[Review] Netflix series ‘HOLLYWOOD’ pulls back the curtain on cinema’s Golden Age, its biases and what should have been

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

HOLLYWOOD

TV-MA, about 5 Hours and 47 Minutes (7 episodes).
Creators: Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan
Cast: David Corenswet, Darren Criss, Jeremy Pope, Laura Harrier, Samara Weaving, Dylan McDermott, Holland Taylor, Patti LuPone, Jim Parsons, Jake Picking, Joe Mantello and Maude Apatow

Hollywood is a dream crusher.

In the heyday of Tinseltown’s Golden Age, handsome young bucks and dashing young ladies would hop aboard buses and head to California. They weren’t looking for gold. They wanted the limelight. It was fortune you could only find on the silver screen.

Fame. Celebrity. Stardom. The works.

What sounds dreamy and swell eventually becomes a nightmare for most. The star of the school play is handing you a menu at the local diner. The bartender pouring drinks is really a trained Shakespearian actor. All the world is a stage, but in Hollywood, parts are slim. If you were gay or black, you had to hide your sexual identity or be subjected to minority typecasting: an Aunt Jemima caricature or Rastus, the guy on the Cream of Wheat box – nothing empowering or three dimensional.

But what if… What if it didn’t turn out that way? What if the fits and starts of breaking the glass ceiling of race and sexual identity in cinema was a precursor to forward-thinking change nationwide and didn’t happen vicariously?

I’ve always found movies to be reflective of the times they were made during. Watch a lot of black and white films, and you’ll see more white than black. When pictures went to color, film studios remained casually Caucasian.

Industry titans Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan look to change the narrative with HOLLYWOOD, a limited series about cinema’s halcyon days and the discriminating side of show business. They present an alternate history of what might have occurred if the powers that be were sent packing and a new generation emerged.

We start with Jack (David Corenswet), a straight-laced G.I. back home from the war who is ready to try his hand at acting. He’s always loved the picture shows and figures he’s got the right look to make it big. Unfortunately, being picked by casting – as all the guys and gals cluster around the studio entrance each morning – is like a dockworker hoping to get a shift. Unable to get through the gates and onto the lot, Jack takes a job as a gas station attendant only to discover that this new position offers an unlikely opportunity.

Though Jack fits the profile of a heartthrob that Old Hollywood would covet, Jeremy Pope’s Archie is far from it. He’s got two strikes against him, and he’s not even up to bat. That’s because the Memphis native is black and gay. As a screenwriter, he can hide in obscurity because his name sounds like he’d be hanging out with Betty, Veronica, and Jughead. More than any other character, it is Archie who provides the soul of the series.

Courtesy of Netflix.

Another what-might’ve-been is Camille (Laura Harrier), a promising starlet that many consider the best in her acting class. Only she’s black and has to play the help, much to her displeasure. When attempting to offer a better reactionary response for her servant character in one scene, the director remains insolent and threatens to remove her from the set if unwilling to do it as written.

There’s a quasi-reality with HOLLYWOOD across its seven episodes. Soapy at times, yet glamorous to look at, Murphy and Brennan have crafted something where dreams are realized – not crushed – by the establishment. It’s a fantasy that runs alongside what was occurring in movies at the time. This is still the town that blocked real-life stars Anna May Wong (portrayed by Michelle Krusiec) and Hattie McDaniel from becoming leading stars. It also forced Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) to hide his homosexuality to be the admired heartthrob as his popularity skyrocketed by starring in Douglas Sirk melodramas and romantic comedies opposite Doris Day.

The backstories of Jack, Archie, Camille, Rock, and half Filipino writer/director Raymond (Darren Criss) form the show’s foundation that grows larger as more characters are introduced. All stories intersect on a promising project called PEG, based on the tragic death of young actress Peg Entwistle, who jumped from the H in the Hollywood sign. That Peg’s despair of not realizing her dream of stardom serves as the catalyst that brings all these personalities together is again reflective of Hollywood’s Golden Age and how the sweet smell of success can be mighty bitter.

HOLLYWOOD is escapism led by good intentions and noisy personalities. But unlike TIGER KING – Netflix’s buzziest of binge-watching material during COVID-19 – the individuals that shepherd cinema’s game changers are worth watching.

Patti LuPone as the wife of a studio mogul, who’s thrust into the role, finds it fits her better than playing the taken-for-granted house party hostess. Dylan McDermott has never been better as Ernie, the one who first takes a shine to Jack. His mannerisms and speech, the way he looks – aged-out to be a headliner but a damn-good supporting player – any studio would kill to have Ernie on the payroll. He was never a shooting star; he passes along wisdom to others that have a shot to be huge.

Of all the characters, no one can top Jim Parsons as talent agent Henry Wilson. A real-life character in every sense of the word, his stable of clients included Tab Hunter, Robert Wagner, Troy Donahue, Clint Walker, and Rock Hudson. The moment Parsons goes off into one of his many blistering rants, my ears were on fire. Goodbye, Sheldon Cooper, and welcome Mr. Incendiary. His boisterousness is balanced by Joe Mantello and Holland Taylor, two lovelorn and repressed souls that shoulder the burden of progress by those who sign their checks.

HOLLYWOOD is a what-if fantasy that satisfies despite a poorly structured narrative. (The format restricts subplots to grow and develop.) The characters, the look, and a tinge of effervescence help mask the story from falling short. The ending is a little too perfect for my tastes, hitting the highest of highs. Still, it’s all make-believe, and Ryan Murphy and Co. know how to please. Big screen dreams in the comfort of your own living room.

Grade: B

HOLLYWOOD is now available to stream on Netflix.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.