’s a wise choice – he gives LuPone her only competition in terms of creating a truly memorable and somewhat complex character.
Dylan McDermott – in a slimy, smooth performance – plays a pimp named Ernie, who operates out of a Hollywood gas station. Clients drive in and say they want to go to Dreamland, and Ernie provides them with someone to get them there. His character is based on the supposed real-life exploits of Scotty Bowers, whose 2012 memoir created a bit of sensation with its revelations of the sex lives of celebrities ranging from Spencer Tracy to Walter Pidgeon to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Murphy might have had more success going a little deeper into this part of the underbelly of Hollywood.
Also doing very strong work are Holland Taylor and Joe Mantello as studio executives striving for artistic merit, not just box office success.
David Corenswet leads the efforts of the younger contingent playing the aspiring actors, director and writer. He’s both hunky and touching as a guy trying to break into the movies and trying to do the right thing but doing the exact opposite. Jeremy Pope is also strong as the writer with a very pragmatic moral code. He may be pimping at the gas station, but he shows the character knows the score.
Not as successful in somewhat two-dimensional roles are Darren Criss as the director and Laura Harrier as the actress. They’re pretty, but that’s it. We don’t care about them nearly as much as we should.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.