REVIEW – ‘Hollywood’ is a misguided mess

Since bursting onto the small screen in 2003 with the criminally underrated Nip/Tuck, writer/director/producer Ryan Murphy has been a dominant force in Tinsel Town, creating some of the best and worst (Scream Queens, anyone?) television shows of the last 17 years. With a penchant for crafting stories centred on minority groups the industry so often ignores, Murphy has blazed a fervent trail to shake up a town still set in the ways of eras gone by.

In perhaps his boldest offering to date, Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan formulate a revisionist twist on the golden age of movies with Netflix’s latest big-budget limited series, Hollywood; a fantastical reimagining of history that presents an alternate take on what the film industry could have been if its minority members were given the opportunities they deserved.

It’s a shame the result is all style and very little substance. A well-intentioned spin on an era known for its limited chances for women, people of colour, and members of the LGBTQ community, it’s confounding to find a series that shines a light on this very issue being predominantly led by a straight white male character. Everything this series is desperately attempting to say gets lost along the way, leaving a decidedly sour taste in your mouth. In short, Hollywood is an unmitigated, misguided mess.

Set during the late 1940s, Hollywood initially centres on Missouri farmboy and World War II veteran Jack Castello (David Corenswet), a wannabe actor with the brash bravado and misplaced confidence of every other wannabe actor in Los Angeles. With a doting pregnant wife, Henrietta (Maude Apatow) waiting at home, Jack strolls up to the pearly gates of Ace Studios expecting to literally walk into a major motion picture. Shock horror – Jack’s plan doesn’t come to fruition, leaving his oversized ego badly bruised.

While drowning his sorrows at a local bar, Jack crossed paths with failed actor Ernie (an endlessly charming turn from Dylan McDermott), the smooth-talking owner of the Golden Tip (double entendre alert) gas station that moonlights as a high-end brothel, known by the secret codename “Dreamland.” Ernie’s bevy of handsome attendants service everyone in Tinsel Town from closeted gay stars to lonely Hollywood wives, which is how Jack comes to meet Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone, magnificent as always), a former silent movie star and frustrated wife of Ace Studios’ head honcho Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner).

Taking an instant shining to Jack, Avis agrees to help the young actor land auditions and meet the right people. Just as everything appears to be going Jack’s way, Ernie insists he service a male client, which the straight-laced farmboy can’t bring himself to do. Instead, Jack recruits gay, black aspiring screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) for the position. Doe-eyed Jack has arrived in Hollywood, clutching the script he’s penned, centred on Millicent “Peg” Entwistle, the real-life failed actress who infamously suicided by leaping from the Hollywoodland sign in 1932.

Meanwhile, up-and-coming director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) is dreaming of being the spearhead of a new progressive moment in Hollywood alongside his black actress girlfriend, Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), who’s currently relegated to playing stereotypical “mammy” maid roles. As a half-Asian man himself, Raymond empathises with the industry’s treatment of actress Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiac), the real-life Chinese American movie star who was cruelly overlooked for the lead role of O-Lan in The Good Earth.

In a shameful moment in Hollywood history, the role instead went to white actress Luise Rainer, who would later win an Academy Award for her performance. Promising to return Anna May to the spotlight, Raymond vows to find the right role for the actress and capture the Oscar she should have won. Finally, there’s naive, handsome Roy Fitzgerald (Jack Picking), a sweet-natured former sailor who becomes the latest “it boy” under the tutelage of scrupulous Hollywood agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons, chewing every piece of scenery in sight), who quickly changes Roy’s name to the more magnetic Rock Hudson.

If it isn’t already abundantly clear, one of the most curious aspects of Hollywood is Murphy’s chaotic blending of factual film history and its identities with pure fiction in a manner that never once bothers to differentiate between the two. For those of us with deep knowledge of Hollywood history, these twists will be obvious. For those uninitiated, the entire program may feel like a docu-series that will be increasingly confusing as the series follows a path of incredible progress for minorities no one would believe actually occurred in the 1940s.

Murphy’s intent of crafting such a dream-like fantasy of what Hollywood could (and should) have been remains consistently unclear. On one hand, he appears to be chastising the film industry for its lack of social change, while at the same time celebrating the magic of the silver screen and the titular town itself. As the series moves further into a rosy alternate history of Hollywood, where everything that went wrong in true history actually goes right, it loses complete control over what the series potentially could have said.

As wonderful as it is to see a black actress permitted to audition for a lead role originally written for a white actress or two gay men holding hands on the Oscars red carpet, Murphy’s maudlin fantasy feels so dreadfully disingenuous to the factual plight of those minorities who actually lived and suffered through this period. As a dose of glitzy escapist television, it works wonderfully well, but it rarely escapes your mind you’re watching pure fiction that’s doing its utmost to bury the pain of the past in bizarrely giddy fashion.

The racial and gender inequality in Hollywood still permeates to this day. In the 1940s, it was far worse. Murphy occasionally references historical moments of Hollywood’s shameful past including its treatment of minority actresses like Wong and Hattie McDaniel, who was forced to wait outside the 12th Academy Awards on the night she won Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind. But when such moments are mixed into a fictitious world of remarkably quick social progress, their struggles fade further into the background.

By showcasing a revisionist Hollywood that miraculously changed its stance on black people, gay men, and women of a certain age thanks to the vim and vigour of a few bright-eyed starlets almost suggests those who were alive at the time simply weren’t trying hard enough. If Murphy wanted to point the finger of blame at an industry beset by systemic racism, homophobia, and misogyny, why paint a fictional portrait where all that evaporated by little more than happenstance? Why not create a series that showed the industry for was it was 70 years ago, and, more importantly, still is?

If you can somehow look beyond the confusing mixed messages of the narrative, Hollywood is another of Murphy’s lavish period productions, dripping with spectacular costume design from Lou Eyrich and Sarah Evelyn and production design by Matthew Flood Ferguson that evokes an iconic era of Hollywood glamour and style. It’s gorgeous production values mask the show’s shallow storyline effectively enough to briefly take your mind off other frustrations.

As for the cast, the younger performers try their utmost with the paper-thin characters Murphy has crafted for them. After dazzling in his Emmy-winning performance in Murphy’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, it’s deeply disappointing to see Criss saddled with a flat character with little purpose but to plod the narrative from A to B. Corenswet tries his utmost to elevate Jack beyond his wooden persona, but it’s difficult to care about a character whose toughest injustice in life is people considering him to be dumb.

Harrier continues to prove she’s one to watch, offering an affecting portrait of an actress consistently undermined by the industry’s treatment of black actresses. But as much as the series attempts to beat you over the head with the idea of Raymond and Camille being desperately in love, Criss and Harrier never quite capture the right chemistry to make it work.

Pope and Picking make a terrific pair of polar opposite gay men whose burgeoning relationship takes them both by surprise. In the series’ greatest romance, both Archie and Roy/Rock teach each other plenty of valuable life lessons, offering both performers a blooming character arc that’s often enchanting. However, the real scene-stealer proves to be Samara Weaving, as a rival actress desperate to break free of her familial shackles. Weaving’s character arc proves to be far more interesting and juicy than practically anyone else in the show. Aided by sublime hair and make-up design, Weaving is one of the few performers who looks like she genuinely belongs in the glamourous world of 1940s Hollywood.

What ultimately saves Hollywood is its veteran cast, who offer sublime performances across the board. Frankly, the show may have been a greater success if it focused more heavily on the older generation. It should come as no surprise to learn LuPone commands every single moment she’s given, with the fierce determination and no-nonsense attitude the Broadway legend brings to every role. And Parsons barks his way through his portrayal of a nefarious true-life Hollywood figure with echoes of Harvey Weinstein. It’s the kind of bombastic, showy performance that will likely see him net his umpteenth Emmy Award later this year, even if the bizarre redemption arc for Willson feels rather offensive.

Holland Taylor and Joe Mantello sparkle as a pair of Hollywood stalwarts whose decades-long friendship is wonderfully endearing. Taylor is surprisingly warm as a vivacious acting coach with an eye for the next big thing. Mantello is the beleaguered production chief under the oafish Ace, who longs for the studio to finally try something new. Mantello’s arch ultimately proves rather heartbreaking, which the veteran performer captures with deft skill. The platonic chemistry between Taylor and Mantello is magnetic, with the pair playing in perfect harmony throughout numerous deliciously entertaining spats.

As cliché as McDermott’s role may be, he brings such a dapper charm to Ernie that’s impossible to resist. McDermott manages to completely steal the show with a character full of heart and unexpected pathos. It must be mentioned the idea of a gas station moonlighting as a brothel borrows heavily from the life of infamous Hollywood figure Scotty Bowers, whose 1965 expose Hollywood Babylon detailed the scandalous details of the industry’s elite including his time working as a prostitute/pimp at a Hollywood Boulevard gas station. It’s rather unfathomable the late Bowers wasn’t given some form of adaptation credit here.

In a piece of rather meta casting, Mira Sorvino appears in a small role as a faded actress whose career is rapidly slipping away. With it being well-known Sorvino’s career was ruined by Weinstein after sexually assaulted the actress, the parallels between life and art are inescapable. It adds a level of emotional resonance to a character with little narrative purpose, almost suggesting Murphy added the role purely as a path of redemption for what Sorvino has endured.

Ultimately, Hollywood feels like a self-congratulatory dream of what Tinsel Town would have looked like if someone like Murphy had been around in the 1940s. Yes, it would have been wonderful if Murphy’s idealistic vision of Hollywood’s Golden Age was filled with people of colour, women in power, and men who weren’t forced to hide in the closet. But essentially ignoring history with a fluffy fantasy is borderline insulting, particularly in an industry that still regularly performs the same mistakes of its past.

While it longs to be a biting indictment of Hollywood’s racist, sexist, and bigoted past, the series feels more like Murphy’s love letter to the film industry than anything else. There are tragic and shameful stories of this era that deserve our focus. By painting over them with his rainbow-coloured fantasy, Murphy rewrites history to his own detriment. For all its good intentions, Hollywood simply doesn’t offer anything beyond a farcical dream that still hasn’t come true.

Distributor: Netflix
Cast: David Corenswet, Darren Criss, Laura Harrier, Joe Mantello, Dylan McDermott, Jake Picking, Jeremy Pope, Holland Taylor, Samara Weaving, Jim Parsons, Patti LuPone
Directors: Daniel Minahan, Ryan Murphy
Producer: Eryn Krueger Mekash
Creators: Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy
Cinematography: Simon Dennis, Blake McClure
Production Design: Matthew Flood Ferguson
Costume Design: Lou Eyrich, Sarah Evelyn
Music: Julian Drucker

Editing: Suzanne Spangler
Running Time: 7 episodes, averaging 50 minutes each
Release Date: 1st May 2020 (Australia)