A film and TV series geek
'Hollywood' by Ryan Murphy is available on Netflix (Netflix/File)
At the center of Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s seven-episode Netflix miniseries Hollywood, a number of what-if questions are asked: What if the Golden Age of Hollywood was different? What if actors of color like Anna May Wong were allowed to have a leading role? What if an openly gay screenwriter was given a chance to make his movie? What if the results of our fight for diversity that we’re still championing today had taken shape decades ago?
Hollywood tries to tackle those hypothetical questions by rewriting the history itself.
The result is far from flawless. But it’s not by any stretch bad TV.
The story is set in 1940s Tinseltown where everyone dreams of a breakthrough in the booming industry of filmmaking. Among those dreamers is Jack Castello (David Corensweet), a World War II veteran with a wife at home. Every day, he’s waiting at the gate of Ace Studio, hoping a casting director will point their fingers at him for an extra role in whatever production they are working on. When his wife Henrietta (Maude Apatow) tells him that she’s pregnant, Jack must think of a way to get more money.
Enter Ernie, a dashing business owner played with such magnetism by Murphy’s regular Dylan McDermott, who offers Jack a job at his gas station. Ernie’s business, however, isn’t what it seems. Turns out, his gas station is also a male prostitution ring with customers ranging from A-list Hollywood stars to famous filmmakers. But the show never judges this business. In fact, sex is a big part of the story and like other Murphy’s shows, it is celebrated positively.
It’s through Ernie’s business that we’re also introduced to the other players. There’s Avis Samberg (Patti LuPone), the wife of Ace Studio head and a former silent actress; a closeted and struggling actor Rock Hudson (Jake Picking); and a gay black screenwriter named Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), whose script of a movie called Peg has just got greenlit by Ace Studio.
The person who will direct Archie’s script is a half-Asian director named Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), whose girlfriend Camille (Laura Harrier) works very hard to get the leading role for Peg against Avis’ own daughter Claire Wood (Samara Weaving). Inside the studio, there’s also an experienced producer and casting director, Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello); and Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor), who are ready to fight tooth and nail to get the picture made no matter what the risks are.
The first two episodes of the show focus on introducing these characters, but the direction of where the story might go is still unclear. At first, it looks like it’s about Jack and his journey of becoming an actor. Then it also looks like an homage to the glamour, glitz and moxie of the Golden Age without a meaty subject to explore.
While it’s true that two of those are integral to the story, after the third episode, Hollywood evolves into something more profound and hopeful — an ode to the marginalized people of Hollywood. And it all begins when Archie’s script of Peg, who is first pitched as a real-life drama about a white-skinned actress who took her own life by jumping off the Hollywood sign, is turned into Meg, a story about a black girl who faces the systemic racism inside the filmmaking industry.
Camille is set to be the female lead while Jack would be her love interest. But of course, it soon sparks a controversy all around the country. And it’s not just because Meg is the first movie from a major studio whose lead is a black woman but also because it is penned by a gay black man.
Avis, who after several circumstances becomes the head of the studio, is first reluctant to continue making the movie. She’s afraid that it will drain Ace Studio down to the toilet. But after she’s convinced by Ellen and Dick to follow her heart, and imagine the bold message that producing Meg would send to the industry and even the whole country, Avis eventually takes the risk.
The dynamic between LuPone, Taylor and Mantello is so electrifying. And the younger actors, especially Harrier and Pope, also give committed and nuanced performances in every scene.
Still, Hollywood is at its best when it addresses the issues of sexism, racism and homophobia that the show wants to tackle in the first place. Throughout the second half of the show, these characters face threats and even life-or-death situations. But it is by displaying those challenges that the show reminds us that challenges have always faced people of color, women and the LGBT community.
Progress has been made. Movies like Black Panther or Parasite have been triumphant at the Academy Awards. But judging from all the serious things that our society is still dealing with, it’s safe to say that progress is still not enough. It’s like two steps forward and five steps back.
Hollywood takes this irony and invites us to fantasize about what if the industry wasn’t afraid to take the leap of casting a black woman as the female lead decades ago? Would things have been different?
Of course, we’ll never know because, in reality, it didn’t happen. Hollywood never simplifies the answers to those questions using shallow options as well but it also never shies away from the fact that it might change the world and our society.
Erasing racism and homophobia is not an easy task to do and Hollywood never aims to do that in only seven hours. What the show offers, however, is a hopeful fantasy and a beautiful love letter to people like Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiac) and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah), who deserved their spotlight back then.
In between all that’s happening in the story, Hollywood also shows us the power of cinema and how it’s able to provide something that reality couldn’t. But more than that, the show also displays that movies also hold a bigger power.
“Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be,” Raymond declares at one moment in the first episode. “And if we change the way that movies are made, you take a chance and you make a different kind of story, I think you can change the world.”
Hollywood may not radically change the world with its conclusion. And some parts, especially the redemptive arc of Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), are misguided.
But in the end, the show’s optimism and sheer hope as it champions the marginalized voices of the industry shine really bright, making Hollywood an irresistible standout in Murphy’s universe, while providing great escapism from our horrific reality right now. (kes)
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