‘Hollywood’ Dazzles, Thrills and Imagines A Better World

hollywood
Courtesy of Netflix

I think I’ve figured out why critics have responded with a resounding “meh” to Ryan Murphy’s two first Netflix projects, and why people on the internet can’t stop talking about them. At least I know why people seem to love Hollywood. Critics are receiving screener copies of the entire seasons of these programs, which means they get to see the way these programs start to crack from under themselves over the 7-8 hours. And if you’re paying too much attention to the structure and detail of these productions, you might just miss why the beauty of why they exist in the first place.

Ryan Murphy’s newest contribution to Netflix (as part of the $300 million deal that landed him there) is a 7-part limited series called Hollywood. Quickly described, it’s a revisionist history about 1940s Hollywood in a world and business where people of color and queer people stand a chance to make the kind of films they want to make. Something they are of course still largely fighting for today, in a business that is still strangely conservative. Hollywood is wildly inconsistent and infectiously sincere. It’s a love letter to a bygone era but also a rallying call to remind Hollywood that everyone could be doing a little better right now.

In post-WWII Hollywood, Jack Costello (David Corenswet) has come home from the war and has big dreams of Hollywood stardom. His newly pregnant wife rolls an eye at his ambition and doesn’t understand why he wants to be an actor. He’s approached in a bar by Ernie West (Dylan McDermott), an onetime aspiring actor/pimp who runs a male prostitution ring out of a gas station, full of young men who have big dreams. Through his new side-gig, Jack meets Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), a glamorous older woman who doesn’t initially tell him she’s got the connections to potentially give Jack his big break.

Meanwhile, at the gas station, Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) is an African-American aspiring screenwriter who has written a buzzy script about Peg Entwistle, who famously committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign. Gas station customer Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking) picks Archie up one night, and after the two realize how much they have in common, a romance quickly begins to blossom. Roy is an aspiring actor who, under the guidance/harassment of agent Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons), is re-named Rock Hudson.

Aspiring film director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) has been trying for years to make his first picture. Ainsley is half-Filipino but has always been able to “pass”, and would like to make projects that would break barriers and give marginalized people chances in a business that doesn’t want to hear from them. At the center of that is his girlfriend Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), an up-and-coming actress with big talent, who is consistently relegated to playing housekeepers.

The beauty of Hollywood is how all of these stories come together and move forward from there, as all of these people team up to make a groundbreaking motion picture that challenges the perceptions of audiences and Hollywood itself. And as a result, some viewers may be put off by the first episode or two, because of the inherent smuttiness of the gas station storyline. I wasn’t, for a few reasons, but I would encourage sticking with Hollywood because, by the time we get to the meat of the story, you’ll find how much there is to enjoy here.

I don’t want to suggest Hollywood is taut or well-structured because it definitely isn’t. It’s got a lot of the same problems as Ryan Murphy’s first Netflix project, The Politician. I wrote a 1500+ word deconstruction of what I loved and loathed about The Politician, and we’re clearly dealing with the same kind of thing. I ultimately concluded that there was far more about it I overwhelmingly loved, and this is clearly happening again. The same consistently zippy and chaotic pace, the inconsistent and messy tone, and the plot lines that are introduced and dropped at a moment’s notice are not lost on me, they’re just so easy to overlook when you pay attention to everything the show is doing right. The cinematography is crisp and beautiful, the costumes are to die for and the stellar cast is full of young actors I’ve only seen in one or two projects each (if that) and everyone is given adequate room to deliver star-making performances.

David Corenswet had a small but crucial role in The Politician, and it was a role that left me wanting to see more of what this actor had to offer. Jack is the quintessential 1940s leading man type. He’s handsome and charming and has so much enthusiasm and light behind his eyes. You initially wonder if Corenswet is all charm and no substance, but the more you watch his nuanced and detailed performance, it’s clear he’s paid attention to a lot of the greats of this era of film and he understands why these people are remembered so fondly. As much as he may be mimicking details of that era, he probably isn’t even trying, and he’s a truly captivating and naturally engaging screen presence. The character of Jack would be far less interesting without someone like Corenswet, and he’s definitely got what it takes. I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw him accepting an Academy Award one day.

Jeremy Pope just had a very good year, in which he was nominated for two Tony Awards. Hollywood is his first featured screen role, and he’s terrific. His bright smile and the way he lets a moment land isn’t inherently stagey and you feel like he’ll have a lot to offer the film industry in the right role. He has lovely and infectious chemistry with Jake Picking, who I have seen pop up in a few roles over the years. He’s got the same thing Corenswet does, where he’s so charming, it’s hard to judge initially how good the performance is. The more you watch, the more you begin to see the layers and the small details that are clear signs of a truly gifted actor. In playing a fictionalized version of a legendary actor, Picking seems to feel Rock Hudson’s spirit in the air. He’s pushed around constantly by people in charge, and this version of Rock Hudson gets to fight to be his own person, and Picking clearly understands how meaningful that is.

HOLLYWOODEDDY CHEN/NETFLIX
Courtesy of Netflix

Darren Criss won an Emmy for the Murphy project, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and it could be argued he’s not quite giving his all, allowing the many fresh faces in this show the room they need, but this show is crafted in a way that gives everyone room to shine. Criss, of course, is great, but you’ve really got a gifted cast when someone like Darren Criss isn’t even in the cast’s top five standouts. Laura Harrier, who I have not seen in anything before, is a real find. She’s got the wide-eyed optimism of a Hollywood hopeful, but you can tell she’s familiar with the systemic oppression inherent to the business, and you’re constantly rooting for her to succeed.

We also have Samara Weaving as Claire, Avis’s daughter, and aspiring actress. As the daughter of a studio head, Claire’s success would be an example of the kind of nepotism rampant in Hollywood for generations. Claire is not supposed to be greatly talented or ambitious. Weaving, however, gave one of my favorite film performances in last year’s horror-comedy darling Ready or Not. Weaving is giving just enough – enough to give her character depth but not enough to emerge as the heroine of this story. In short, she’s doing exactly what narrative asks of her, but anyone who’s seen Ready or Not knows how much more she’s capable of.

Legendary stage actress Patti LuPone has worked with Ryan Murphy before and has become recognizable to mainstream audiences for her roles in programs like American Horror Story: Coven and Penny Dreadful, but I can’t remember the last time LuPone has had this much to do in something off the stage. Having seen LuPone in Broadway’s War Paint, I’m familiar with how she can hold a room of a thousand people in her grip. And she’s got a deliciously campy, scenery-chewing kind of role here, and it’s obvious she’s having a ball, and that’s not even mentioning her insanely gorgeous costumes, where each is more gorgeous than the last. She’s clearly taking this all in and having a lot of fun, but I would love to see her show up again in another significant role in the Murphy-verse.

Holland Taylor plays Ellen Kincaid, a studio executive, and friend of Avis’s. This is also the most fun I’ve seen her have in a project in many years, and Taylor is obviously enjoying every smirk and witty remark. Famed stage director Joe Mantello plays Dick Samuels, her confidante, and fellow studio executive, and his storyline is truly special. The real surprise in the supporting cast for me, however, is Jim Parsons. Parsons is an actor I do not like, and I never understood the appeal of The Big Bang Theory. However, Parsons’ portrayal of Hollywood agent Henry Wilson truly shows all this actor is capable of. Wilson can be terrifying, underhanded, backstabbing, and endearing all in the same breath. He does terrible things, but he’s always got good intentions. Jim Parsons is doing career-defining work here and it’s enough to finally make a fan of me.

The incredibly lush cinematography by Simon Dennis and Blake McClure pays homage to the kind of Hollywood Murphy wants to embrace here, before he knocks it down and exposes its problems. Every detail from the production design to the costumes, the terrific score, to the flawless hair and makeup is perfect at all times, and it’s an extreme and aesthetically pleasing experience.

The reason I think Hollywood has resonated with audiences in the time of COVID-19 quarantines is because of its utter exuberance and optimism. Is this show anything more than wish-fulfillment fantasy? Maybe not, but it struck a chord with me that similar projects, namely Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, failed to. Hollywood introduces a group of wide-eyed young hopefuls and the viewer wants to see each of them achieve the stardom and happiness they deserve, and this is a world where they can. It’s a beautiful fantasy, but it’s just that – a fantasy. But it’s also so much more.

It’s also a reminder of the work Hollywood still needs to do. It’s quick to remind the viewer that people of color and queer people in front of and behind the camera still have a very hard time achieving the representation they deserve. It’s a message show that never lets the message feel too preachy. You’re enjoying this ride so much, you might not even grasp all it has to say on a single viewing. I’ve watched Hollywood from beginning to end twice since it dropped on Netflix only one week ago. I’ll acknowledge pacing problems and storylines that aren’t fully realized, but Hollywood is also the kind of show I have no problem embracing fully. It’s so lovely and so hopeful and it explores its themes in a truly fascinating way.

Conceived as a limited series, there are currently no plans for any continuation of Hollywood. And that would be fine. I think it might truly be perfect if it were two episodes longer, and we got to explore certain characters more completely. As it is, I would be totally satisfied with this story if Netflix and Murphy never wanted to return to it. However, I would be thrilled to see this story continue. Hollywood is a dazzling, vivid, and somewhat mystifying delight that imagines a better world and encourages a hopeful future.

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