“Hollywood is a reimagining of a different version of the entertainment industry’s
history, but it’s also still entertainment.”
Hollywood, the latest series to be commissioned through the multi-million-dollar deal between Netflix and buzzy producer, Ryan Murphy, relishes in metatextuality. In a show about hopeful actors, screenwriters and directors willing to do anything to make it in Tinseltown, a movie is being made about making movies, with a plotline that literally rewrites the history of the real actress Peg Entwistle. When Murphy regular Darren Criss, playing aspiring director Raymond Ainsley, utters the words, “movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be”, he’s not just talking about the fictional film in question; he’s referencing the very ethos of the show.
In an alternative version of 1940s Hollywood, David Corenswet’s Jack Castello eagerly waits outside Ace Studios – likely based on the real life studio Paramount Pictures – alongside hundreds of others hoping to catch their big break as a film extra. To make ends meet, he begins working at a gas station doubling as a male prostitution service ran by Ernie West (Dylan McDermot), reluctantly agreeing to take older female customers ‘to Dreamland’ despite being married. Jack’s first customer is Patti LuPone’s Avis Amberg, wife of Ace’s studio head, and before long he’s in the midst of the glamorous and somewhat corrupt filmmaking world he’s long yearned to be a part of. Here, he meets Raymond, a half-Filipino director passing as white, Archie (Jeremy Pope), a gay black screenwriter, Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), a fictionalised, out version of the real-life leading man who hid his sexuality, and Camille (Laura Harrier), a young black actress on a contract at Ace, who has so far been relegated to demeaning roles such as the stereotypical, upbeat maid.
Interestingly, what started out as Jack’s story soon belongs in equal parts to these characters operating in the margins of an industry that regularly shuts them out, exploring the dynamics of privilege and success through fictional characters and historical figures. Queen Latifah appears briefly as Hattie McDaniel, the first person of colour to win an Academy Award, and Jim Parsons brilliantly embodies the powerful, sleazy talent agent Henry Willson. About halfway through the series, Murphy posits a world in which people of colour, women and LGBT+ people were given the same chances as the white, straight men who had so far dominated the industry, as their ambitious movie is greenlit by Amberg. The show isn’t without its faults when this happens; it’s also, unsurprisingly, a precisely idealist version of this part of history, in its message of solidarity and a happy ending. But isn’t this what revisionist history does? Murphy and Brennan are asking us to imagine what could’ve happened, not if these minorities had simply plucked up the courage to ask for more or for better, but if the gatekeepers in charge had given them a chance.
Again, this narrative is sometimes hard to swallow; it’s primarily white women (including, in a slightly jarring scene, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt) who open the doors for minorities, as if anti-black prejudices weren’t rife within the women’s Suffrage movement just 20 or so years prior. But to believe that Ryan Murphy is trying to tell us that if a woman had simply been handed control of this major studio in real life – subsequently granting opportunities to LGBT+ people and people of colour – then racism within the industry would’ve ended there and then, is to be wilfully missing the point. Of course, there is still a long way to go in terms of ensuring the entertainment industry (and every other industry) is one based on meritocracy and equal opportunity, and no-one is suggesting that this one dramatisation will be the thing that changes that. It is obviously not enough to simply rewrite the past via an alternate re-imagining of history; we need more stories from a diverse range of voices and experiences, something which is slowly and surely happening more often.
Murphy’s television shows have never been about anyone taking themselves too seriously. He’s built a career out of stylish, camp aesthetics surrounding brilliant performances and unique characters. Hollywood is no different, bar from the fact that it may be the most diverse cast (and crew) he’s worked with. This isn’t a documentary about the state of the industry then or now, but it can provide some insight into questions of how far we’ve come, or how far we haven’t. Hearing some of the racism and homophobia that these characters endure, while simply being told “that’s just the way it is”, is sometimes shocking but not very surprising. Whether we can see examples of behaviour that has changed drastically since, or that is actually uncomfortably familiar, we are asked to consider both the ways in which cinema can be a vehicle for change, and how it can regularly deny opportunities to those deserving of them.
Ultimately, the show is most enjoyable if you accept that that’s all it’s doing. Hollywood is a re-imagining of a different version of the entertainment industry’s history, but it’s also still entertainment. After all, revisionist history, by its very definition, is a fantasy; Quentin Tarantino has previously asked us to entertain the notion that Hitler died inside a cinema that went up in flames, or that two fictional film stars were able to violently murder members of the Manson family before they made it to the home of Sharon Tate. Hollywood is fun, stylistic and charming, and if it can also start some conversations about inequality in the industry, then surely that’s a bonus.
Dir: Ryan Murphy, Janet Mock, Michael Uppendahl, Daniel Minahan, Jessica Yu
Cast: David Corenswet, Darren Criss, Laura Harrier, Samara Weaving, Jeremy Pope, Jake Picking, Patti LuPone, Dylan McDermott, Holland Taylor, Joe Mantello, Maude Apatow, Jim Parsons
Release Date: 2020
Available on: Netflix
I found it so problematic but I still watched it all, so that says something. Really disliked how Anna May Wong was just put in the show with nothing to do until the last episode when we’re expected to believe that her performance in Meg was Oscar worthy. It’s just like ticking a box and saying ‘that wrong has been corrected’ without showing how it happens And it would have been so much better if Claire Wood actually gave it her all in her screen test instead of fluffing it out of the goodness of her heart. It sort of says that the white woman would have gotten the role if she really wanted it, but decided to gift it to the black woman. Willson making a film for Hudson to star in after all the awful things he put him through was irresponsible to include in the final episode as well. He apologised, but the silence surrounding abuse and the luring of talent with their dream jobs was what kept Weinstein and many more in power for so long. He should have faced repercussions, and I really thought Murphy would have known better. The series just tried to do too much with only seven episodes. I haven’t been so irritated by the such an off-the-mark film or series in a long time!