Few titles are as big or grand as “Hollywood,” the latest Ryan Murphy series for Netflix. Unfortunately, the title fits the project. “Hollywood” comes adorned with all the bells, whistles, and money that a streaming giant that doesn’t report ratings can afford. Its scope also makes it feel hollow, grandiose, and, at times, unfinished. Murphy’s fingerprints can be found all over the piece, for better and worse (though perhaps more of the latter). There’s plenty of personality. Yet, everything comes off blunt, laughable, or almost parody-esque. All of the many storylines all ladder up to one tired, done before idea: “Hollywood has a wholesome image, but is made by creeps.” Yep, that’s an actual line. There’s plenty of eye candy, in more ways than one. However, too much candy makes one sick.
We’re introduced to the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown through Jack Castello (David Corenswet), a WWII vet who wants to make it in the movies. Unfortunately, it turns out you can’t just show up and immediately become a movie star (who knew?). Desperate for money, Jack gets a job at a gas station. This isn’t an ordinary gas station though. When the patrons say “Dreamland,” the attendant hops in their car with them to service more than just their vehicle. Run by Ernie West (Dylan McDermott, operating at an 11), the gas station pimps out their line of handsome men to women and gay men alike. Jack only swings one way though. In order to get a gay counterpart, he pretends to be a cop and breaks up a gay porn theater. While there, he “arrests” Archie Colman (Jeremy Pope), an aspiring screenwriter and the one person of color in the theater, and enlists him to join him at the gas station.
This isn’t a story about Hollywood’s underground gay sex ring (that would be too interesting). Instead, the miniseries tells the story of a group of Hollywood dreamers who believe that diversity could change their industry forever. Archie has written a story called “Peg,” about Peg Entwistle, the girl who jumped from the Hollywood sign. Meanwhile, aspiring director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) and aspiring actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) have just gotten contracts with Ace Studios. However, Camille is finding it hard to get the roles she deserves, since the studio does not want to cast black women in leading roles. Through a series of circumstances involving a gay sex party at George Cukor’s house, Patti Lupone as a studio chief’s wife who visits “Dreamland” and lots of sanctimonious speeches, our cast of characters combine to make “Peg” a reality.
These fictional characters are woven in with some real Hollywood figures of the time. Archie Colman starts dating one of his “Dreamland” clients, Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking), an aspiring actor. Roy gets signed to talent agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), who rebrands Roy as “Rock Hudson” in a scene that is as groan-worthy as finding out where Han Solo got his name in “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” However, Henry demands more of his clients than good work, as he frequently makes Rock go to sex parties, sleepover at his place and watch his one-man performance of Salome.
In one of the most underused subplots, Michelle Krusiec plays Anna May Wong, a trailblazing Chinese actress who was relegated to broad caricatures at the time. Wong gets involved with “Peg,” as Raymond Ainsley admires her. He’s half-Pilipino and thinks its time that Asian cultures got to play more than just villains. Ainsley and Wong mention “The Good Earth” and how Luise Rainer won an Oscar for playing yellow-face. Asides like these make for the most interesting parts of “Hollywood” because they illustrate the systematic racism of an industry that wrongs the very people it pretends to give voice to. Unfortunately, racism, sexism, and homophobia are still alive and well today, though “Hollywood” seems to think these concerns died with the stars of the past.
Ryan Murphy uses revisionist history to posit what 1940s Hollywood would’ve looked like if people had today’s political correctness. Movies have a way of shaping public consciousness and generating empathy for people unlike ourselves. Why couldn’t one singlehandedly cure the world of racism, sexism, and homophobia? The rosy-colored view “Hollywood” has of the film “Peg” is generously naive. More accurately, it’s reductive. So many workers, activists, and everyday people struggled for decades to inch us closer and closer to something resembling equality. Still, to this day women are paid less than men, cops shoot unarmed black men and people blame COVID on China, just to name a few of the many sins of our world today. To speak more towards “Hollywood’s” interest, we still only have one black Best Actress winner. “Peg” couldn’t have solved everything.
Just a few years back, Ryan Murphy expertly recreated 1960s Hollywood in “Feud” to talk about how sexism and ageism fueled the war between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. It would’ve been incredible to see Murphy use his passion and acute attention to detail to bring to life another powerful Hollywood story. Karina Longworth has crafted 159 episodes around Old Hollywood legends on her podcast “You Must Remember This,” which I highly recommend. If Murphy wanted to talk about gay sex parties at George Cukor’s house or Anna Mae Wong, why not do a miniseries about those actual people. Why wrap these interesting locations and set pieces around a trite revisionist narrative filled with clunky lines and cardboard characters?
None of our central actors are able to make their optimism and “aw shucks” energy feel believable. Jeremy Pope equips himself the best, as he exposes indignation and anger that Archie feels towards Hollywood, an industry that wants to hide him in the shadows. He steals best in show even from the more seasoned actors of the group. Murphy-verse veterans like McDermott, Lupone and Parsons don’t just deliver their lines towards the rafters, they deliver them to the next county. In particular, Jim Parsons delivers each line as if he thinks it will become a catch phrase. It becomes exhausting and one-note as it goes on, though it fits with the show’s energy. “Hollywood” loves to repeat each line, but bigger, louder, and with more glistening abs.
It’s still worth noting the design elements of “Hollywood” are top tier. The costuming and production design are decadent and luxurious, but also betray themselves. There’s nothing underneath the polish, much like the Hollywood elites that run the show. “Hollywood” comes loaded with detail and tons of research into the period that makes it feel authentic and lived in. Here lies the problem. You have the sets, the details, and the passion for the early years of Hollywood. You even have famous people cast as real-life stars Anna Mae Wong, Rock Hudson, and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah, always a welcome presence). Why not make a project about them and their struggles in Hollywood? The truth is often stranger than fiction. More often than not, the truth is also much more interesting.
“Hollywood” premieres on Netflix on Friday, May 1st.
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