‘Hollywood’ Clumsily Rewrites History

Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee and American Horror Story, has a new seven-episode series up on Netflix, so I gave it a look. Hollywood (co-created with Ian Brennan) turned out to be one of the more frustrating productions I’ve seen in a while. I found it so annoying, in fact, that I’m going to complain about it in detail, so from here on out, it’s all [SPOILERS] all the way down.

To begin with the good stuff, let me say that Hollywood starts off solidly, with an excellent cast and a gorgeous look; the actors all do a fantastic job (though I doubt Rock Hudson was half the stumbling hick they make him out to be), the costumes and hairstyles are perfect, and the whole thing is filmed with the kind of warm light and deep shadows that made George Hurrell a legend. The first episode completely hooked my bride and I, and we binge-watched all seven episodes in two days.

After that first episode, Hollywood gradually becomes more and more detached from reality, finally becoming an outright fantasy, so that by episode 7 it has fallen victim to a self-induced Mandela Effect; it gleefully jumps the carefully-established rails of reality into an alternate dimension, a reality in which a few brave souls taking a courageous stand for one film somehow completely eliminate American racism and homophobia in a single red carpet premiere.

Poster for 'Hollywood'

The plot, as succinctly as I can summarize it:

The series, partially based on / inspired by / swiped from Scotty Bower’s autobiography, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood, starts off in 1946, following Jack (David Corenswet), a WWII veteran trying to get his break in Hollywood. Economic necessity forces him to abandon his dream and take a job; he meets Ernie (Dylan McDermott), owner of a local gas station, who hires him immediately. As it turns out, Ernie’s real business is as a pimp to the rich and powerful, and all the station’s employees are his stable of talent. The people he meets while servicing the women of Hollywood ultimately give him the breaks he had been trying to find.

The boys of the Gold Tip Gas station.
The boys of the Gold Tip Gas station.

When Jack is sent to serve a male client, he balks; threatened with firing, Jack recruits Archie (Jeremy Pope), a young, gay, black would-be screenwriter who hustles on the side to make ends meet, and that’s where Murphy gets to the story he really wants to tell. Murphy brings in a large number of characters in very short order, some of which are fictional and the rest a collection of nearly every known gay, bisexual, and/or non-white person in show biz at the time, and puts his plot in motion.

Archie has written a script telling the story of Peg Entwistle, the young actress who had jumped to her death from the Hollywood sign in 1932. His script has been optioned by Ace Pictures, but he holds little hope of seeing it made if the studio finds out it was written by a black man. Raymond (Darren Criss), a would-be director, chooses Peg as his debut film. Ray’s African-American girlfriend, Camille (Laura Harrier), growing increasingly frustrated with the stereotyped maid roles she is given to play, suggests that Ray rewrite Peg into Meg, a story about a young black actress who tries and fails to make it in Hollywood, with her in the lead role.

Darren Criss as Ray in 'Hollywood'
Ray (Darren Criss) makes it past the studio gates.

The series follows the ups and downs of the film’s production while also following the personal lives of a diverse group of characters; along with Jack and his pregnant wife Henrietta (Maude Apatow), there’s Claire (Samara Weaving), another actress looking for her big break, who sees that Jack has star potential and that being partnered with him will advance her career as well; Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking), a recent arrival to Hollywood soon to be renamed Rock Hudson, who becomes Archie’s boyfriend; Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), a powerful and predatory agent-manager who routinely sexually assaults his handsome young clients, including Roy; Avis (Patti Lupone), a client of Ernie’s, the bored wife of Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner), president of Ace Pictures; Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello), the deeply-closeted head of production at Ace; Ellen Kinkaid (Holland Taylor) the supervisor of Ace’s contract players; and Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), the alcoholic has-been actress who was once the first Asian-American movie star, who gets a shot at a comeback in Meg.

Jim Parsons in 'Hollywood'
Jim Parsons as sexual predator Henry Willson

As Meg moves forward, the studio faces opposition and boycotts due to the film’s featuring of a black leading lady and an interracial love story, but the filmmakers decide to be bold and fearless, and the movie is a massive hit, wins several Oscars, and completely changes the face of Hollywood, and by extension, all of American society. Ray and Archie’s next film will be a gay love story that begins at a gas station/brothel.

To continue with the good stuff, I want to single out certain performers for their stellar work. Joe Mantello’s Dick is the show’s most accurate portrayal of what life for a gay man in 1947 would have been like, and he captures every nuance of the shame and misery of the repression under which he lives. His scenes with Jake Picking and Holland Taylor are heartbreaking. His polar opposite in the story, the rapacious and abusive Henry, is brought to life by Jim Parsons in a performance as far away from Sheldon Cooper as it’s possible to get. Jeremy Pope is electric as Archie, whether selling his script or himself, and his speech at the end is so humble and moving that it almost sells the fantasy story. All of the women turn in spectacular performances; Holland Taylor’s Ellen is equal parts den mother, drill sergeant, desperately lonely woman, and shrewd studio executive, sometimes all at the same time, and Patti Lupone owns the screen in every scene she’s in, whether flirting with her gigolo or taking over the studio. Samara Weaving perfectly captures the period with a performance evocative of all the tough-but-vulnerable women of ’40s films from Veronica Lake to Barbara Stanwyck, and Laura Harrier’s Camille reveals acting chops she never got to show as Liz Allen in the Spider-Man films. Nobody can complain about the casting, directing, or performances in Hollywood.

Samara Weaving and Laura Harrier in 'Hollywood'
Samara Weaving and Laura Harrier as Claire and Camille in ‘Hollywood’

The writing is pretty solid as well, except for the central conceit, and that’s entirely where the problem lies for me. Of course, as a cis-het pale male, this story isn’t written for me, and I’m not hungry for it the way its intended audience might be. Nonetheless, I think the issues I raise below deserve consideration.

Murphy certainly has the right to tell whatever story he wants, and certainly there is an audience for alternate history stories, given the popularity of Tarantino’s last few films. And while his version of Hollywood is much more appealing than the one several of his characters lived through, it feels like a cheat.

A major objection for me is the inherent whitewashing (for lack of a better word) required to put forth the premise. In order for this story to work, the culture of bigotry in the background has to be a lot milder and more toothless than it actually was. The interracial couple at the center of Meg has to be merely distasteful to the public, and not an open violation of anti-miscegenation laws that could have seen the filmmakers and actors thrown in jail. (Perez v. Sharp overturned California’s prohibition a year after the events of the film.)

Laura Harrier and Darren Criss in 'Hollywood'
Laura Harrier and Darren Criss are a couple of happy outlaws in ‘Hollywood’

An example: one of the minor plot points in Hollywood focuses on the fact that in 1937, Anna May Wong was passed over for the lead role in The Good Earth, a film set in China in which the lead characters are Chinese. What Hollywood does not mention is why the only established Chinese-American actress in Hollywood was disregarded in favor of Vienna-born Luise Rainer: casting her in the role was illegal. Both the law and the Production Code Administration (PCA) forbade any depiction of interracial romance. Without a PCA seal, the studio would not release a film and theaters would not screen it if they did. It was forbidden for a white actor and an Asian actor to portray a married couple, even if the white actor was playing an Asian character in full yellowface makeup. Since the male lead was Paul Muni, a Ukraine-born white man and a much bigger star, Wong could not be allowed to have the role. That’s how deep the prejudice went and how strictly it was enforced. The taboo against interracial romance on film would not be broken until ten years later with 1957’s Island in the Sun.

Luise Rainer and Paul Muni in 'The Good Earth'
Luise Rainer and Paul Muni as O-Lan and Wang Lung; a Viennese and a Ukranian as Chinese farmers. Yeah, that happened.

The storyline focusing on Rock Hudson’s relationship with Archie is a double-serving of the same; not only were interracial relationships illegal both onscreen and off, but publicly declaring one’s sexual orientation and relationship, as they do in the series, would have likely led to jail time for both, as well as the very real possibility of one or both being declared mentally ill, institutionalized, and possibly subjected to electroshock and even chemical castration. Homosexuality was classified as a mental illness until 1973, when the American Psychiatry Association removed it from the second edition of the DSM. It was not just a matter of offending a few uptight bigots; taking the stand that they do would have meant taking their lives in their hands, and words about “not accepting shame” were not really going to change much.

At the time Hollywood is set, there were a lot of movies being made that challenged and chipped away at the institutionalized racism and homophobia of the time, but it took decades of fighting for every inch gained, with constant setbacks along the way. The year that Meg is shown nearly sweeping the Oscars, the real-life films that were actually nominated reveal some of what was going on.

Gentleman's Agreement poster

The most obvious example is Gentleman’s Agreement, in which Gregory Peck plays a journalist who goes undercover, masquerading as Jewish in order to write about widespread and institutional antisemitism. The film was a huge success and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three, including Best Picture. So naturally, this film must have caused an immediate and irreversible change in American society, ending antisemitism once and for all, right?

Elia Kazan testifying before HUAC, 1947
Elia Kazan testifying before HUAC, 1947.

Not so much. In fact, the immediate result of the film was that everyone involved came under scrutiny by the House Un-American Activities Committee for supposedly creating “communist propaganda”; producer Darryl F. Zanuck, director Elia Kazan, and stars John Garfield and Anne Revere were called to testify. Revere and Garfield refused to cooperate and were blacklisted. Garfield died of a heart attack at age 39 the night before he was scheduled to be questioned a second time, and Revere would not appear in any theatrical films from 1951 to 1970. Kazan cooperated and named eight names, and he is still hated by many in the film industry 70 years later.

Another film nominated for Academy Awards that year was Crossfire, a film noir drama that received five Oscar nominations. The plot is once again antisemitism, this time in the form of an investigation of a murder in which the victim was beaten to death for being Jewish. The interesting part here is that the story was changed from the novel on which it was based, The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks; in the book, the man was murdered for being gay. They couldn’t put that into a film in 1947, because it violated the PCA, as homosexuality was labeled criminal sexual perversion. Depictions of gay relationships were also risky due to what was at the time called “The Lavender Scare,” in which gay employees in government jobs and elsewhere were investigated, exposed, fired and prosecuted, due to the government’s belief that their sexuality made them a security risk, either because of imagined disloyalty to the US, or heightened risk of susceptibility to blackmail and extortion.

And once again, everyone involved in Crossfire found themselves questioned by HUAC. Being against bigotry was seen as a sign of communism. Edward Dmytryk and Adrian Scott, the director and producer, were blacklisted and jailed as part of the infamous “Hollywood 10“.

That is exactly what would have happened to everyone involved with Meg.

At the same time, Hollywood was attempting to advance progressive ideas as well as they could under the repressive circumstances; another film nominated that year, The Farmer’s Daughter, tells the story of a country girl who moves to the big city, gets involved in politics, and is elected to the US House of Representatives.

Loretta Young won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance. (At the time, there were only ten women in the House and none in the Senate.) Other films that year included The Foxes of Harrow, in which an Irish gambler, born illegitimately, buys his way into society in pre-Civil War New Orleans, touching on issues of class and status; and Forever Amber, a historic drama based on a banned book, about an illegitimate orphan girl who uses her sexuality to climb to the top of British society, at one point becoming mistress to Charles II of England. The film was banned by the National Legion of Decency. The same year saw a nomination for a documentary, The World is Rich, which examined world hunger and food distribution issues following World War II, taking a dim view of the economics that caused these issues.

Michelle Krusiec and Laura Harrier in 'Hollywood'
Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) and Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) attend Oscar Night in the “Hollywood Ending” of episode 7.

The final episode of Hollywood, titled “Hollywood Ending,” is less an inspiring “wouldn’t it be wonderful” happy ending than a denial of the real history, and given that Joe McCarthy is only two years away from taking over the HUAC [EDIT: McCarthy was, of course, a Senator, and had no direct role in HUAC; he ran the parallel Senate investigations, magnifying the “Red Scare” and intensifying the Blacklist.], there’s a pretty heavy black cloud hanging over that magical finale.

The inspirational and aspirational fantasy that Hollywood presents might resonate deeply with women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people in a way that I can only observe second-hand, but I think it may not resonate so strongly with those who are aware of the realities of the time and place in question. Success comes too easily and at relatively little cost for the characters, especially when compared to the destroyed lives and careers that accompanied a great many other brave souls’ attempts to travel on the path that Murphy’s cast strolls down. Along the way, a lot of real stories of struggle and triumph are passed by or paved over.

As I said, I think it’s a cheat, and I think it’s a dangerous one. It utterly ignores or misrepresents what was really going on at the time and how deeply entrenched the forces of bigotry and hate were, and in the process denigrates and dismisses the pioneers who paid dearly to bring about the incremental changes that Murphy blithely leapfrogs over. One could argue that Murphy is suggesting that the real world version of the battle for acceptance and tolerance took so long simply because the gay and minority people in the industry just didn’t try hard enough. Since we are shown a long parade of gay actors and celebrities of the time, from Cole Porter to Tallulah Bankhead, Hollywood inadvertently condemns the very people it tries to celebrate, implying that the lack of progress was because they were more interested in furtive hookups behind a gas station and opulent orgies in George Cukor’s swimming pool than in fighting for social justice. Gee, if only people like Dorothy Dandridge had been willing to fight for equality, there might have been some progress made.

Beyond that, the story is hopelessly naive in its proposition that one movie would change the whole country. Remember in 2008, when some people thought racism was over because Barack Obama won the presidency? How long did the backlash take to get rolling, and how heavily did it hit? Does Ryan Murphy, seriously posit that a single controversial film would be so revolutionary that it would overcome all legal and societal obstacles? Are all the racists just going to see the movie and say “oops, my bad” and stop being racist? When they learn that the screenwriter and one of the cast members are gay, are all the homophobes going to just shrug and say “gosh, I sure was wrong about them”? Hollywood seems to imply so.

We currently live in a world dominated by “fake news” and willful misrepresentation of history; by creating an alternate history that depends on distorting the facts that led up to his moment of divergence from reality, Murphy provides support to those who claim that the bigotry of the past was as trivial and ultimately powerless as he portrays it. Systemic structural bigotry with the force of law behind it was a very real thing, and it remained a very real thing for decades to follow the period in which this series is set. In order to make this story plausible without cheating, Murphy would have had to first invent a way to eliminate those laws and make the biggest obstacle merely societal disapproval and financial risk. Handwaving away the laws and institutions such as the PCA and HUAC does a disservice to the real people who persevered in the face of those things.

A true Hollywood story that accurately showed the ugly reality of 1947 and the courage of those who fought to bring about an industry and culture that’s open enough to produce Murphy’s glib fantasy story would be a far better and more interesting series than the one we got.

On the other hand, almost all the barriers that Hollywood trivializes in order to get to its happy ending are now gone. Hollywood can be taken as a direct call to action couched in fantasy terms, that Murphy is telling his contemporaries to step up and do what the people of 1947 couldn’t do: tell the stories that they couldn’t tell, give voice to the people who were previously silenced, and create the kind of entertainment industry that serves and reflects everyone. Looked at that way, Hollywood succeeds far more than as a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

11 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Haven’t seen this but it is symptomatic of why I skip most so-called “historical” dramas or biopics, unless they get really great press. Hollywood would rather create this fantasy world then tell the real story or twist and manipulate the story to fit into some other agenda. It happens in the good films and the bad are so abysmal as to not be worth mentioning.

    There is a big difference between dramatic license and condensing multiple figures into a composite character and fabricating events to fit a political narrative or social agenda that had nothing to do with the real story. Creating a complete fantasy world where people don’t struggle to create some uplifting alternate world just does a disservice to everyone who made real sacrifices. In my eyes it is as bad as war films that present killing as some glorious crusade and that battles were bloodless. I don’t mind an alternate world if it makes clear that it is an alternate world that puts the real one in contrast. An interesting example is Warren Ellis’ Ministry of Space mini-series. It presents a world where the British got to German rocket scientists first and won the space race. However, underneath the Dan Dare facade, you learn of every dirty decision that fueled the project and what the world might be like if Britain hadn’t lost its colonies after the war.

  2. A friend of mine created an alternate reality based on the idea that if we never dropped the bomb on Japan, nuclear power would be the norm now. In order to do that honestly, he had to start the story in colonial days, with an end to slavery in 1789, women getting the vote during the Adams Administration, and a peaceful dividing of North America with the native tribes, resulting in about half of what is now the US instead being known as the White Feather Nation. The reason is simply that all those examples of systemic oppression were driven by fear, and so much time and resources went into propping them up that it would have stalled the timeline. In order for a nuclear-powered 1950s, you need development of nuclear power to start a few decades earlier. He had it start with Tesla.

    If Ryan Murphy wanted to get to this story honestly, he needed to start the story a lot earlier. At the absolute latest, he would have had to have prevented the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the inciting incident that triggered the frantic scramble for power on the part of the Soviet Union. He would have had to prevent the formation of HUAC, and probably had Hollywood begin to self-regulate their output prior to the invention of the Hays Code (later known as the PCA). Wishing all those things away as he did is dishonest.

  3. “The inspirational and aspirational fantasy that Hollywood presents might resonate deeply with women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people in a way that I can only observe second-hand, but I think it may not resonate so strongly with those who are aware of the realities of the time and place in question. ”

    I would guess the groups you reference are perfectly aware of those realities. And I don’t think it’s so unreasonable to embrace a fantasy that defies reality. Kids movies do it (small boy successfully defeats space aliens/evil wizard!). Lots of movies about white guys do it (ordinary guy thwarts international conspiracy and gets hot woman!).
    Whether they’ll like this fantasy I have no idea — quite possibly some will, some won’t.

    I actually have a short story in the submission process in which gay marriage (and magic) are normal and unremarkable in 1950s US. But I decided it made more sense to just present it as an alternative reality than try to rationalize why it happened.

    I’m now rather curious to watch Hollywood, just to see what I think of it. I can live with historical inaccuracy or flawed world-building if the characters or story are interesting enough (Motherland: Fort Salem for instance) but I’m not a fan of “big speech changes everyones’ hearts and minds” which is what this sounds like.

  4. Gareth3

    As far as “representation matters”, the really depressing example is the Supergirl TV show. It was a outspoken feminist show from the beginning, proudly standing up for the dignity and independence of all women. It’s also the show where the showrunner was sexually harassing the female employees for years, and where the lead’s husband (and guest star on the show) beat her so badly she nearly lost a eye. Making the show doesn’t seem to have changed these men’s behaviour, so why should we expect watching it to change society?

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