A few weeks ago, a one-minute blooper reel began to circulate on Twitter, featuring a number of 1930s and ‘40s stars flubbing their lines and actions. Featuring Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart and more, we watched these actors break in the middle of impassioned melodrama, revealing their too-real amused frustrations.
The clip above is far more PG-rated than the new Netflix series from Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, but it still captures the essence of that contrast—the beautiful polished presentation of the classic era, juxtaposed with the far more seedy truths behind the scenes—which forms the primary basis of Hollywood.
Hollywood is all about the dreams that bring people to the titular town, and the dirtier aspects of what it takes—or at the very least, what people think it takes—to make it. Set in post-World War II Los Angeles, the series blends real-life figures with fictionalized characters, sometimes to a surprising degree; one prominent character is identified by his eventual movie star name on Wikipedia, but in the context of the show the official reveal comes near the end of Episode 2. It’s played like a twist, which is why I’m not revealing it here, but it’s a choice that only begins to hint at the way the series muddles the lines between history and alternate history.
The first character introduced, aspiring actor Jack (David Corenswet), is our portal into the darker aspects of the show after Ernie (Dylan McDermott) “discovers” him at a bar, and offers him a job working at a gas station where (sorry, it’s impossible to resist) gas isn’t the only thing getting pumped. Ernie’s operation is clearly inspired by tales of an infamous real-life gas station brothel operated by the notorious Scotty Bowers in the 1940s, which allegedly provided plenty of legends from that era with same sex partners, and antics at Ernie’s consumes so much of the operation that you might be led to believe that this is a show about male prostitution, not the entertainment industry.
But while things begin with lots of very attractive young people stripping down to an array of flattering and unflattering undergarments (tighty-whities make a strong appearance) that’s eventually not the case. At the center of the limited series is a project initially called Peg, based on the true-life story of unsuccessful actress Peg Entwistle, who died by suicide in 1932 by jumping off the Hollywood(land) sign. It’s a very on-the-nose choice of subject matter—which is very on brand for Ryan Murphy, as is the luxurious attention to period detail and sprawling cast stacked with star power.
One can only imagine what the Netflix awards team’s war room looks like right now, in terms of trying to strategize Emmys season. Among the more notable players is Darren Criss as the young director trying to get Peg made on his terms, while Mira Sorvino brings a touch of Marilyn Monroe to her small but significant role as an aging Hollywood starlet. Dylan McDermott has way too much fun finding the nuances of a character who, under different circumstances, might have been far less sympathetic. Samara Weaving, having delivered an amazing, career-making performance in last year’s Ready or Not, feels underserved here, but as one of the actors competing for the lead in Peg, she stands out in her brief scenes.
And god, that’s not all! Patti LuPone gets to wear fabulous hats! Holland Taylor is gloriously vulnerable and snarky! Rob Reiner gnaws on both steak and scenery as the head of the studio! Queen Latifah is Hattie McDaniel! Tonally, there are some wild swings made by this cast, not always succeeding: Jim Parsons, as the ruthless and shameless agent Henry Willson stands out mostly for the extremes of his performance, but while this couldn’t be more different from his Big Bang Theory work, it’s hard to say that it works all that well, especially as Henry (based on a real figure) is meant to serve largely as the corruption undercutting the show’s eventual optimism—all while ostensibly working for the good guys.
Meanwhile, Joe Mantello, known best for his decades of stage work, delivers what might be the show’s most subtle and interesting performance, caught between being very good at his job as a studio executive and the sad state of his personal life.
LGBTQ characters are prominent members of the cast, but a major concern of Hollywood is both the latent and explicit racism inherent within the industry, especially at this time: From Criss’s (fictional) character sharing his real-life part-Asian ethnicity, to the people of color scrambling to escape being pigeon-holed by their race. In real life, the story of Anna May Wong doesn’t have the happiest ending. But Hollywood decides to fix that.
One fun quirk of libel and slander laws is that a person has to be alive in order to sue over the way they’re depicted in a project like this. It’s a lesson Murphy perhaps learned the hard way after his depiction of Olivia de Havilland in Feud: Bette and Joan led to her taking legal action, a case that almost made it to the Supreme Court.
All the real-life figures depicted by Hollywood are in fact deceased, but the show’s interest in reality dims and dims over these seven episodes, replaced instead by a well-intentioned but perhaps not fully earned optimism that the right film, made at the right time, can make the world a better place. At a time when film and TV production is literally deemed non-essential by governments, and potentially even dangerous in the pandemic era, it’s wild to remember how much Hollywood thinks stories like Hollywood matter. While it doesn’t quite sell its point, it doesn’t fail to entertain.
Hollywood premieres Friday, May 1st on Netflix.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.
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