Since the birth of the studio system, Hollywood has worn two faces.
The impossible glamour of names up in lights suggests a fairy tale to would-be actors who head there in droves, and all too often wind up waiting tables.
Theirs is not the only struggle, with the mercenary machinery of the industry thriving on the cruel abuse of stars long before Harvey Weinstein came onto the scene.
Judy Garland was worked to the bone from childhood, fed suspicious diet pills that stole her sleep. We all know what happened to Marilyn Monroe. People of colour were locked out of anything but stereotypes, and queer people forced to lead double lives.
These secret struggles offer prime dramatic material. Which is why Ryan Murphy’s well-intentioned Netflix drama Hollywood, a rewrite of the Golden Age, winds up feeling misguided. “I wanted to give some people who were dealt a terrible hand by Hollywood a happy ending,” he told the New York Post.
A commendable goal on paper, he and co-creator Ian Brennan have history. They depicted youthful ambition in Glee. Murphy explored the struggle of queer and non-white dancers in Pose, and delivered razor camp Hollywood savagery in the magnificent Feud, pitting Jessica Lange’s Joan Crawford against Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis.
Drawing inspiration from the wild stories of one Scotty Bowers’ eye-popping memoir Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars and doco Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood was promising too.
Claiming to be the most well-connected pimp in history, Bowers ran a gas station as a front for his fix-up business, connecting stars and studio bigwigs with whatever pumped their engine. He claims Katharine Hepburn, Rock Hudson, Cary Grant and Vivien Leigh as clients.
Racy material for sure, sadly Hollywood is a strangely chaste affair.
Dylan McDermott’s a good fit as Ernie West, a fusion of ex-marine Bowers and one of his alleged clients, Clark Gable. But the gas station’s sorely underused. It does provide a magnificent entry Broadway and screen star Patti LuPone. She’s Hollywood’s clear stand-out as Avis Amberg, an ex-silent movie star and frustrated wife of a philandering movie studio boss.
Hooking up with aspiring young actor Jack Castello, played by David Correnswet, he’s essentially an even tamer version of Bowers. Married with twins on the way, he has the hots for Avis’ daughter, Claire (Aussie Samara Weaving, surprisingly underwhelming).
Rather than focus on Hollywood sex workers hoping to land a lead role, Murphy instead waves a magic wand. Poof, ‘what if these raunchy rendezvous sparked a progressive movement that transforms Hollywood in ways that still elude the system today?’
So Avis’ power unexpectedly increases. Laura Harrier’s contract actor Camille Washington, who is biracial, suddenly gets a shot at the big time. So does her partner, emerging director Raymond Ainsley. Played by charismatic Darren Criss, (Glee, American Crime Story) he’s an Asian-American who can pass as white, to the benefit of his career. It’s the show’s most interesting angle, barely explored.
If Murphy’s impressive creative team, including writer, director and trans activist Janet Mock (Pose) and Fosse/Verdon director Jessica Yu, had stuck with fictional characters, they may have pulled off this soapy, feel-good fluff. Where Hollywood gets icky is the dubious decision to rewrite real lives.
Michelle Krusiec plays Anna May Wong, who despite carving a relatively successful career for a Chinese-American actress at the time was frustrated by her ‘exotic’ typecasting, and overlooked by awards ceremonies. Queen Latifah briefly appears as Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American person to be nominated for and win an Oscar (Gone with the Wind, 1939), who was similarly pigeonholed.
But the most mind-boggling mishandling is the bizarre treatment of Rock Hudson. An all-American pin-up, he famously lit up a room, secretly sleeping with many men behind the scenes. A wooden Jake Picking is heinously miscast, and a blossoming romance with fictional African-American writer Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), edging into the open, erases the cruelty of Hudson’s enforced life in the closet for the sake of his career.
Hudson was outed by sometime fling and Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin as the Giant star lay dying from complications related to HIV/AIDS. Famously polyamorous, hemming Hudson into a monogamous relationship is a surreal form of slut-shaming by Murphy.
Hollywood wasn’t, and still isn’t, a bastion of progressive politics. In trying to make a quick fix, Murphy & Co end up creepily airbrushing history, silencing the struggles of so many who fell by the wayside because of their gender, skin colour, or sexuality, and still do today. Fake happy endings do a disservice to their truth.
Hollywood is out now on Netflix.