Pop Culturing: Once Upon a Time in...Ryan Murphy's 'Hollywood'

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Saturday May 2, 2020

Darren Criss, left, and David Corenswet, right, in a scene from "Hollywood."
Darren Criss, left, and David Corenswet, right, in a scene from "Hollywood."  (Source:Saeed Adyani/Netflix)

In some ways, "Hollywood" feels like the project Ryan Murphy has been working towards for most of his career. The glitzy seven-episode limited series, which hits Netflix on May 1, follows a group of newcomers to Tinsel Town and their collision with the industry's gatekeepers during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

But Murphy's "Hollywood, co-created with writer Ian Brenna, is anything but a simple history lesson about the trials and tribulations of what it was like to work within the studio system of yesteryear. The series functions like Quentin Tarantino's 2019 film "Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood," in which the director reimagines the historic year of 1969 through the eyes of a washed-up TV actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Brad Pitt). With "Hollywood," Murphy and his team rewrite film history and tell a fairytale of what a more accepting and understanding 1940s Hollywood could look like and how it could have brought an early change to the world — the kind of change that many of us are still working on seeing today. As Murphy called it on Instagram, "Hollywood" is a "revisionist fable." In other words, it's the past that liberals want.

For some time, Murphy has been focusing on highlighting diversity both in front of and behind the camera. THis FX drama "Pose" — about queer and trans voguers in New York City's ballroom scene during the 80s and 90s — broke a number of inclusion records and in 2017 (a year before that show aired), he launched his Half Initiative, which aims to "make Hollywood more inclusive by creating equal opportunities for women and minorities behind the camera," its website writes, adding, "Less than one year after launching Half, Ryan Murphy Television's director slate hired 60% women directors and 90% met its women & minority requirement." That sentiment seems to be the driving force behind "Hollywood" but at the same time, the show manages to have a lot of fun and be mostly entertaining in the way some of the best Murphy projects are.

Patti LuPone, left, with David Corenswet, right, in a scene from "Hollywood." Photo credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Murphy — who helped shape the TV landscape with programs like "American Horror Story," "American Crime Story," "Glee" and "Pose" — left his home at Fox to work for Netflix in 2018. "Hollywood" marks his second project for the streamer (the first being the bumpy series "The Politician"). It's ultimately the kind of series Murphy should be developing even though it simultaneously spotlights the best and worst tendencies of the out producer/writer/director.

We first see "Hollywood" with World War II veteran and aspiring actor Jack Castello ("The Politician" star David Corenswet), a conventionally attractive midwestern white man who moves to the city with his pregnant wife Henrietta (Maude Apatow). It doesn't take long before Jack realizes that getting his foot into Hollywood — or Hollywoodland as it was called at the time — isn't as easy as he thought. After failing to get into the industry and going totally broke, he meets the charming Ernie (Dylan McDermott), who runs a gas station, and offers him a job to pump gas. Except...that's not the job at all. Jack soon realizes the station is actually a front for a prostitution ring (this is based on Scotty Bowers explosive book "Full Service") in which Ernie's handsome employees go home — or to hotels — with his clientele (which mostly consists of good-looking older women and good-looking younger men). But it's how Jack actually gets his break and meets a number of the main cast members of "Hollywood," including Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), the wife of the head of a popular movie studio.

The rest of the season darts and bobs between younger characters like rising director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) and his girlfriend Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), a black woman who is having difficulty getting parts that aren't roles for the help. There's also Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), an aspiring screenwriter who is black and gay and works with Jack at Ernie's gas station. There, Archie meets sweet and closeted actor Roy Scherer (Jake Picking), who would later be renamed Rock Hudson by his diabolical Harvey Weinstein-esque manager Henry Willson (played by an absolutely wild Jim Parsons in perhaps his best role ever), who did manage Hudson in real life along with a number of other beefy men, including Tab Hunter and Robert Wagner.

Jim Parsons, left, with Jake Picking, right, in a scene from "Hollywood." Photo credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Once that group of starry-eyed newcomers gets together, they begin working on a groundbreaking movie with the help of Hollywood's old guard, like Avis as well as producers Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor) and Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello). They attempt to use their position and power to get the movie through a racist, homophobic and misogynistic studio system by convincing naysayers and company men, like Avis' husband, Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner), that the movie could change lives.

But the fun of "Hollywood" is the way in which Murphy and co- ("Pose" writer/director Janet Mock and "American Crime Story" writer Reilly Smith) use the Golden Age era as a sandbox. Henry Willson and Rock Hudson aren't the only real-life figures who pop up: Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), one of the first Chinese-American actresses, has a small role, as does Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah), the first woman of color to win an Oscar for her role as "Mammy" in "Gone with the Wind." Her costar Vivien Leigh (Katie McGuiness) also shows up. "Hollywood" also has a lot of fun recreating iconic film history stories, including filmmaker George Cukor's infamous dinner parties where Hollywood's powerful and closeted gay men would get together and have various relationships with younger men, most of them looking for their break in the industry.

Darren Criss, left, Patti LuPone, center, and Holland Taylor, right, in a scene from "Hollywood." Photo credit: Courtesy of Netflix

"Hollywood" is a Murphy project through-and-through and nothing is subtle. The highs are high and the lows are low. Because the show is on Netflix, Murphy is unfiltered and free from the constraints of cable TV: there's shocking nudity, swearing, as well as dynamic and heartfelt moments. It's no surprise the co-creator of "Glee" is behind "Hollywood" as the show often feels like a musical and that a character could break into song at any moment. Scenes are tense and fast; actors attempt the transatlantic accent and Murphy and his writers employ the quick and snappy way of talking from the era. When it's at its best, "Hollywood" gives off the same vibes as "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." But there's a lot of awkwardness as well. Some of the writing is jarring as a 2020 sense of awareness is injected into some of the dialogue, pulling you out of the moment. Some actors can sell it and others noticeably cannot.

"Hollywood" is polished and is ultimately an interesting endeavor even if it isn't always successful. (The show falls apart during its endgame.) It's Murphy's best project since "American Crime Story" where his lavish vision of a loving and more accepting past overcomes exploitation, racism, homophobia and corrupt power. And at this moment in time, that feels pretty good.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.

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