‘Make Me Feel Like I Matter’: Fantasy and Reality in Ryan Murphy’s ‘Hollywood’

Yes (from the Netflix series “Hollywood”)

Ryan Murphy’s effervescent ‘Hollywood’ starts off like one of the fizzy cocktails Patti LuPone is always sipping in its many bar scenes. Watching the early episodes, it’s easy to feel intoxicated, especially if you have even an ounce of curiosity about the lurid behind-the-scenes machinations involved in producing the ‘wholesome’ American studio films of the thirties and forties. By the end however, you may feel like your liquor has gone flat and someone tossed out your drink and filled the glass with medicine instead.

Trying to cure the industry of its persistent disease of exclusion and stereotyping, Murphy’s series is laudatory for what it wants to inspire and achieve. With a few notable and very serious exceptions (more about those later) ‘Hollywood’ (the series) is a model of diverse storylines which all coalesce into a wistful fantasia that imagines a brave film industry that is rewarded for taking bold inclusive risks in casting and subject matter. (As the series does acknowledge with a glance, the studio system did occasionally make ‘daring’ pictures, such as ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ and ‘Pinky’, though they were problematic in their own ways.) If your brow furrowed and your eyebrow cocked at the thought of a heroic bunch of studio executives fighting for a cinematic Civil Rights movement, don’t expect to relax your forehead muscles much during the last half of this limited series. ‘Hollywood’ sets its focus on the newish genre of alternative history, what could have and should have happened, or perhaps, what needs to happen now.

Before the series boxes itself into its messaging, there’s some considerable flair and razzmatazz in pacing and the detailing of some hidden and not-so-hidden Hollywood lore. ‘Hollywood’ starts promisingly by jumping right into territory that should be prime Ryan Murphy real estate by its very transgressive nature: a dramatization of the Scotty Bowers story. According to his own biography and a documentary made about him, ‘Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood’, (which its filmmakers said they factually cross-checked), Bowers came to Hollywood after serving in WWII and took work at a gas station in the greater Hollywood area. Approached for secretive sex by a major Hollywood actor while, ahem, pumping his gas tank, word got around that Bowers was a friendly, sex-positive and sexually fluid stud for hire. Bowers soon recruited men like himself to ‘get in the car’ with the various Hollywood power players who drove up to the station or to go to parties with them. He even played bartender at big estates, serving up …hmmm, the pun here with a another word for drinks is too easy.

When Bowers was in his nineties and most of his former ‘clients’ long dead, Bowers named names in his autobiography: he’d either been with or arranged sex for Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Walter Pidgeon, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, J. Edgar Hoover (!), George Cukor, a long list of studio execs, and many we’ll never know about.

In the series, Scotty is ‘Ernie’, played with an appealing wink and every ounce of sincerity he can muster by Dylan McDermott. When strapping Jack Costello (David Corenswet) hangs his head at a bar and drinks away his rapidly disappearing hopes of getting cast as an actor, Ernie approaches him with a rather shocking disclosure (beautifully delivered in classic forties era ‘Hey, Pal’ jargon) and starts to groom Jack for a job at his gas station/gigolo haven, ‘The Golden Tip’ (so much for subtlety.)

Motivations click into place (Jack’s wife is pregnant) and soon the aspiring actor is leaning into car windows (those cars!) and if the passenger says they want to go to ‘dreamland’, Jack jumps in and takes them there. Sexually, I mean. In case it wasn’t clear. In the series, it’s clear.

And that’s more or less the tone of the show as well. The actors cast as the jockeys at the service station (everywhere you go there’s a double-entendre) are dreamy and “corn fed” and portrayed with full assertion of the Queer Male Gaze (or at least, Queer Male Gaze # 1: the Midwestern, ‘wholesome’, square-jawed beefcake ideal of the ‘discreet’ male posing magazine era.) The series mentions ‘Charles Atlas’ at least a couple of times, so you get the point.

One can imagine that a full-length dramatization of Bowers’ stories, drenched in the kind of budget Murphy is able to afford here, would be more than enough story for an intriguing limited series and frankly, would be perfect for Murphy’s sensibility. This is a man who pushed cable series censorship thresholds with ‘Nip/Tuck.’ Bowers was apparently quite sexually open and joyful, a man who found pleasure in what he did and provided the services he and other ‘attendants’ offered without taking a cut of their fees. In other words, he was enough in demand that he did okay by himself. I’d watch an anthology show like that; each patron’s story uncovering another ‘hidden Hollywood’ story nestled within. That would be splashy and dazzling, but also substantial.

Curiously though, Murphy’s ‘Hollywood’ uses the ‘Golden Tip’ primarily as a series launch pad. For some reason, given free reign here, Murphy makes McDermott’s Ernie more hetero, not bi like Bowes, and does the same for Jack, leaving any intimations of gay sex to the rest of the ‘fellas.’ What could have been a sexual identity roundelay disappointingly and uncharacteristically becomes as conventional in its morality (‘I can’t do that anymore, Ernie!”) as the sexually straitjacketed films the series disparages.

‘Hollywood’ propels itself in trumpet-like bursts alternating with string-laden love scenes between the younger characters that are occasionally touching but also just as likely to be maudlin and make you want to hit your fast forward button. The scenes are caught somewhere between a script that is self-consciously trying to recreate the syrupy notes of melodrama with something more authentic. The tone in the storylines involving the younger actors lands awkwardly and frustratingly uneven, though the actors try hard to make it cohere. The younger cast have moments of poignance and beauty, but end up feeling very ‘B+.’

In fact, to write this review I re-watched a few key scenes, and the performances of the younger actors like Samara Weaving and Jake Picking as Rock Hudson have some layered moments. Laura Harrier as African-American young actor Camille Washington and Maude Apatow as Costello’s wife are also valiant, but they keep getting hemmed in by their roles in ways that service the message or back story, but don’t always make sense.

Darren Criss as a biracial (Pinoy and white) director who ‘passes’ (a plot point the series underscores at every, and I do mean every, opportunity) also has awkward moments, but is well-cast; his handsomeness is maturing in a movie idol way and he looks like a director who might inspire studio execs to take a chance on him. He’s best when he conveys how a young creative person who gets his big chance fleetly transforms into a demanding player.

All of them are perfection when they act in “Meg,” the socially conscious film-within-the-series they join forces with the newly socially-conscious studio execs to get made. Weaving is revelatory in her too-brief turn in the ‘Meg’ portion as a Judy Holliday platinum blonde barfly and all of them perfectly embody a retro performance style in a recognizable way.

Jeremy Pope as Archie, a young African-American trying to break into screenwriting, is magnetic but I found him most resonant when he’s being unapologetically flirtatious and sexually confident; he seems like he’s enjoying turning the tables on the social power structure he’s inherited.

While the younger cast ride a rollercoaster of credibility, the older cast are consistently steady and involving. The series is cast with veterans and legendary actors (McDermott, Lu Pone, Holland Taylor, Rob Reiner, Mira Sorvino, Queen Latifah) or actors of known personas who are swinging for the fences (Jim Parsons as real-life abusive and exploitive gay agent Henry Wilson) and the results are frequently zesty and galvanizing. The viewer can’t be blamed if they give in more easily to the seductions of these pros making a meal of the Tinseltown archetypes they embody.

As appropriate for a movie about outsize egos and stars in various levels of ascendance and descendance, the series really leans hard on its veteran actors to pull it through and boy, do they respond as if each were Barbara Stanwyck or William Holden fighting for their lives.

LuPone has many exceptional moments of hauteur assertion as well as surprising tenderness, and a physicality that tells you a lot about why a woman so inherently powerful would become so cynical. It’s so pleasurable to see Murphy give Lu Pone such a big role and for her to run with it. There are many bright colors in her palette here, but one of the best is her moment of refusal to return to being a studio head’s “housewife” after she’s tasted creative power. Her monologue response to studio head Rob Reiner is like an aria. Murphy has a genuine fan’s gift for creating a role worthy of a diva; he’s done it repeatedly for Jessica Lange, and we’re all the richer for it.

No less elegant is Holland Taylor, as high-powered casting agent Ellen Kincaid. She’s caught between perpetuating the stereotypical white exclusivity in the lead roles of “Ace Studio” (a fictional studio that looks like Paramount but acts like MGM) productions, and apparently her true desire to cast people of color (one of the first ways we start to realize we are in ‘alt-history’ land.) However, Taylor gets many showcases that go beyond the homiletic speeches she has to deliver. Who wouldn’t want to watch Holland Taylor teaching a classroom of young actors, even in this imaginary setting, and a class on diction at that? She flawlessly demonstrates the phony ‘mid-Atlantic’ pronunciation actresses like Hepburn and Davis utilized to appear both ‘All-American’ and ‘high class.’

Taylor and LuPone are both given later-in-life sex passion and romantic scenes, yet another on the list of ‘pro-‘ inclusivity elements of the story. In fact, Murphy dispenses with ageist tropes that people become less sexual as they get older early on, with a scene of what can only be called ‘staircase schtupping’ and a rather out-of-nowhere romance between Taylor’s character and another. The intentionality is obvious, but admirable.

In fact the sexual politics follow this same pattern of good intentions at righting wrongs, though the messaging sometimes throws cold water on the potential for real heat. It’s so welcome to see Mira Sorvino get a plum supporting role as an actress with a slippery moral code and a smiling acceptance that sexual favors are part of the casting couch. It’s hard not to think of the real-life horrors and indignities Sorvino reportedly faced from Harvey Weinstein, but it’s clear you are meant to think about them. Sorvino keeps the focus on the humor and kindness her character tries to emanate, as though holding onto her goodness is the only way she has left to express her autonomy.

Queen Latifah has a brief but memorable appearance as Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American Oscar winner, though it was for her role as a ‘Mammy’ in ‘Gone with the Wind’; McDaniel’s flashback about how she won Hollywood’s honors by playing a slave while receiving criticism for the same thing by other African-Americans is yet another example of how this series would have benefitted less by struggling to create a shoe-horned, convoluted fantasia and just let the true circumstances speak for themselves. Queen Latifah, in her few moments on screen as the apparently bisexual McDaniel (an affair with Tallulah Bankhead!) makes you long for an entire episode just devoted to her.

And that’s the general issue here: at several stops the foreground story devolves into preachiness, an explanation of worthy sentiments that lose their effectiveness when they keep getting underlined, italicized, and SHOUTED! It’s no fun watching Parsons, so good here delivering weasely jabs, have to explain a plot point or injustice so explicitly after we’ve just intuited it for ourselves. This happens so frequently during the last two episodes, things get so ‘on the nose’ that we find ourselves watching a show that exhibits some of the characteristics these smart studio execs would edit out of their own productions. It’s been reported that Murphy didn’t want to tell the true stories of Anna May Wong, Hudson, McDaniel and more because their stories were too fragmented and ended so tragically. In other words, they wouldn’t make for a ‘good arc.’

I’m not so sure. I wish ‘Hollywood’ had followed the instinct to use each episode to tell the stories of its non-fictional characters far more than its fictional ones. Focus on their triumphs and give shape to their lives, let them resonate between each other in episodes with crossover. I would be far more interested in how the trepidatious Roy Fitzgerald developed the skill to become the witty and assured Rock Hudson of ‘Pillow Talk’ and ‘Giant’ than the wish-fulfillment storyline he gets here, though it’s a fantasy pointedly less fulfilled than those of the other characters. Though Roy and Archie have their moment, Murphy makes sure we know that homophobia in Hollywood is especially pernicious and hypocritical.

There’s certainly the glitz, glamour, budget and skilled set design (Queer Male Gaze #2) in ‘Hollywood’ to have served the story whichever direction the script might have taken. I’m not the first to opine, ‘Come for the story, stay for the sets.’ Gorgeous details like the palm frond wall paper in a hotel room, a postwar LA apartment building, the tasteful argyle knitted t-shirt Hudson wears in a meeting, the surreally and unbelievably pristine service station, and the cars. The cars! Did I mention the cars? A honeyed cinematography bathes unifies these sterling production elements in a seductive glow.There’s even a brief digression and shout-out to the great glamour photographer George Hurrell and a tidbit about how he produced his ethereal portraits.

I’m a person with intersectionality of several diverse identity elements myself, and yet I found myself thinking that if I had lunch with the real power player behind ‘Hollywood’, I wouldn’t be talking about the ‘representation matters’ messaging: I’d ask about the midcentury modern upholstered divans, or push for a whole episode that put Cukor’s gay pool parties as the major story. (Did he really hire the USC football team to attend and strip for the guests? How did that happen?)

The one actor who truly gets to rise above all of this without a hint of camp or irony is longtime theater director/actor Joe Mantello. In an excellent cast, he shines. As Dick Samuels, an efficient production chief with a dormant but awakening conscience, Mantello truly is memorable; I found myself haunted by his character, able to see him even when he wasn’t on screen. Though he has an awkward scene with Pickling’s Rock Hudson (a scene we might, just on a pleasure level might have wanted to see play out more realistically and passionately), Mantello summons enough inner fortitude to will us to see the tragedy in Samuel’s character clearly, and yet still somehow retain an air of beckoning mystery. It’s a remarkable achievement.

“Dick Samuels” is a stand-in for all the gay people in Hollywood who promoted a heteronormative culture for profit but in so doing, perpetuated the oppression, self-loathing and political persecution that kept them closeted and marginalized, even criminalized and killed. Parsons’ Wilson is the flip side of the same coin — he perpetuates the system through abuse of his own clients, which in real life included Tab Hunter, Guy Madison, Hudson and more. Wilson could spot a boy with ‘Aw Shucks’ appeal that he could cruelly exploit for sex a mile away, and then turn around and make them a “movie star.” Murphy is smart to show the pillars of rot and sexual abuse that have propped up Hollywood for decades, while at the same time making you wonder how much it still exists and what drove it in the first place.

Which leads us to conscious or unconscious prejudices that still poison the film industry (with brief tendrils of hope). Here’s one of the biggest mysteries of ‘Hollywood’, and its most inexcusable flaw: Where are the Latinos and Indigenous people (you know, the ones whose land the studios rest on, and who toil behind the scenes in countless film and tv productions?)

Let’s do a count at who got invited to sit at this series’ table of inclusivity? Asians, check, Blacks, check. Biracial. Older people. Jewish people. Addicts. Exploited Women. Exploited Men. LGBTQ people for sure. They’re all in ‘Hollywood.’ But literally and figuratively, Latinx people are conspicuously not.

By Murphy’s own admission, he wanted to create an inspiring fantasy or history that would speak to the need for ‘Hollywood’ to be more diverse. So didn’t anybody think, well, it’s Southern California, for sure we should have Mexican people, Latinx people, Native people? For an industry that built its back on Westerns and films with exoticized ‘Latin Lovers’, the omission is so egregious, it’s disturbing and appalling.

This of course could be addressed in ‘Hollywood’ (season 2).

If you want some stories that mix glamour and heartbreak in a sterling cocktail shaker, how about the story behind the closeted Cesar Romero? What about the lusty and adventurous Maria Felix, or Dolores Del Rio who had to change her image depending on which audience she catered, American or Mexican. Rita Hayworth, who transcended her punishing childhood but could only be accepted in Hollwood if she was “de-Latinized”, and of course, her affair with Orson Welles? What about what Ricardo Montalban and Anthony Quinn faced? There’s also Rita Moreno and the inconsistent casting of ‘West Side Story.’ The non-Oscar disrespect of Latinx actors that continued all the way to today (Jennifer Lopez in ‘Hustlers’, anyone?)

Ramon Novarro, for God’s sake. Now there’s a story.

Instead, for all its touted and hopeful good intentions, ‘Hollywood’ ended up snubbing the same people its namesake town always has. The series, as compulsively watchable as it has proven to be, ends up continuing the oppression it’s supposed to deconstruct.

And that, unfortunately, is no fantasy.

Film, Music, Peak TV, Diversity— Tom Cendejas is sitting on a sofa and unwrapping Pop Culture with a Latino eye, one husk at a time. tomcend@gmail.com

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