Hollywood review: Admirable, ambitious and flawed
Martyn Conterio | On 01, May 2020
Ryan Murphy projects tend to be, as Forrest Gump would say, like a box of chocolates. You could get The Assassination of Gianni Versace or you could get American Horror Story: Roanoke. Like Mr Gump, Murphy’s latest offering reimagining the post-WWII film landscape in sunny California – a world it appears to love and despise in equal measure – possesses no great amount of intellect, but it does have a political soapbox message to impart, as well as points to make that occasionally verge on the kind of narcissistic sanctimony that can wreck liberal discourse. It’s woker-than-thou and appears therefore oddly conservative.
“Write what you know about,” says screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope), like he’s mouthing a dictatorial edict straight from the 10 commandments related to avoiding cultural appropriation. Where Murphy and co-writer Ian Brennan are on sounder footing is speaking out for and defending, via their plot, the need for minority voices in the arts.
First things first. The world didn’t need the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein scandal to inform us the movie business is much more like an abattoir than it is a dream factory – we got the memo long ago. The dark underbelly of the City of Angels is part and parcel of its haunting and gothic allure, its litany of tragedies pretty much a sub-genre of American cinema and literature. What’s new is the reckoning and Netflix’s Hollywood is a response to this comeuppance and the downfall of select power-players. Prodigious appetites for money, sex and power have motored things along in the former backwater town since at least the early 1920s, likely even earlier. Where there’s money there’s always been muck. Where there’s opportunity there’s always been manipulation and desperation.
How, then, do Murphy and Brennan avoid the pitfalls and cliches of making just another sordid La La Land expose? On the one hand, they don’t. On the other, their radical intent is evident. So radical does it become that, especially in the latter episodes, it will be lock-and-load hunting season for those who find its gambit distasteful. The series is certainly ballsy, and Murphy has used alternative histories and historical figures in his shows before, but it is also structurally wonky and feels stretched in places. With its ensemble cast and grand ambitions, the subplots feel more like filler than anything intrinsic. In dealing with real-life tragedies and the themes they encompass and propel to the fore, fictional ones come across as far less interesting and trite.
Karl Marx wrote once that history is played first as tragedy and then as farce. However noble Murphy and Brennan’s aims, the ‘this town needs a reboot’ stance takes on a slightly demented tone towards its gushing climax. We’re not talking Diane Selwyn from Deep River, Ontario crazy or Norma Desmond ensconced in her villa off Sunset Blvd level deluded, but in sticking to its fantasy-reality guns all the way, where the plot heads can be perceived as crass, self-indulgent and committing the great folly of assigning today’s values to yesteryear, and then being disappointed.
It was William Faulkner who wrote “The past is never dead – it isn’t even past”, but people from that era are most definitely expired and so they gain exactly zero from Hollywood’s ripping up of the rulebook. While it’s easy enough to point the finger and accuse the Netflix series of wallowing in smugness and self-congratulation, there is a simmering irony running beneath the surface of this alternate history tale. Why get so offended about a beautiful dream? It’s all fantasy. None of what we see happened. It’s as romanticised and misleading as any John Ford Western. “Print the legend always” is an American credo to rally around. Yet the febrile tension this acknowledgement produces is bittersweet and poignant nonetheless, as cathartic and kindly as it is ultimately useless. Murphy and Brennan are aware enough to understand what they’re doing might be deemed a bit gauche, and they proceed anyway, guided by their mission not to dig up bad memories or simply rehash scenes of exploitation and the lives of damaged people. Instead, they elevate them to icon level and reclaim them as sisters and brothers never to be forgotten.
Using the tragic death of starlet Peg Entwistle as its starting point (the British actor famously jumped to her demise from the Hollywoodland sign in 1932), Murphy and Brennan’s show is at its most intriguing in the earlier episodes, where credible realism still reigns. We are introduced to a standard-issue desperate and disparate bunch of dreamers finding their way into and through the perils of the movie studios. Mixing real stars with invented characters is par for the course in revisionist/alternative history yarns. Among the fictional types are handsome WWII veteran Jack (David Corenswet), Darren Criss’ director Raymond and Laura Harrier’s Camille. They invariably meet or befriend beefcake Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), the mentally unwell Vivien Leigh (Katie McGuinness) and the ignored Hattie McDaniel. The real-life coterie were specifically selected for what they symbolically represented as figures chewed up and spat out by the industry or treated shamefully. They are ghosts of the past rattling their chains, beckoning us to remember them and their sorrows.
Of the cast, Jim Parsons’ is superb as Henry Wilson, the vulgar, venal and predatory agent who kickstarted the 1950s beefcake craze. Playing against type, the sitcom star gets the majority of the best lines as the show’s chief villain. Jake Picking is also a standout as Hudson, the likeable, dim-witted, strapping Midwestern lad who Wilson helped turn into a superstar, while abusing his trust. Criss, a revelation in The Assassination of Gianni Versace, disappoints as Raymond – the part isn’t written well enough to be memorable in any way, shape or form. The addressing of the actor’s mixed-race heritage serves as a minor plot point for Raymond (he can pass as a white slice), but it doesn’t really go anywhere in particular. He doesn’t have it as bad as his overlooked girlfriend Camille (Harrier), who is African American, or his friend Archie, who is African American and gay. After the barnstorming performance Criss put in as Andrew Cunanan, perhaps we were expecting too much?
Murphy and Brennan find abuses of power revolting to the core, but like the kids trying to make it big in their saga, they believe wholeheartedly in the purity of the dream Hollywood represents at its finest and least complicated. There is a level of corny (albeit fitting for the period) Capra-esque idealism at play. The dream is what burns deep inside every wannabe writer, actor, director and producer. This is untouchable and true. The desire is to achieve artistic expression regardless of the barriers of race, class and sexual orientation. Unfortunately, despite LA being a place that tolerated peccadillos behind closed doors and promoted its humanist values in motion pictures, studio honchos held back many based on gender, race and sexuality, out of fear the general public wouldn’t accept it or expressing their own prejudices. Are Murphy and Brennan appearing to suggest Hollywood should be better because artists are inherently a better and kinder type of person? What a crock.
One of the best early scenes features Camille playing a bit-part in a movie. She is, of course, playing a white woman’s help. Delivering lines and then questioning the script, the annoyed director tells her to adopt Hattie McDaniel’s voice and harassed body posture, because that’s the role the industry and audience expected black actors to fulfil – and that was if white actors didn’t don blackface and take the roles for themselves. (As is pointed out in the show, that’s often precisely what happened.)
In highlighting such inequities and travesties, Netflix’s Hollywood is on righteously angry ground. Only when it begins to veer into self-righteousness does it come a cropper and the wheels fall off. The series, all handsome production design and nostalgic brightness, believes in happy endings and goodness vanquishing darker human impulses. Redemption is the most American narrative imaginable, but do some deserve it? Does Hollywood deserve it? Can it be redeemed?
Murphy and Brennan want to reclaim the place and instil their honourable liberal values and inclusive creativity into its fabric, believing the only way from there is Utopia. They brazenly rewrite the troubled past as a way to honour those who never got their happy ending. The sorrow and angst comes from knowing even this optimistic and good-hearted gesture cannot undo what really happened, then or now. Cynical realists might put it so: Forget it, Ryan. It’s Tinseltown.
Hollywood is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.