LAST year, we saw the movie “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” by Quentin Tarantino that rewrote Hollywood history. Now, we have “Hollywood”, an 8-episode mini-series by Ryan Murphy (said to be the most powerful TV executive in Hollywood today) in his Netflix debut which is also a fantasy revising some Hollywood events.
Maybe, part of loving Hollywood is wishing it had done better, that’s why today’s writer-directors are coming up with re-imagined versions and alternate histories of what could have happened in its past in a more positive way.
“Hollywood” may be a fairy tale but it has deeply engaging characters and succeeds in transporting us to another era. It purveys some shocking ideas that are definitely much ahead of its time as it follows the stories of four major male characters set right after the Second World War.
First is Jack Castello (David Corenswet, who has previously appeared in Ryan Murphy’s “The Politician”), a World War II veteran in the battle of Anzio who is now married and an aspiring actor. Then there’s Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss, who’s in Murphy’s “Glee” and “Assassination of Gianni Versace”), an inspiring director who is half Filipino and has a black girlfriend, Camille (Laura Harrier.)
Third is Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a black writer facing racial discrimination. Last is Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking, who is cast in the new version of “Top Gun”), an aspiring actor who will later be renamed as Rock Hudson. But this is a fictionalized version because in real life, Rock’s real name is Roy Scherer, and here, early on, he admits his homosexuality and flaunts his inter-racial affair with Archie while in real life, Rock succeeded in concealing his real sexual preference until he died of AIDS in 1985. He even got to make many hit romantic movies with Doris Day and was a hit on TV in “McMillan and Wife”, a mystery series that ran for six seasons.
Jack and Archie are initially forced to work as male prostitutes providing service to both gay and female clients, using a gas service station as their front, owned by Ernie West (Dylan McDermott). The Ernie character is based on a real life pimp, Scotty Bowers, whose exploits were shown in a revealing documentary, “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” based on his own book “Full Service”. It’s full of juicy, salacious tidbits about Hollywood celebrities and you can check it out online.
Jack’s very first client is Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone, Broadway star who shone in “Evita” and “Sunset Boulevard”), the lonely wife of Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner), the owner of Ace Studios. Archie sent a script he wrote about a girl who committed suicide by jumping from the Hollywood sign. It gets considered by Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello), a producer for Ace Studios and a closet gay.
This is assigned to Raymond as his first directorial job and he wants his girlfriend to play the lead role (which is then unheard of as she is black) and the supporting role to be played by Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), a Chinese American actress marginalized because of her race.
Meantime, Roy is discovered by Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons), a powerful Hollywood agent in real life. He renames Roy as Rock Hudson and his first job for him is to take off his pants so Wilson can suck his dick. Wilson quickly feels that he’s gay and warns him to hide his true self if he wants to make it big in tinseltown.
Avis becomes a power player when her husband Ace has a heart attack and becomes comatose. She green lights the controversial “Meg” project with a half-Filipino director, written by a black writer and starring a black actress. Everyone warns her it will be a flop and soon, even the Ku Klux Klan is hosting fiery protest rallies against them. But Avis has liberal leanings, as influenced by then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, so she pushes through with the project despite all the warnings.
And since this is a fantasy fairy tale, what do you think happens? They defy all the negative predictions and we’re told that “racial protests simply melted away”. They even win so many trophies in the Oscars when, that year, it’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” of Elia Kazan that really won big in the Academy Awards, most certainly not a film entitled “Meg”.
Just like in Tarantino’s film, you have to suspend a lot of your disbelief to enjoy “Hollywood” and the cultural context of its time. It takes a lot of artistic license to include real life characters like composer Cole Porter and playwright Noel Coward (both portrayed as gay), and hit director George Cukor who is shown hosting a raunchy party in his house where naked jocks are shown swimming in his pool to cater to his gay friends in high places.
We also see the show’s version of Hollywood actresses Vivien Leigh, Tahlulah Bankhead, Rory Calhoun, etc. but the most memorable is Queen Latifah playing Hattie McDaniel, the first black actress to win an Oscar who has two touching scenes giving moral support to Camille.
The acting is generally fine, but it’s not the leads here who truly shine but the supporting players, notably Patty Lupone as Avis Amberg and Dylan McDermott as Ernie, the pimp who later becomes an effective character actor. Jim Parsons (of “The Big Bang Theory”) effortlessly steals a lot of scenes and that scene with Rock where he pretends to be Isadora Duncan prancing around in his version of Salome’s dance of the seven veils truly brings the house down.
Also giving great support is Holland Taylor (best known as the judge in “The Practice”, she’s Sarah Paulson’s partner in real life) as Ellen Kincaid, a studio executive who acts as a mentor for new actors and becomes Ernie’s love interest.