Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood is the latest in a long line of historical revisionist productions first made popular by Quentin Tarantino with his films Inglourious Basterds, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The creator of Glee, Nip and Tuck and American Horror Story imagines 1948 Tinseltown as a place where dreams can be realized regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. The appeal of these stories like this is obvious: people who have lived through the horrors of racism, sexism, and homophobia often welcome a fictional alternative to the painful reality. Looking back at history can be painful if you don’t have the benefit of white, Christian, straight, male privilege, so a revisionist fiction where you can vicariously beat up or defeat your historical oppressors can be very empowering.
Throughout its history, the American film industry has offered viewers an opportunity to escape the misery of their daily lives into a couple of hours cinematic pleasure. American movies reimagined narratives to elide uncomfortable truths that distracted the viewer from the simple stories of the triumph of good over evil, American exceptionalism, and romantic love with few consequences. Yet the target audience was selective, if not exclusive. African and Asian-American viewers were often left with little to see on screen other than stereotypical characters and depictions of their place in American history that failed to match their actual experience. For people in the LGBTQ community, representation was virtually non-existent, save for subtle references that were lost on anyone who never attended film school.
Hollywood starts entertainingly enough. With a nod to notorious pimp Scotty Bowers, whose “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” was the most titillating documentary of 2017, Jack Castello (David Corenswet) is a young cash-strapped World War II veteran with aspirations to acting stardom who works as a sex worker in a gas station known to everyone with what used to be called a “double life.” His boss Ernie (Dylan McDermott), a character based on Bowers, is a failed actor who recruits Jack for his handsome appearance and self-confidence. The station quickly becomes the center of the action as it is a means of both recruiting new sex workers and establishing contacts with the Hollywood elite, many of whom are in loveless marriages or living closeted lives. They include a young Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking), who will eventually change his name to Rock Hudson and try, despite his limited acting to talent, to establish a career as a leading man. Along the way he meets Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a young African American screenwriter who becomes his lover and attempts to break the color barrier by writing for general audiences.
We also meet silent film legend Anna Mae Wong (Michelle Krusiec), who is desperate to break free of stereotypical Asian roles, and Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), an African American actress based on the real-life Dorothy Dandridge, who yearns for parts other as a maid and servant. Aided by the frustrated wife of an ailing studio head, a sympathetic biracial-but-white-passing director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), aspires to break barriers and create a more inclusive industry, giving the principle characters their savior. Facing hostile opposition, they persevere, assuming a country who just fought fascism overseas is ready to embrace social change.
While it is well-intentioned, Hollywood is ultimately frustrating and disappointing. Hudson, Dandridge, and Wong lived tragic, painful lives, never truly breaking down racial barriers and, in the case of Rock Hudson, suffered the indignity of becoming one of the first famous people associated with the AIDS virus, which ultimately claimed him in 1985. Despite his success as an actor, Hudson was humiliated and abandoned by friends such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan who, despite their long association, declined to fund research into the deadly disease that killed their friend. Imagining Hudson at the 1948 Academy Awards, casually strolling hand in hand with his male lover is an insult to his legacy and that of every other closeted actor and actress in Hollywood. Similarly, the ultimate redemption of Hudson’s manager, Henry Willson, played brilliantly by Jim Parsons, underplays much of the cruelty he showed his clients, whom he micro-managed and treated with homophobic self-loathing.
The miniseries also casually plays with the concept of interracial romance, suggesting that American society in the late 40’s was quick to warm to the public embrace of young and beautiful couples despite the color of their skin. It was not that simple. The first interracial kiss on film took place in the late 1960s, and before that time, many films dishonestly underplayed the obvious physical attraction between principle characters. In fact, the cinematic portrayal of interracial couples has only just begun to approach normalcy and acceptance in recent years.
Ironically, at one point, Hollywood references Walt Disney’s Song of the South, a film notorious for its sunny depiction of antebellum slavery. The well-meaning Ainsley and Washington use the film as an example of how racialized experiences had been whitewashed. Yet, Murphy has only reinforced the same misrepresentation of history to a new generation of people who are fortunate to have come of age in a slightly more tolerant era, with little or no connection to the lived experiences of those who suffered through legislated discrimination. By portraying postwar America as a kind of paradise of tolerance – years before the civil rights movement and Stonewall – Murphy does a huge disservice to those who struggled for decades, and he glosses over the American Film industry’s role in perpetuating homophobia and racial segregation.
Despite excellent attention to period detail and outstanding performances by Parsons, Patty LuPone and McDermott, Hollywood ultimately fails to deliver, and dishonestly places its principle characters’ dreams in an era when they could never be realized. As we sift through endless examples of alternative truths and “fake news” in contemporary social media, the new Hollywood must endeavor to tell the truth about its past whenever it can.