Ryan Murphy Returns to the Old Hollywood With New Netflix Series
When the prolific producer and showrunner Ryan Murphy jumped to Netflix for a $300 million deal a few years ago, Hollywood was undoubtedly the sort of project he had in mind.
A seven-part alternate-history miniseries, set in 1940s Hollywood, steeped in extravagant detail, and exploring social, racial sexual and gender issues, featuring an accomplished group of actors, most of whom have worked on past Murphy projects. And it’s also written- for good or ill- in the traditional Murphy style: Subtlety is not exactly a paramount concern.
The series, created by Murphy and Ian Brennan, combines real and fictional characters, in the telling the story of a group of young people pursuing careers in Hollywood – on camera, behind it, and in the sexual underworld – circa 1947. Jack (David Corenswet) is a war veteran hoping to make it as an actor when he’s approached to work at a gas station (run by Dylan McDermott) that’s really a front for male prostitution. Also working there is Archie (Jeremy Pope), a gay black aspiring screenwriter who starts a relationship with a young Rock Hudson (Jake Picking.)
They all end up working on a movie called “Peg,” about the true story of a woman in the ’30s who jumped off the Hollywood sign, and the movie is produced in something of an anachronistic manner: Archie is the writer, the director Raymond (Darren Criss) is both half-Filipino and unusually young, and the leading lady (Laura Harrier), is both black and Raymond’s girlfriend.
Also in the cast are a coterie of heavy hitters who are veterans of Murphy’s shows: Joe Mantello as a closeted movie executive, Jim Parsons as the monstrous talent agent Henry Willson, Patti LuPone as the horny wife of a studio boss, and Holland Taylor as a friendly executive.
There’s a lot that’s good about Hollywood. The show looks and sounds absolutely fantastic. It’s been compared a lot to Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas, like All That Heaven Allows (which starred Rock Hudson himself), and it recreates their feel much the way Todd Haynes did with his own Sirk homage, 2002’s Far From Heaven.
No amount of detail has been spared when it comes to the sets and decorations. The veteran actors are all fantastic, starting with Parsons in an against-type turn as what’s essentially a gay Harvey Weinstein.
Mantello, a theater mainstay, is outstanding as the tragically closeted Hollywood player. LuPone looks to be having a great deal of fun, as does McDermott, playing a character inspired by the notorious Hollywood pimp Scotty Bowers. Familiar faces like Mira Sorvino, Queen Latifah, Paget Brewster, and Alison Wright also pop up, and casting Rob Reiner as an old-timey studio boss is an idea so inspired I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before.
Some of the younger actors make an impression as well- Jeremy Pope looks like a star as Archie, as does Laura Harrier (from Spider-man: Homecoming). As for Darren Criss, so outstanding both on Glee and in The Assassination of Gianni Versace, I’m wondering why he’s not cast in big projects all the time.
Whatever you can say about this show, it’s never boring.
On the other hand… there’s quite a bit that goes wrong with Hollywood. To call the historical accuracy iffy is an understatement, and Hollywood historians have already been driven to conniption fits, both about the inaccuracies and the portrayals of certain real people, starting with Katie McGuinness’s turn as Vivien Leigh.
If you’re a fan of the podcast, You Must Remember This, you’re probably used to old Hollywood stories that are shockingly lurid, but they’re also, you know, true. Even the Scotty Bowers stuff, told in the 2017 documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, has had its accuracy seriously challenged by certain experts.
Beyond the history stuff, even by the standards of Ryan Murphy shows, there’s not a lot of subtlety here. Every character says exactly what’s on their mind at all times. There’s no subtext, it’s all text. The less said about the moment that can only be called Deus Ex Eleanor Roosevelt, the better, and generally, the show’s plot gets stupider and more outlandish the later it goes.
There’s also the problem that two of the main actors- David Corenswet (Jack) and Jake Picking (Rock Hudson)- look shockingly, alarmingly alike, to the point wherein most scenes, I couldn’t tell which of them was which. It doesn’t help that Picking plays Hudson as both a bad actor and kind of a dumbs. (A full-on biopic of Hudson is the sort of thing I’m sort of surprised hasn’t happened yet.)
Certain movies about the Hollywood of the past have done this sort of thing better, including the Coens’ Hail Caesar; in fact, the fourth episode all but reenacts its “would that if it were so simple” scene with Rock Hudson. Hollywood is like a lot of Ryan Murphy’s work, going as far back as Glee: It’s enjoyable, even as you can see the seams showing.