The Streaming Netflix Experience: Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood“
In the Netflix show entitled “Hollywood”, Ryan Murphy dives headfirst into the lure and the legend of the glamorous dream factory of Hollywood in the 1940s. It’s a promising delight, especially in those opening scenes as we watch a gaggle of beautiful creatures climb that iconic Hollywoodland sign, hoping to high heaven that they will get to the top and find a place to stand tall and proud. To be someone, as one of the handsome leading wannabes say with the stereotypical desperation of a young boy wanting love and external validation, is what it is all about, to be a star and to sit at that powerful table that most can only dream about. This is a Ryan Murphy show no doubt, the second to come out of his five-year, $300m, free-rein deal with Netflix, and we can’t help but hope for some ridiculous fun and adventure, with a side of overt sexual fantasy thrown in for good measure. He’s a man who likes to push hard on those boundaries set before him culturally, and even when I don’t particularly like the delivered product sometimes, the way he forces the issue onto the world is one I can’t help but embrace. Change is needed in our world, and the more one pushes confrontational images and ideas into the mainstream conversation, the better we all will be moving forward.
“Hollywood” is a structural renovation fantasy. It presents a hopeful revisionary creation of a world that pushed harder to open the doors for those who never got the chance in real life. This is for the many who hid in the shadows if they had that destructive option, or for those who were pushed powerfully aside against their free will, mainly because their differences were too impossible to closet. But it also shows the well-known dark underbelly of sex and seduction that existed in the shadows during the Hollywood Golden Age, which is somewhat based on aspects of the truth. One of the seedy sexualized side story sandwiched within the grand “Hollywood” set-up is based, somewhat loosely, on the fantastically seductive memoir of Scotty Bowers. His Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars memoir chronicles his time working at a Los Angeles gas station, where he’d provide sexual services for the celebrity customers who came in for a fill. In the Netflix series, the magnificently charming Dylan McDermott (ABC’s The Practice) dons that pseudo-Bowers white uniform and plays the slick and effectively saucy Ernie, who manages and pimps out his handsome male employees for his and their financial good. He is not completely a product of Murphy’s over-sexualized imagination, but a pretty much well-known fact of old school Hollywood, or at least, one man’s version of it. Bowers, who died in 2019 at the age of 96, claimed in his book to have secretly run an escort ring for the rich and powerful, procuring sex partners for everyone including Rock Hudson, who is portrayed within by Jake Picking, Katharine Hepburn, and Cary Grant.
How can I describe all that goes on in this sunny and dark optimistic view of a “Hollywood” that never really existed, at least in terms of all the racial, homophobic, misogynistic exclusion that occurred? So many high minded ideas are thrown at us, all revolving around those who were historically denied, excluded, and forced into hiding before our very eyes. We are quickly thrown into the ambitious pot with those beautiful players climbing the ladder to the top. One of the main cards is Jack Castello, played handsomely by the earnest David Corenswet (“The Politician“). His eyes are pretty and wide with innocent hope, feed by the simplistic belief that his background in the military and his chiseled handsome face will be enough to deliver him the stardom he so desperately wants. He is that man who is the scared insecure boy at heart forever trying to show all that he is worth something, anything, to his pregnant wife who exists in a sorely underused plot device, and to his hometown folk. He’s naive and hopeful, but that slowly gets stripped away, one scene after the other, as he begins to embrace his darkly conflicted ambitious self, when he starts to work at Ernie’s gas station, giving in to his financial need and exchanging his moralistic code for some hard-earned dollars.
It’s all going so well, as we watch Jack embrace his sexual nature, until he gets confronted with pay-to-play homosexuality. He recoils almost too harshly, much to Ernie’s displeasure, but his desperation is greater than any other part of his soul, so he finds and recruits the handsome black, and gay Archie Coleman, played adorably by the very game and very sexy Jeremy Pope (MTC/Broadway’s Choir Boy), to step in and help out with all that stuff that he is uncomfortable with. One of those things turns out to be another handsome chiseled wannabe actor by the name of Roy Fitzgerald (how he found the money or the contact to drive into Dreamland is never fully explained, by why jump on the realistic bandwagon when so much else isn’t at all believable). Roy, played by the magnetic and stunning Jake Picking (“The Way, Way Back“) finds himself forbidden love within the arms of Archie, but he also fantastically finds himself an agent by the name of Henry Willson, played powerfully by Jim Parsons (“The Normal Heart”). Henry changes his name to Rock Hudson, but it comes with a big sexual price tag, a brand new big lesson to be learned at the instructional hand and mouth of Henry. It’s a story we have heard before, the infamous casting couch, but the homosexual encounters of this kind were always well concealed and ignored. Now they are shoved out, blatantly, into the realm of Netflix. You might find that overly sexualized decision on behalf of Murphy and “Hollywood” sensationalistic, but I’ll add, “why not?” The heterosexual version is almost a matter of fact in our culture, in terms of Hollywood history, so why shouldn’t this version, which was just as real and rampant, be out there and told just as blatantly and clearly as the other? Are we still that ashamed?
Already higher up in the financial status ladder, standing strongly for all those women who should have had more power back then, Patti LuPone (West End/Broadway’s Company) plays with full-on gorgeousness the former silent movie star Avis Amberg. She is married to ACE Pictures’s big small-minded boss, played beautifully by Rob Reiner, but is struggling with her place in the world, both as a sexual woman and a smart executive. Avis is one of Ernie’s most generously kind customers at the station, and from the moment she drives into Jack’s world in episode one, she becomes a complementary force in the young actor’s career rise to the role of contract player at ACE Pictures. As the much-ignored wife of a studio head honcho, she has little to say or do in that world, that is until a shift in power compels her to grab hold of what she always unconsciously wanted, a say at the power player’s table, and LuPone is the perfect actor to grab hold of the part and the place. It’s good to see these women of a certain age, along with the fabulous Holland Taylor (Broadway’s The Front Page) as a wise and caring casting agent, embrace their sensual sexual selves, asking and seeking out fulfillment and finding it in exactly the way they want and desire.
Meanwhile across town, there is another story to be played out, one where a strong-minded wannabe film director by the name of Stanley Ainsworth, played compassionately by the angel-faced Darren Criss, last seen as Versace’s murderer Andrew Cunanan, has a plan to make a film starring Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, dynamically embodied by Michelle Krusiec (who wrote, directed, and performed in a one-woman show entitled “Made in Taiwan“). While hiding secretly his own half-Asian heritage, he tries with all his might to elevate the thrown-down Anna May by giving her a starring role in a film, but he is told by the beaten-down film executive Dick Samuels, perfectly played by Joe Mantello (Broadway’s The Glass Menagerie) that he needs a hit film first. Stanley picks up and falls in love with Archie’s powerful script that digs deep into the dreams and dismissals of the industry he loves, and sets out to make a film about the troubles of gambling everything for a life and career in the movies. It’s a classic tale, but the shift occurs when he alters his traditional plan to include and cast his black girlfriend, the lovely contract player Camille Washington, beautifully embodied by the stunning Laura Harrier (‘BlacKKKlansman‘), as the romantic lead, and not the traditional sassy-talkin’ maid. We know this would never have happened in the real 1940s Hollywood, but in Murphy’s vision of film history, we allow ourselves to dream and dive in, wishing this could have been the truth. We watch and hold tight to her ambitious rise and climb up that ladder against all odds, even as we know how impossible it would have been.
Murphy’s “Hollywood” flies forward on the fantastical wings of ACE Pictures and the dreams of all these gorgeous young creatures standing outside the gates looking in with big dreams and high hopes, much like Murphy describes his own true self. It’s all about selling the screenplay, holding onto your dreams and your ambitions, and fighting for your place and your name. It drives home the ideals and plays with morality that is constantly being questioned and weighed against what we want and what we are told we need to do to get to the top of that Hollywoodland sign. It feels true in that somewhat fantastical sense, and maybe Murphy pushes the plate too forcibly into our view, but I don’t mind. Things need to change in our world, and if this is what is required, to not play safe and stay within the rules and boundaries set down by those who are scared, so be it. I’ll take the gratuitous if it means normalizing the one simple fact of sexuality. Birds do it, bees do it, and educated fleas do it, so why can’t we all just get used to the idea that hungry men and women do it too, with wild fluidity, even if it doesn’t fit our moralistic high ground we say we stand upon.
Pushing the cultural shift onto the dreamlike table of revolution, LuPone’s Avis makes the daring move to go against her hospitalized husband’s wishes, and green-lights an ambitious project named “Peg” written by the black writer, Archie. It’s a huge gamble, one that is pushed hard by the closeted film executive Samuels, played by Mantello, and Ellen Kincaid, the dynamic and strong-minded casting agent who is played gloriously by Taylor. We love Taylor’s Ellen, and we ride the well-dressed road she transverse, applauding the embracing of her desires and successes along the way. The film project is based on the life of a woman named Peg Entwistle who died of suicide after leaping off the “H” in the Hollywoodland sign, but after Avis talks about the director’s idea of casting a black actress in the lead at a luncheon with Eleanor Roosevelt, played deliciously by Harriet Harris (Broadway’s It Shoulda Been You“), the movie (and the television series) shift focus into an optimistic culturally dynamic dreamscape, with the film getting a new name and a new boundary-breaking stance that will, if it makes it through the fires of censorship, change Hollywood’s racial history. Sounds good, right? A completely and highly improbable twist for this timeframe, but deliciously good, exciting, and progressive.
The dreamlike revisionary development of Raymond and Archie’s movie, from “Peg” to “Meg”, represents all that “Hollywood” claims to be, a beacon of inclusion and openness within Hollywood and the artists within. The stance is wonderful significant, especially as we look around the world we currently live in. It’s highly high minded, equal only to Archie and Rock’s defiant acts of gay pride handholding that feels ever-so current and meaningful for those watching today. It’s a dreamland adventure that we can hold onto as a hopeful wish on a larger and more universal scale, rather than a plausible act of expression in that timeframe, but it is confidently told from a modernistic vantage point that feels exceedingly good, even if it also feels simplistic. It grabs hold of our collective hearts, telling the historical power of two men (or two women) showing their love and attachment for the world to see, watching marginalized people grabbing hold of their true selves against all obstacles while getting the support and care from those around them. It is a hopeful dream, and a sweet idea, something Murphy so wanted to play with. It doesn’t feel authentic by any means, but being seen like this, even if disparaged by those who feel he went over the top, is progress, and for that, I give “Hollywood” the respect it deserves.
It’s a complex broad-stroked gesture celebrating inclusion and queerness, while sadly disregarding the cruelty and inhumanity that has been seen on this journey. That side was delivered by people such as Parson’s demonic Henry Willson, who even asks for forgiveness, solely based on his shame and deep emotional wounds. Whether we find that forgiveness is up to you and to Rock, but even as the narrow-minded sentimentality lives innocently within “Hollywood”, the dream of a new kind of openness hopefully will fuel some changes in the same inequalities this television series attempts to reframe. It is sometimes ridiculous and overly stuffed with unrequired drama and over-the-top sexual gestures, but the silliness is also its fun. We are not being asked to believe that this reformated revisionary fantasy can change the present moment, but maybe we can place some hope that the people in power will make bolder choices if this gamble pays off. Maybe they will rise up and combat internal prejudice, corruption, and sexual coercion within the machinations of an industry that needs an overhaul, all through the telling eyes of the #MeToo movement, dangerous as that sounds.
When customers drive into Ernie’s gas station during that first episode, they inform the handsome attendant that they “want to go to Dreamland.” It’s a theme that swims through the whole process, in a symbolic captivating way, much like the gorgeous naked football players who dive gracefully into a rich man’s late-night sex-fueled pool party. It’s sly and wickedly decadent (while being somewhat sanitized for our viewing pleasure or pain), daring us to throw away what we think we know, and give in to our fantasies of what might have happened had bravery enveloped the film industry then, or now. It’s the temptation to embrace a Dreamland version of a messy hedonistic time in Hollywood that lives somewhere inside Dylan McDermott’s sly winked performance, that is one of the true joys inside Murphy’s “Hollywood”. It’s where the fun lies, and it’s a place we happily want to go, to Dreamland and beyond. So dive in and enjoy, and don’t take it so seriously, ok, folks?