Michelle Krusiec and Laura Harrier in “Hollywood.” Photo credit: Netflix
Created by: Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan
Written by: Hernando Bansuelo, Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy, Janet Mock, Reilly Smith
Starring: David Corenswet, Jeremy Pope, Laura Harrier, Darren Criss, Jim Parsons, Samara Weaving, Patti LuPone, Joe Mantello, Holland Taylor, Harriet Sansom Harris, Rob Reiner, Jake Picking, Dylan McDermott
Hollywood is, of course, supposed to be a fun, yet serious-minded romp through the what-if scenario of a more diverse Hollywood. What if the industry was opened up by creatives from the margins? What if they were allowed to win career-making awards and change the landscape of culture for good?
On the surface, the series presents a tantalizing scenario: What if the people in power did the right thing in the ’40s, which could have set the stage for a more equitable Hollywood industry today? But when you get into the series, you begin to realize something else, something potentially more problematic–is Hollywood simply a white cis-gender man’s fanfiction of white Hollywood? Even with the two writers of color on this production, Janet Mock and Hernando Bansuelo, the entire series feels like it’s written from the point of view of the apologetic, hyper-aware white male, who wants to make things right so badly they’re willing to change all of history to be seen as the good guy. While anyone can think about how times could have been different, a white writer has to take into account the level of privileges they have when reimagining the lives of actors of color and whiteness’ place in those lives.
Indeed, the series plays out as a fantasy of white saviorism, with most of the white main cast acting out in chivalrous ways. For instance, aspiring actor-turned-male prostitute-turned Oscar nominee Jack Costello (David Corenswet) is instantly friends with Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a gay Black man and aspiring writer who is surviving by also turning tricks. Not to say that this friendship couldn’t have happened in the 1940s, but for their friendship to be as seamless as it is–especially with it starting out with Jack dressed as a police officer pretending to bust up gay establishments–seems a little too neatly tied-up. Regardless, both find their way to being employed by Ernie West (Dylan McDermott), a man who also had dreams of stardom but has found a new line of success–his gas station/male prostitution service.
Claire Wood (Samara Weaving), the daughter of Ace Studios’ Ace (Rob Reiner) and Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), fudges her screen test for the in-universe film Meg in order to give Black actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) her shot, a move that actually offended me, since it didn’t allow Camille to shine on her own merits. Avis, after the urgings of studio execs Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello) and Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor), and particularly after the almost comical intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Sansom Harris), finally casts Camille as the lead. Meanwhile, if we look at actual history, Eleanor Roosevelt is someone whose social justice leanings have been exaggerated far past reality; she might have been a crusader for the “other” in society, but if she saw the justice in diverse casting, wouldn’t she have already scolded Hollywood for it? There wouldn’t be a need to rewrite her as doing so, which shows where Hollywood fails as a commentary.
There’s more of a need–an urge, even–to rewrite white society as mostly fair and just instead of what American history has shown us. In Hollywood, white supremacy is virtually non-existent in the sense that racism appears only as ideology reserved for the south, which remains largely unexplored in the series except as an amorphous scapegoat for the entirety of white supremacy.
Hollywood as an industry, by contrast, is shown as an industry that’s simply only responding to “economic” concerns–it’s not actually “racist” as much as it is cowardly when it comes to respecting racists’ dollars. But painting racism as simply an economic issue is the same fallacy Confederate apologists have for excusing away the Civil War–it was about “economics,” which divorces the Confederacy from what it was actually fighting for, which was the “economic” benefit of trafficking and owning human beings to do free manual labor under inhumane and, indeed, genocidal, circumstances.
The industry is also painted as a place where simply the old guard need to die. This literally happens in this series, and the argument of the old needed to slough off their mortal coils is a nihilistic view many have shared when it comes to discussing racial, gender and other social politics. But that view also simplifies the real problem with racist and other harmful ideologies–they live on, no matter if the people carrying them die or not. They get carried through to new generations, and the only way to get a handle on these ideologies is to have new, competing ideologies that attract more people.
The point is that ideologies, good or bad, never truly die, and in the case of the film industry, the only way to have a different way of doing business is to change the terms of doing that business. The business metrics have to be so that even the most racist or sexist studio head will consider their bottom line over their own views. Could this have been shown in Hollywood? I think so, but you’d need more than seven episodes to pull it off.
While the series is often too kind to white supremacy as a whole, it is also too focused on salacious sex scenes. I don’t know if Hollywood needed to earn a TV-MA rating, which led to the hyperfocus on sex, but at the end of the day, the overload of sex in the first half of the series does nothing to help tell the story. Yes, the series wants to show that Hollywood is a hypocritical town that runs–or ran, perhaps, now that we’re in the Me Too era–on the “casting couch.” It also wants to showcase how men along the sexual spectrum were pushed into shadows and forced to live secret, double lives. But when does sex begin to get in the way of telling the story about sex? In other words, when does Hollywood begin to focus more on the act of sex itself rather than showcasing a tale about sexuality? I think that might be something Murphy himself needs to work out, since it seemed like he was equating gay love simply to the act of having sex, which gives a message opposite of the one he’s trying to give.
Even Meg, the film touted as this alternate reality’s bastion of diversity and political correctness, is created through nepotism-laden sex scenes. Camille gets her role because of her talent, sure–arguably, Claire was actually a better actress than Camille and better for the part, but so it goes. But Camille also gets the role because her boyfriend, Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) is the director, and a half-Filipino one at that–his focus on coalition between himself and Archie shows that he’s serious about changing the system, even if he has the upper hand because of his ability to pass as white, something that’s not lost on the other characters of color.
Not only does Camille use sex to get herself a part in the film, but she uses it to convince Raymond to rewrite Archie’s script so she can be the lead. Meanwhile, Jack is able to use his gas station tricks to land him an acting career at Ace Studios since he’s Avis’ boytoy. An alternate reality Rock Hudson (Jake Picking)–every bit the stereotype of a lovable, fetishized farmboy–is with Archie, which allows him to get a screen test for the lead male part. Everyone is using everyone to get in one film.
Isn’t that how Hollywood is, you may ask? Probably. But in a show like Hollywood, I’d expect the focus to be on how these unlikely stars got to where they are on their own merits, not on who they know and certainly not on who throws their screen test. I wanted a series that shows Black and Brown actors and creatives getting to the top by sheer force of will, not by who they’re sleeping with or who feels sorry for them. Murphy’s own apologetic feelings towards whatever part he may or may not have played in the whites-only film and TV industry got completely in the way in this series and threatened to ruin the entirety of what he wanted to achieve, which is a show that gives us a look at what Hollywood could be for everyone.
If he’s not focused on the optics of sex or painting white characters as either saviors or squeaky-clean newcomers who lack a racist or sexist bone in their bodies, Murphy and his writers are employing language that wasn’t used in the 1940s, such as “actors of color.” You weren’t given the grace of being called “of color” back in those days, so to hear that language was laughable. Even more laughable was Archie asking Raymond if he was dating a “sista,” a slang term I thought only came into popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly during the Black Power Movement.
Thankfully, someone–whether that was Murphy himself or someone in his writing team–got a grip on things by the middle of the series, which led to a more cohesive storyline. The end result was a night at the Oscars that had me on the edge of my seat. That episode was the best one of the series, and not because it was the final one. It’s my favorite because it was the best visual representation of what Hollywood could have been like back in the day if it wanted to be inclusive and recognize everyone based on their talents.
Not only do the actors of color in this alternate Hollywood make history, but Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), who had a spectacular introduction earlier in the series, also gets the history rewrite she deserves and gets her Oscar. Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) also acts as a guide for Camille, giving her advice on how to stick it to The Man while uplifting her people. She and Camille both get a great moment in the final episode, serving as a heartfelt passing of the baton from the old generation to the new. This episode in particular also gave inspiration to those who might be afraid to be who they are–people are going to think what they think, but what’s most important is that you live true to yourself.
Speaking of being true to oneself, the series leaves us with a thorny issue about how to consider Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), Rock Hudson’s predatory agent. At the end of the series, we see Henry become sober and more apologetic about the carnage he’s committed in Rock and other gay men’s lives. He wants to atone for his issues, and does in part by enlisting our motley Meg crew into doing the first film with a love story between two men. We see Rock not completely forgiving him, which makes sense, since Henry sexually abused him. But what does Hollywood want us to take from Henry’s character arc?
To me, it seems like a meditation on Me Too itself by asking the question if predators can become rehabilitated. I think that’s an extremely loaded question for a seven-episode series, and I think the answer it wants us to believe–that predators can be rehabilitated–is something some might have an issue with, especially if said predators never experience equal punishment for their crimes. In essence, Henry gets off scot-free, and is even able to find his own happiness in a relationship. Yes, he might have thought about the actions he’s done, but shouldn’t this series also give Henry the punishment he’s deserved? Accepting that he gets to “fail up” and make a film is a hard pill to swallow.
Hollywood is at best naive and at worst side-eye worthy. But as a whole, it’s an uneven, yet well-meaning story about the possibilities Hollywood had–and still have–when it comes to making things right for all creatives and audiences. Murphy and his team deserve credit for wanting to achieve something momentous as well as inspirational, but they could have been served better if they didn’t tell the story from a limited and (and a little stereotypical) “liberal” perspective. If more focus was on the mechanics of how Hollywood could have actually changed in the ’40s instead of providing lip service to basic, surface-level progressivism, we could have had a truly eye-opening story. As it stands, Hollywood is good for what it is–a fantasy.