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Ryan Murphy's Hollywood is more fairy tale than an alternate history -- one that is bizarrely disingenuous

  • Murphy's Netflix alternate history Hollywood Golden Age limited series paints progress "as a thing that arrives magically if one is determined enough, and racial and gender hegemony as weak-willed forces that can be toppled if one is willing to stand one's ground," says Daniel Fienberg. He adds: "With the possible exception of Norman Lear, no TV producer working today knows better than Ryan Murphy that change is possible in Hollywood if you're willing to dedicate yourself to seeing that change through. From the boundary-breaking cast of Pose to the directing leaps brought about by the inclusivity-focused Half Initiative, Murphy's legacy of enacting progress might outstrip his artistic legacy, or at least the first season of The Politician. No longer content to overhaul the present-day movie and TV industries, Murphy and frequent collaborator Ian Brennan have hopped in a time machine for their new Netflix limited series, Hollywood, a consistently handsome, often moving, frequently sanctimonious erasure of the actual slow nature of Tinseltown progress in favor of something that's more a fairy tale than an alt-history. Much more so than Pose, a fundamentally hopeful show set against the unlikely backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, Hollywood too often comes across as simplistic and naive, though if it causes anyone to research the period depicted, there's value in that."


    • Hollywood is either going to be loved or hated: "Expertly edited for maximum ridiculousness and sentimentality, Hollywood is destined to be a hit for Netflix," says Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. "It’s also a love-it-or-hate-it kind of deal, delivering historical reinterpretations that range from 'lol' to 'yikes.' I ordinarily hesitate to compare any piece of media to fanfiction, because it’s so often used as a clumsy and inaccurate shorthand for 'bad.' But here, the similarities are familiar. One of the key selling points of fanfic is the freedom to embrace total self-indulgence, unlike mainstream commercial entertainment where certain narrative guidelines and restrictions must be met. But Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan are in a unique position to do whatever the hell they want. Aware that Murphy is a hitmaker, Netflix signed him up for a $300 million deal in 2018. His shows are famous for being flashy, sexy and/or absurd, and with Hollywood, all hint of restraint is gone. You want to use Rock Hudson and Anna May Wong in a fictionalized rewrite of history? Sure! You want to explore the exploitation of closeted gay men, while using it as an excuse for a pool party scene full of nude hunks? Go ahead! It’s actually a welcome reminder of what types of wish-fulfilment are perceived as a big deal. There are dozens of shows about middle-aged straight men being superhumanly successful detectives or assassins or whatever, but they’re completely normalized. Hollywood’s overall concept is no less plausible than Sherlock—it’s just aimed at a different audience, with shameless panache."
    • Hollywood is too sincere, which makes it ridiculous: "The exact degree of ironic self-awareness here is hard to reckon, but Hollywood, for all its exaggerations, feels sincere — as if Murphy is building the past that would have created the world he would have preferred to grow up in," says Robert Lloyd. "Yet it’s this very sincerity, even generosity — its best features, really — that keep the series from being lifelike, and, indeed, can make it seem a little ridiculous. Hollywood is determined to deliver good outcomes to its characters; it’s a fixed game, and while it’s easy enough to watch, and to sympathize with its desire to liberate a repressive age, it has little urgency. No one will be jumping off the Hollywood sign here. The only question is just how far Murphy and Brennan are going to take their orgy of wish fulfillment; the answer is all the way — which is a sort of courage, I suppose."
    • The ease of which Hollywood's characters conquer prejudice is the point: "Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood is a period fable set in the golden age of Hollywood that rejects all of that. It throws realism out the window to create an alternate history where women, people of color, and queer characters unequivocally win in the face of racism, homophobia, and injustice," says Alexis Nedd. "Hollywood gives no quarter to how it was and is solely interested in the fantasy of what could have been in an ideal world. The fantasy is beautiful, and the result is high-quality escapism. In short, Hollywood is about a group of young creatives trying to make it in Tinseltown — a black gay screenwriter, a black starlet, an Asian director, a wealthy Hollywood housewife, one very earnest straight white dude, and a young gay actor by the name of Rock Hudson. These are not the people who had control over their careers and lives in the 1950s, but Hollywood’s plot twists and spins to give them a chance to make a movie that speaks to all of their experiences. As a mild spoiler that is also the point of this review, things go astoundingly well for them. Every institutional barrier in the main cast’s way crumbles as they blaze a trail to their perfect Hollywood ending, which in another production might seem like a glib shrugging-off of its period’s darker realities. In Hollywood, the ease of their success is the point. There are thousands of stories in which straight, white men win easily, so Hollywood flips the script by giving the exact same treatment to not-straight, not-white, not-men."
    • Hardly subtle, deliciously ostentatious, and admirably mischievous, Hollywood is a love letter to Hollywood by way of 2020 think piece: "It is messy and thrilling, upsetting yet profound; as uneven and as enthralling as any of Murphy’s big-swing, genre-contorting efforts: Glee, American Horror Story, or The Politician," says Kevin Fallon. "But as with his soapy historical study Feud: Bette and Joan, it is a fastidious celebration of a glamorized time in Hollywood that mines nostalgia for modern meaning—a fragile undertaking swaddled in the dazzle of unmatched production design and talent pedigree. Hollywood flops as often as it soars, but never rests in its grandiosity and ambition. The result is something escapist and frothy at a time when a retreat to a Hollywood happy ending is as alluring a fantasy as they come. There is brilliant acting and there is bad acting. There are ovation-worthy ideas and there are off-putting ones. But, above all, there is reason to watch: It is gay, it is sexy, it is Patti LuPone."
    • On the surface, Hollywood is a sweet idea: "Marginalized people assert themselves in the cultural machinery at a crucial moment when film is a sudden and inescapable monoculture, and as a result … ? Equality, I suppose, or maybe financial security? Or … respect?" says Kathryn VanArendonk. "Or the disappearance of prejudice? Hollywood is not long on the details of the aftermath, nor does it care much about details at all, in any scope beyond 'how many male hookers are in this scene' or 'how naked are they?' The end goal for Hollywood is visibility, the right to live as you are without having to hide. Pride is good. Shame is bad. The opposite of oppression is 'being seen.' Hollywood is right that visibility is vital, but for the show, the primacy of being seen overwhelms any complexity, complication, or sadness. The show makes all kinds of broad gestures toward intersectionality, but disregards any major distinction between queerness and non-whiteness. Its villains are people like Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), who are motivated by their own shame and so are mostly given a pass for their cruelty. (He’s very mean, but he’s wounded!) Hollywood’s dream is predicated on logic so narrow-minded that its sentimentality curls all the way back around to cynicism."
    • Hollywood is so committed to campy pleasures it never bothers to surface any fresh ideas: "Hollywood is just happy to paint a picture of what could have been, rather than work to say anything new about what Hollywood could become," says Ben Travers. He adds: "Surfacing true stories about Hollywood’s shameful past could be one eye-opening service Hollywood provides, especially for Netflix audiences who, based on its streaming library, likely don’t know much about movies before Will Smith. But the way Murphy blends fact with fiction, not bothering to delineate the actual discrimination from the fabricated kind, means it’s just as likely all the slights blend into believable fabrications instead of damning facts. Yes, it’s easy to believe everything that happens in Hollywood has really happened to someone, some time, in some shape or form, but the consistent cheer in Murphy’s series betrays the real pain he occasionally references."
    • Hollywood gets too bogged down in overwrought sentiment to reach its lofty ambitions: "This feels like a passion project for Murphy: an affectionate ode to the glitz and glam of the silver screen, but also a clear-eyed rebuke of the racism, sexism and homophobia that plagued a supposedly open-minded industry," says Dave Nemetz. "...The usual Ryan Murphy formula is firmly in place here: bitchy one-liners, struggles for LGBTQ equality, grandiose speechifying where characters directly voice their innermost beliefs and desires. But it often falls victim to Murphy’s worst storytelling instincts, with too much telling instead of showing and themes plainly spelled out and underlined in the dialogue. (The opening credits have the cast of showbiz hopefuls literally climbing a ladder, for crying out loud.)"
    • The episodes zip by and the story is exciting, even if you’re not a Hollywood insider: "Ultimately, Hollywood’s message is clear, even if its messaging is muddled," says Jacob Oller. "The series is engrossing throughout and its optimism is undeniably winning. In fact, thanks to some perfect juxtapositions in the imperfect finale, it’s quite moving. And who couldn’t use a Hollywood ending-style pick-me-up right now?"
    • Hollywood is Murphy's first outright dud since Glee: "This limited series braids together Murphy’s passionate, camp-inflected interest in the movies and moviemaking culture of yesteryear with another, somewhat conflicting trademark he’s arrived at more recently, the passionately and humorlessly held belief in the rightness of his political stances," says Daniel D'Addario. "What results is a Franken-show that’d have done the old Universal monster movies proud, lurching and stumbling through its story’s convolutions with great purpose but little worth saying. Murphy’s work can be uneven in the best of times, but with Hollywood, he has landed upon not merely the second show in a short time to announce a major new Netflix creator as perhaps in need of network- or cable-style creative guardrails (after Kenya Barris’ disastrous #BlackAF) but also the first outright dud of his post-Glee career."
    • Hollywood is in stark contrast to Murphy's Pose, which combined melodrama with a layered and thoughtful show about queerness without being shallow: "Hollywood is well acted and glamorously shot," says Michael Blackmon. "But while Murphy made it clear he was not interested in making a biopic, the fantasy version of these real actors’ lives has ultimately done them a disservice. A story doesn’t always have to wrap up nicely to be a good Hollywood ending."
    • Hollywood is confounding: "What begins as a critique of media's tendency to cling to the same scrubbed, self-serving, cynical narratives that deny full humanity to women, people of color and queer folk becomes ... a tone-deaf paean to the Magic! Of! Hollywood!" says Glen Weldon, adding: "Is it fun to see this ragtag gang of good-looking outsiders triumphing over cigar-chomping Old Hollywood via togetherness, moxie, gumption and a few well-acted, performatively woke monologues? Sure. But it's tough to shake the feeling that in trafficking in tidy uplift, this progressive parable is erasing the lived experience of those who — through no fault or lack of their own — couldn't and didn't manage to accomplish what these idealized, thinly drawn characters do. And though the series goes out of its way to supply moments of vindication to real-world figures mistreated by Hollywood like Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) — moments that are clearly intended as catharsis — in execution, they feel at best opportunistic and at worst appropriative."
    • Hollywood is wish fulfillment porn: "Hollywood climbs further and further into unbelievability as the minutes tick by, and by its crescendo, the 'losers' get the wins they deserved," says Malcolm Venable. "Like Glee, Hollywood puts outcasts at the forefront. It's wish fulfillment porn, and, particularly in the back half, such an incredulous utopia that it seems absurd and perhaps a little frustrating. But I came to realize that there's a reason Hollywood's fantasizing sometimes feel hard to swallow: We are jaded. We're so accustomed to injustice and the powers that be crushing little people, that challenging the idea of "that's just the way things are" is threatening, even in revisionist fiction. Scripted drama is, by definition, unrealistic; for factual accounts, we read books or watch documentaries. Usually when Murphy revisits the past — The People v. O.J. Simpson; Feud; The Assassination of Gianni Versace — the material looks for insights we might've missed that are relevant now. Hollywood asks us to think about how we all might be better today had the past been different. It's odd but daring storytelling, but, hey, if you've got the creative freedom and reserves of cash only Netflix can offer, why not experiment? Lord knows there are enough ordinary shows to watch, if that's what you want."
    • The pleasures of Hollywood are in its eye for historical details and its lusty, swellegant period cosplay
    • What is real and what is not in Hollywood?
    • Read the true story of Anna May Wong and The Good Earth
    • Michelle Krusiec had worked on a documentary on Anna May Wong in her 20s: “In doing really deep research now, I realized just how racist of a story she received,” says Krusiec. “It was very different than what I understood in my twenties. I really went deep and tried to understand what was she up against and how entrenched the racism was during that time.”
    • Jeremy Pope says Murphy said to trust him: "I was able to do so because one of my first questions for him was about how we’re talking about this black, gay man who had to exist in a different way in the ’40s than right now," says Pope. I wanted to be very conscious of that, and I asked him if there would be directors or people of color in the writers’ room to have that voice and experience writing those conversations for me. And he assured me of that. I was able to work hand-in-hand with Janet Mock who directed two of our episodes, and that was important and felt special because we were able to take the time and develop these experiences and relationships."
    • How Hollywood's production team reimagined 1940s Los Angeles
    • Hollywood star David Corenswet explains why the show's sex scenes are so important: "t's actually important to the show that you see the sex," he tells EW. "Because the whole point is that in that era, the public didn't see any of that. You never saw anything resemble anything close to sex on screen. It was all just innuendo and cool camera techniques to imply (things).  It's important that you see it happen in real time in the show because the point is to see this thing that was unseen and considered unseeable by the public."
    • It was Darren Criss' idea to set Hollywood in the 1940s: Criss had been fascinated by Scotty Bowers, the L.A. hustler who operated out of a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard.
    • Ryan Murphy originally wanted to do a more factual 1960s-set series honoring the Hollywood system's victims: “But ultimately, it was just too fragmented and also, to be honest, too depressing,” he says.
    • Jim Parsons considers Ryan Murphy part of his artistic family: "When the family calls, I say yes": "I had worked with Ryan a couple of times and I love working with him," says Parsons. "That's the easiest way to say it. But honestly, the specific thing was: I was at a place where I didn't know what I was going to do, and I still feel I'm in (that place.) But I knew that I wasn't going to sit in the desert and wait for the answer to hit me. And so when Ryan called, I really felt strongly that it was like the universe sending a handout and saying, 'Step this way.' He told me, "I've got a character in this that's unlike anything you've gotten to do before, and I'll send you the first couple of episodes and you can look at it and see what you think."
    • Parsons always wanted to play Roy Cohn, and Hollywood allows him to play a Roy Cohn type: "The other thing is that I have always wanted to try the Roy Cohn character in Angels in America, though I’m not at that age yet. It did occur to me, as I was playing, that Ryan’s given me a crack at a little bit of a Roy Cohn character," he says of playing the sleazy Henry Willson. Had he told Murphy that you wanted to play Roy Cohn? "No," says Parsons. "We were midway through the process when I sent him an email saying that this had turned out to be a hell of an important experience for me. I mentioned that there was a part of me, only half jokingly, that wanted to do for Henry Willson what Angels in America had done for Roy Cohn."

    TOPICS: Hollywood, Netflix, Darren Criss, David Corenswet, Ian Brennan, Jeremy Pope, Michelle Krusiec, Ryan Murphy, Production Design