I’ve suffered from Netflix fatigue for a while now in quarantine, almost incapable of finding the motivation to invest in a new series. For months, nothing caught my eye enough to invoke that “just one more episode” excuse. But when my friend forced me to watch Ryan Murphy’s new miniseries, Hollywood, with her, my penchant for binge watching came back full-force. Scene after scene, I watched the show rewrite Old Hollywood, an era largely known for its racism in cinema and television, beyond recognition—in the best possible way.
In his newest project, Murphy gives us seven episodes of pure, unfiltered sex and drama along with several unlikely characters in post-World-War-II. Some even have a real-life counterpart with the same namesake from the era but have been completely reimagined. By taking creative license with history itself, Murphy offers his take on what Hollywood could have been rather than simply what it was, especially for queer folk and people of color. In a tale of underdogs, Hollywood forces you to ask yourself hard questions about the era many Americans call “golden” for cinema and how golden it really was for anyone that wasn’t a straight white man.
The series follows the production of a movie that each main character has a part in: Meg. The movie, written by Black playwright Archie (Jeremy Pope), tells the story of a girl who takes her own life by throwing herself off the Hollywood sign after not being cast in blockbuster movies. Raymond (Darren Criss) directs it, casting aspiring actors Jack (David Corenswet), Rock (Jake Picking), and Claire (Samara Weaving) under the fictional Ace Studios while aspiring Black actress Camille (Laura Harrier) is cast as the lead role— Meg herself. When the movie is announced to be in production, our characters find themselves at the center of controversy. As they’re met with fierce resistance from moviegoers and filmmakers alike, the group must decide how far they’ll go to make their movie in an industry riddled with dark practices behind the scenes.
The way it’s set up in the pilot, I thought this was another period piece about a James Dean lookalike wanting to make it in Hollywood. Immediately after pressing play, I questioned the hype, wondering if I was witnessing the downfall of Ryan Murphy after his tremendous work with American Horror Story and Pose.
It gets much more interesting and on-brand when said James Dean lookalike, Jack, and Archie are recruited to work at a gas station that doubles as a male prostitution ring to pay the bills. The station does actually sell gas, but regulars who know the magic words—”I want to go to Dreamland” get serviced in a very different way. Customers leave with handsome men in their passenger seats and bring them back after a motel-room transaction (or penthouse, depending on how deep the customer’s pockets are). It’s high concept, even aside from the obvious “pumping” innuendo, and depicts a healthy, consensual environment for male sex workers of different sexualities.
In fact, one of the series’ main romances, an interracial gay couple, results after recurring visits to “Dreamland” between Rock and Archie. The two later commit to being in a public relationship, but this proves to be challenging for them in a time that wasn’t safe for interracial nor gay couples in America. Rock and Archie are one of two interracial couples in the series, second to Raymond and Camille, who face similar challenges.
It doesn’t take long for Hollywood’s plot to shift toward the darker side of the entertainment industry: sexual abuse. The minute Rock gets signed by an acting agent, Henry (Jim Parsons), you see the ominously familiar locking of an office door before Rock is immediately propositioned for sexual favors to advance his acting career. The abuse and manipulation continues until Rock eventually drops Henry after Meg is made and confronts Henry about the trauma he’s endured throughout their relationship. Surprisingly, no women are taken advantage of in the series (at least not on-screen), and I think that’s intentional given that we live in the age of #MeToo; we’ve seen too many of them suffer. This exclusion can also be interpreted as a silent agreement between Murphy and the audience that we don’t have to see it to know it happened given what we know now while reminding us that men, too, can be victims.
The series also explicitly takes on conversations of racism in Hollywood while incorporating a diverse cast. Raymond and Camille’s relationship becomes strained because of Raymond’s ability to pass as white despite being biracial. This is addressed in a scene between Raymond and Anna May Wong, an Asian actress who doesn’t believe Raymond when he tells her he’s half-Filipino and half-white (the same as Darren Criss). As Meg is protested by moviegoers, Raymond remains unscathed while Camille is harassed and threatened with death just for being black while Archie is almost fired after revealing his race to the producers. Hearing people calling Archie and Camille “colored” and chanting “keep movies white” painfully but accurately represents the era in which the show is set and the odds the characters are up against.
But spoiler alert: after tireless attempts of sabotage from every angle, the movie gets made and its excellence garners them several awards from the Academy. The series seems to end like a fairytale with every end tied in a bow. In a tale of triumph against racism, sexism, and sexual predators, Hollywood isn’t at all an accurate account of what our Hollywood was actually like. The entertainment industry was as bigoted and discriminatory as Murphy depicted, if not more. But the Hollywood Murphy created was the Hollywood we should have had.
An award-winning movie written by a Black playwright with a Black leading lady and openly gay movie stars is hardly revolutionary thanks to the progress we’ve made in what we deem acceptable in the mainstream. Yes, the series forces us to think about how far we’ve come in terms of what’s become acceptable—but we should also reflect on how long it took to get here.
As the credits roll, you can’t help but wonder how much farther we’d be if only Murphy’s account of Old Hollywood was accurate. How many more people of color would we see in film and television if we’d casted them when pictures were still black and white? Would we still struggle as much to battle a dominantly white pool of actors? Would we have less prejudice in the world if we embraced the narratives of all people ahead of time on screen? Or were we always doomed to fight a never-ending fight for representation?
Annie Walton Doyle