Ryan Murphy’s TV Mini-Series Hollywood arrived on Netflix this month and for fans of Murphy’s previous work, such as, ‘Glee’ and ‘American Horror Story’, it is pretty much what has come to be expected of him. It has those hints of a typical teen drama scattered throughout, but on the whole holds a serious message. However, if you aren’t familiar with his past shows, then you may be caught off guard by the style and it could take a few episodes to adjust.
Hollywood is set post World War II and follows the journey of a group of young actors, a director, screenwriter and everyone in between as they all tussle to make it big in Hollywood. The show stars an ensemble cast of David Corenswet, Darren Criss, Laura Harrier, Joe Mantello, Dylan McDermott, Jake Picking, Jeremy Pope, Holland Taylor, Samara Weaving, Jim Parsons, and Patti LuPone. Alongside Ryan Murphy is also screenwriter Ian Brennan.
Hollywood is a show that right away has it’s priorities straight, its heart is in the right place. Meaning all the way through I was willing it to be a great show. The series starts with us following Jack Castello, played by David Corenswet who previously worked with Murphy on The Politician. Castello, an ex-soldier, has a wife to provide for and a child on the way so he is willing to do ‘whatever it takes’, which is the show’s catchline, to make his way into Ace studios and become a famous actor. Through Castello we meet the other characters one by one, such as Raymond Aisley, (Darren Criss) an aspiring director, Ernie West, (Dylan McDermott) a gas station owner and Archie Coleman, (Jeremy Pope) an aspiring screenwriter. In the first two episodes especially there is so much set up and exposition for this world that it tends to lose it’s way. It’s difficult to see where it is headed and therefore a likely jumping off point for many viewers. This becomes even more confused when you start to introduce real life Hollywood actors like Rock Hudson and Vivien Leigh. This naturally draws parallels with Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood (2019) as a portrait of a time gone by, but with a different outcome. After all the entire story is fictional, no doubt based on some truths and perhaps there’s no bigger truth, than that of Henry Willson.
By far the stand out performance is by Jim Parsons as Willson who was a real person and in the show at least, was a sleazy, power hungry agent who takes full advantage of his position. With the circumstances surrounding his role, and in the first few episodes male prostitution being a key element of the story, you can see how this suddenly becomes a show few were expecting it to be. The show slightly trips itself up as everyone involved in the supposed trendsetting movie ‘Meg’, knew each other previously. Whether it’s a friend of a friend or a partner, boss or former-colleague, it’s very heavily a ‘not what you know, but who you know’ situation. You don’t get your ahead of the curve black, female lead if Ainsley wasn’t dating Camille Washington. Is that the message they wanted to send? Having said that, not once does the show hold back in delivering it’s message and thankfully, it only improves after the shaky start. There are so many plot points to work with and the real danger of numerous loose ends by the half way mark. This is especially apparent for a series with only seven episodes. Don’t get me wrong, the story line is awfully contrived, but if you do stick with it until the end, there is something here for everyone.
Hollywood deserves praise for it’s diverse cast and it’s strong portrayal of LGBT characters. There are many passionate scenes for gay characters, something that is often shied away from. There are also several excellent performances by women, Samara Weaving and Laura Harrier are particularly great – in fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen bad performances by either of them. This importantly stays in line with the themes of the series and compliments the views that are clearly understood in the story. For anyone who has only a basic understanding of how the film industry is run, Hollywood can prove to be very informative in showing how things worked in the golden age of cinema, and just how many people are involved in the process of creating a picture. It correctly illustrates how difficult it can be for some people to get their movies made, particularly people of colour and women.
I think the overall problem with the show, what left a bitter taste in my mouth, is the idea of Hollywood and the film industry as the great saviours. The idea behind the whole show is a ‘what if’, as in what if the changes we are seeing in Hollywood today happened in the 1940s. In the end one film changes everything and everyone gets their ‘hollywood ending’. This of course isn’t the case outside of this dreamy fiction and in reality what happens today needs to be looked at more thoroughly. There are certainly elements of the Oscar ceremony in the final episode which mirror what happened earlier this year with Parasite (2019) winning four Oscars, including Best Picture. In doing so it became the first movie not in the English language to win Best Picture. The future naturally isn’t written and maybe this is the start of something, we may all look back on this moment as the beginning of a movement, but is that likely? Moonlight (2016) won Best Picture and then four years later, only one out of 20 nominated actors and actresses was black. 15 years ago, Brokeback Mountain (2005) was the stand out film of the year, a film about two gay men. Consequently Crash (2005), a movie barely anyone remembers won Best Picture instead. Roughly 10 years after Hollywood is set, The Children’s Hour (1961) was released. A story about a lesbian couple starring Audrey Hepburn and Karen Balkin. This wasn’t the start of anything so the cynic in all of us should question why no revolution became of these movies. The big moment in the final episode of Hollywood is when Camille Washington becomes the first black woman to win an Oscar, a triumph and finally the glass ceiling is broken. Yet in the real world, there have only been 14 black actors win Oscars in its 92 year existence. Only five women have been nominated for Best Director, with just one winner. In Hollywood the fictional film ‘Meg’ seemingly puts an end to racism. It’s obviously not that simple. Again, Hollywood and certainly not the Oscars, should be portrayed as the heroes of the day.
If viewed as a tale of what could be, a Hollywood that we all want to see in the future, it can be uplifting. There is plenty of emotion in the victories at the Oscar ceremony, both victories on and off the red carpet. Especially in the scenes where you can see ethnic minorities hearing on the radio, watching on the TV as against the odds a black woman wins, a queer black man is awarded and a Chinese actress finally gets the recognition she deserves. If you take away the engineered plot line and fantasy approach to solving marginalisation and discrimination in the industry, at it’s bare bones you have a vision of what Hollywood could be. There are some great ideas in this show, some brilliant performances and a lot of heart. Unfortunately it falls short of expectations, remaining entertaining enough to watch but just has one too many missteps.