TV review: Ryan Murphy reimagines golden age of ‘Hollywood’
“Hollywood,” a provocative new limited series from Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, follows a group of aspiring actors and filmmakers trying to make it in post-World War II Tinseltown - no matter the cost. It debuts May 1, on Netflix.
Historians are fond of calling the decade following World War II “the Golden Age” of movies. And it’s hard to argue. Yet to have been part of it you mostly had to be white, straight and preferably male. But what if it had been a time in which racism, sexism and homophobia didn’t exist? What if it was like “Hollywood,” the Netflix miniseries recasting post-war Tinseltown as a workplace where inclusion remains an obstacle, but one that can be conquered by those who simply dared?
Picture Rock Hudson emerging from the closet in 1948 and walking the Red Carpet holding hands with his African American lover; or, a superb talent like Dorothy Dandridge beating out Anne Baxter for the role of the conniving ingénue in “All about Eve.” Co-creators Ryan Murphy (“Glee”) and Ian Brennan vividly conjure such an environment with their riveting seven-part saga in which Hollywood really IS a Dreamland in which every story has a “happy ending” - in more ways than one.
Murphy, whose Hollywood epic “Feud: Bette and Joan” scored a phenomenal 18 Emmy nominations, again delivers an absorbing showbiz-set entertainment brimming with striking visuals, flawless acting and a story reverberating with haunting echoes of the past tempered with shimmering beacons toward the future. It’s both a love letter and an indictment of an industry fueled by the hypocrisy of a business model commanding idyllic fantasies mass-produced by a despotic factory system veering toward slavery. And that’s how “Hollywood” begins. It’s what life actually was in the late 1940s: creativity crushed, freedoms scant and sex all but limited to the casting couch.
You feel the repression in every corner, as young hopefuls like David Corenswet’s war hero, Jack, is forced to scrounge while waiting to be discovered. Desperate, he’s forced to trade on his only monetary value - his looks - by selling his body to the closeted glitterati frequenting a very special Hollywood gas station where getting filled up takes on a whole new meaning. Operated by the charming, dashing Ernie (Dylan McDermott, at his career-best), the Golden Tip is very much at one with the real-life “service” station run by Scotty Bowers on Hollywood Boulevard in the years following WWII.
In his tell-all book, “Full Service,” Bowers named names and chronicled many a same-sex or extramarital hook-up - all kept hush-hush until the last of his famous clients (Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Rock Hudson, Walter Pigeon, George Cukor, et.al.) went to their reward. No different here, although the Golden Tip is a tad too spotless for a grease shop. But then, it’s more of a way station Jack is recruited to work at between serving motorists the ilk of Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone, outstanding), the sex-starved wife of bombastic studio mogul Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner, also terrific). All she needs to do is pull up in her Packard and seductively utter the magic word, “Dreamland,” to summon Jack for some afternoon delight in the luxury of the exclusive Beverly Hills Hotel.
All’s good - until Ernie asks Jack to take on a male client - Cole Porter, no less - outback in the trysting trailer. “No way,” says Jack. But the hundred bucks he earns per client is too good to refuse, so he recruits Archie Coleman (“Ain’t too Proud” Tony-nominee Jeremy Pope), a gay black screenwriter who agrees to take the jobs Jack won’t. That includes tending to a fledgling actor named Roy (rugged newcomer Jake Picking), who will soon go by the pseudonym of Rock Hudson.
Hudson is the first of a host of “fictionalized” versions of real stars popping up in a screenplay that Murphy has accurately labeled “faction.” Before we’re through, such luminaries as Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), Vivien Leigh (Katie McGuiness), Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifa) and last but not least, notorious Hollywood agent Henry Willson (a wonderfully nasty and gruff Jim Parsons), will to varying degrees make their presence known. It’s a toss-up whether Parsons’ over-the-top turn causes the miniseries to lag or soar. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder. But I bought in - fully. Either way, he’s the guy you walk away remembering most. Give him the Emmy - now!
Still, it’s the unlikely pairing of the three amigos - Jack, Archie and Rock - who form the nucleus for the story within the story: A long-rejected treatment by Archie titled “Peg” based on the tragic life of Peg Entwistle, the frustrated, jobless 24-year-old blonde starlet who famously threw herself off the top of the Hollywoodland sign in September 1932. Via a twist of fate, Avis finds herself cast as the first female studio boss, and the first picture she greenlights is “Peg” - now rechristened “Meg.” Joining in on the risky endeavor is hotshot rookie director Raymond Ainsley, a revolutionary exceedingly proud of his mixed-race heritage (half white, half Filipino) just like the actor playing him, Darren Criss, the Emmy-winner from Murphy’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.”
As luck (and screenwriters) would have it, his leading lady just happens to be his girlfriend, Camille, an African American actress nicely played by Laura Harrier channeling Lena Horne and Dandridge, who unlike her were unfairly defined by their skin color. In most stories, Camille’s trailblazing would demand most of the focus, but not here. Rather, she’s just another cog in a think-outside-the-box strategy that also includes Avis’ spotlight-chasing daughter, Claire (Samara Weaving), and closeted, no-nonsense production chief, Dick (Joe Mantello), and his adoring assistant, Ellen (Holland Taylor, marvelous).
Like the thespians in “Boogie Nights,” all grudges and petty differences are put aside to form an unbreakable familial bond typical of Murphy’s previous creations, “Pose” and “Glee.” Along with Brennan, he creates a plethora of unique, colorful characters, whip smart and undaunted in their belief in themselves. Their dialogue - frank, to the point and as blue as premium streaming will allow - is routinely delicious, with Latifa’s scoring the best moment when her Haddie McDaniel recounts how the best day of her life was also the worst, when a racist Academy refused to seat her with her fellow nominees the night she won her Oscar. It’s a stirring, powerful speech that sends shivers of both shame and pride. And Latifa flat nails it.
Over the course of filming “Meg,” such taboos as gay and interracial lovemaking are tossed aside to yield a resplendent sexual catharsis. Ditto for the subtle affronts raised against the ugliness of bigotry. It’s thrilling to watch, as you enter your own special “Dreamland,” where for seven, too-short episodes you’re presented with not just the make-believe we love so much, but a verisimilitude and an intimacy lending power to a story unafraid to color outside the lines. Like Tarantino’s strikingly similar “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” this reshoot of history is mere fantasy, but oh how you wish it were all true.
Al Alexander may be reached at email@example.com.
Cast includes Patti LuPone, Jim Parsons, Darren Criss, Rob Reiner, Holland Taylor, Dylan McDermott, David Corenswet, Jeremy Pope, Jake Picking, Laura Harrier, Queen Latifa and Samara Weaving. A seven-part limited series debuting Friday on Netflix.