From the mind of Ryan Murphy comes an alternate imagining of the Golden Age of Hollywood: a tantalising glimpse at what could have been.
Starring David Corenswet, Darren Criss, Laura Harrier, Joe Mantello, Dylan McDermott, Jake Picking, Jeremy Pope, Holland Taylor, Samara Weaving, Jim Parsons and Patti LuPone
There is such reverence and nostalgia for the earliest films, created during the so-called “Golden Age of Hollywood”. Creatives had never been quite so experimental as when creating the foundations from which films are still made to this day, and it’s frequently viewed as being a gloriously lavish and glamorous time period. Audiences are often seduced by the smoke and mirrors that is the glitz of this era of modern history.
A lot of that traditional viewing is seen here, with aspects of that admiration shining through. The sets and costumes really do conjure that image of the stylish elegance and allure of the late 1940s. However, the lure and appeal of the Golden Age are often seen through rose-tinted spectacles. After all, this is also the age that is responsible for Marilyn Monroe’s tragic end, as well as absolutely horrendous expectations and treatment of its lead stars, such as Judy Garland. Hollywood shines a light upon the uglier, more insidious parts of the business: the prejudice, the use of sex as currency, and the general corruption that allowed Hollywood to shape society as much as it was a product of it.
However, through diverging from the traditional model, and producing a fictitious counter-history, Murphy dramatically oversimplifies the heavily ingrained systems in place, and seems to suggest that, if people in the past had been more courageous, or more tenacious, then these systematic models of oppression and prejudice would have successfully been overturned. While it is effective through comparison at demonstrating the sheer injustice of the Hollywood model, it seems more an act of self-congratulation than it is genuinely constructive about the oppression that continues to this day in mainstream media when it comes to fair levels of representation. It merely suggests that if we’d had people like Murphy around in that Golden Age, then there wouldn’t have been any problem, completely neglecting the fact that the people who were put in power and in control of those studios were rich, white men who prevented any sort of meaningful change.
That’s not to say that Hollywood isn’t engaging or entertaining, however, and a fascinating thought experiment of “Wouldn’t that have been nice if it had happened?”, despite its oversimplification. Hollywood features an ensemble cast of a variety of people involved within the film industry. There’s aspiring actor Jack Castello (David Corenswet), who, to make ends meet, works at a petrol station that is secretly a front for sex work. This conveniently leads him to Avis Amberg (played with incredibly ferocity by the incomparable Patti LuPone), who just so happens to be the wife of a studio head, resulting in Jack becoming a contracted actor, despite having questionable levels of talent.
Half-Filipino (but white-passing) director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) is desperate to make a film with Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) as its lead, but, owing to her race and age, needs a hit before he can do it. This leads him to a script about Peg Entwistle, an actress who had committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign. The script, as it turns out, was written by Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), who is black and gay, and is also working at the same petrol station that Jack works. Highly unemployable by Hollywood on account of both his race and sexuality, Raymond is still determined to take on board his script, and the pair start working upon producing “Peg”. In the process of casting, tensions rise as Jack goes head to head with Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), who just so happens to be Archie’s boyfriend, and Raymond’s black girlfriend Camille (Laura Harrier) goes up against the studio executive’s daughter Claire (Samara Weaving) for the titular role.
There’s a lot to be appreciated in this set up. There’s a lot of investigation into how Hollywood is less about your level of talent, but rather about who you know. Sex is used in order to manipulate: those in power use it against those below them, and in return, they grant the other something only they can. It’s used both by Avis Amberg against Jack Costello (admittedly, Jack is semi-willingly working as a sex worker at the time), and also by talent agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons) against Rock Hudson. Camille is sidelined in the industry because of her race, and, despite being ferociously talented, is pigeon holed into merely playing servant roles, while less talented white actresses are promoted above her. Archie is sidelined within the production of Peg because of his race and sexuality, while Raymond is permitted because he doesn’t present as anything other than white. A point is also made about the focus of Hollywood upon age and beauty, both through Avis Amberg, as well as Anna May Wong and Jeanne Crandall (Mira Sorvino). All of these concepts really help to underline just how corrupt and unjust Hollywood was, and in many ways still is.
Some of this is lost when crafting an alternative history, however. Instead of having an opportunity to properly explore the destructive effect of this institution on those who are part of it, and the deep dissatisfaction that those like Camille must have felt at not having the opportunity to do what they feel driven and motivated to do, it almost seems too easy. The bleaker version, and more historically accurate version, might be better placed to affect a real and lasting change in real life, though it could be argued that the idealised version is significantly more palatable.
The characters on offer aren’t especially well-rounded or three-dimensional. Ironically, they are all also incredibly conventionally attractive, which seems at odds with the critique of Hollywood’s focus upon looks, but let’s park that for the moment. While it is tricky to root for the characters individually, what they each stand for is definitely something that the audience can get behind, so this lack of substance may be more intentional, in order for the characters to fulfil a trope-like role within the narrative. Camille, for example, doesn’t need to be particularly well developed herself, as she is representative of the many actresses of colour who struggled and fought to get opportunities to demonstrate their potential. The lack of written depth also doesn’t prevent all of the parts to be played incredibly well by the performers, in particular Patti LuPone, Jim Parsons, Holland Taylor, Joe Mantello and Jake Picking.
As mentioned earlier, the appeal comes from the idea of that, though this didn’t happen, it perhaps could have happened, and it’s a brilliant wish fulfilment fantasy of how our world could have been altered if it actually had. However, perhaps a dual narrative would have suited this point better and made it more effective – using a Sliding Doors-esque spin, where we can see the characters’ relative fates based upon being able to make Peg the way that they wanted it, and the one where they are compressed by studio executives.
Ultimately, the triumph of our protagonists is just too easy and convenient. They single-handedly manage to dismantle prejudice with one film with a black lead actress. Even in the present day, there are many actors who are pressured to keep their sexuality a secret, for example, yet we’re meant to believe that it would be possible to accept an Academy Award as a black writer in the early 1950s and also bring your boyfriend up on stage with you? It’s presented as a triumphant moment, and perhaps we’re meant to suspend our disbelief, but it just seems overly convenient. It’s clear that the writers had particularly story beats in mind, but this reeked a little bit more of a fantasy more than it actually being credible within the formerly realistic universe that Hollywood had crafted.
Through this easy triumph, it also comes across as a slight condemnation for the actual ordinary parts of the machine. It doesn’t read as it being a criticism of those who set up the systems, but rather a criticism upon those who didn’t fight against them hard enough. Those who were not brave enough or resourceful enough or plucky enough to make a film with a black lead, or to campaign to get a part, or to have the confidence to lead with their head and completely ignore their need for a further career. It completely breezes past all of the other factors that effectively stifled and constrained those within the machine to the extent where they were powerless to strike out against it. It seems more like Ryan Murphy congratulating himself on “Well, this is what I would have done, and continue to do to fix racism and homophobia in the media”, while also ignoring the different landscape through which Murphy came to the industry compared to the Golden Age.
Ultimately, Hollywood is incredibly watchable, and it does present an appealing alternate history. However, through creating a hyper realistic depiction at the beginning of the season, before careening into an idealised creation, it means that the messages of the piece become muddled and confused. If it was indeed the intention to produce a damning commentary upon the Golden Age, it could have been achieved in a far different way that perhaps would have been more cohesive and affecting.
Hollywood is available to stream now on Netflix.