Ryan Murphy's Hollywood (2020)
By: Ali Moosavi
Recently in a highly publicized coup, Netflix engaged the services of Ryan Murphy, producer of such global TV hits as Glee, American Horror Story and American Crime Story for a five-year $300 million deal. Murphy’s first production for Netflix is the seven-part series Hollywood.
Hollywood mixes a cast of real and fictional characters about a group of young men and women hoping to make it big in Tinsel Town in the late forties. There is Jack Costello (David Corenswet), a country boy not unlike Joe Buck from Midnight Cowboy (1969) who thinks just because he looks like a hunk, studios are going to throw parts at him. The reality soon sinks and, since he has a wife to support, he is reduced to working in Dreamland, a gas station which is a front for an escort agency! Dreamland is run by Ernie West (Dylan McDermott, who shines in the best role of his career – he will be among the award nominees come next year). Ernie was also once a young hopeful who, not having made it as an actor, is providing male escorts to a Hollywood clientele of both sexes. In a scene reminiscent of The Graduate (1967), Jack is taken by his first client, Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), the ageing wife of a studio head to a hotel for a sexual liaison. The nod to The Graduate is further enhanced later in the series when Jack falls in love with Avis’s daughter, Claire (Samara Weaving).
There is Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), a half-Philipino who wants to be a director. (Darren Criss, a real-life half-Philipino, was also in Ryan Murphy’s Glee and American Crime Story, and also played a half-Philipino in the latter). His girlfriend Camille (Laura Harrier) is an African-American dreaming of becoming the first black actress to play a lead role in a Hollywood motion picture. We also have Archie (Jeremy Pope), who is not only African-American, but also gay, and dares to dream that a script he has written will be produced by a major film studio. Remember, this is the forties that we are talking about where in large sections of USA, Ku Klux Klan was going strong, “coloured people” were not allowed to mix with whites and homosexuality was a crime. The main real-life character among these hopeful group is Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking) who is taken on by another real-life character, agent Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons), who changes Roy’s name to Rock Hudson.
As we all know, Rock Hudson was gay. In this series, his boyfriend is Archie. Now an openly gay actor, dating a black guy, would have been thrown out of every studio in town late into the last century, let alone the forties. So here we have the ultimate Hollywood fantasy, a film written by a gay black writer, with a black actress in the lead role, being produced by a major studio. The studio’s head Ace Amberg (a very funny Rob Reiner) will have none of this, despite the enthusiasm of his senior producers (played by Joe Mantello and Holland Taylor, both excellent).
Parts of the script for Hollywood seems to have come out of Confidential and other gossip magazines of that era. No restraint has been shown by the series’ makers in depicting the salacious secret life of real-life Hollywood legends. We see orgy parties given by George Cukor (Daniel London), where Vivien Leigh (Katie McGinness) and Tallulah Bankhead (Paget Brewster) are nymphomaniacs chasing men, as are Cukor and Noel Coward (Billy Boyd). Of course, all of the real-life characters portrayed in Hollywood are long dead and cannot raise any objections to the script’s excesses. However, at the heart of Hollywood there is the genuinely serious issue of the unfair and vicious treatment of the minorities by Hollywood, which carried on for far too long.
Hollywood’s creator, Ryan Murphy who is openly gay and is married to the photographer David Miller, has taken it upon himself to exact revenge on Hollywood on behalf of all those talented minorities who never got the chance to show their talent because of all the blacklists and other wrongdoings. There is even an appearance by Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah,) who was the first black actress to win an Oscar, to give encouragement to Camille. Murphy’s solution is doing a Tarantino style re-writing of Hollywood history to arrive at a Hollywood ending. Somehow because it has already been done twice by Tarantino in Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), this concept has lost much of its freshness and surprise element.
Hollywood’s strengths are its perfect casting, superb production design and costume design, evocative jazz music and great acting, specially by the veterans in the cast. It is bound to have more appeal to film buffs, but others should also find it quite entertaining. For a much better, and far more penetrating expose of Hollywood, look no further than another Ryan Murphy production, Feud (2017) starring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford respectively. All the behind the scenes bitterness and rivalry between these two great actresses is true and does not need re-writing of history to be supremely entertaining.