When Quentin Tarantino went for a happy ending/re-imagining of the Manson murders in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, the reactions were mixed for obvious reasons. Movie fans who fancy themselves fact-checkers generally don’t appreciate artistic license when it comes to depicting real events on screen, whether it be a blatant and brutal righting of wrongs as Q.T. tried to do in his award-winning film or a simple fudging in chronology (as seen in biopics such as Bohemian Rhapsody — and pretty much any movie depicting the entertainment industry in a true yet compelling way).
Ryan Murphy (creator of Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, Pose, etc.) is obviously aware of the challenges inherent in chronicling the “Golden Era” of movie-making in Los Angeles post-World War II, particularly one that reflects the sexism, racism and homophobia that was rampant at the time. But Hollywood, his latest limited series for Netflix, doesn’t fuss too much with accuracy in terms of history beyond the overt injustices that occurred and salacious behaviors that were hidden from public view. Its soapy narrative is inspired by several true life occurrences and real (famous) people, but a couple episodes in, we come to realize that what we are watching is pure fantasy, an alternative universe that explores how things might have been different if more enlightened people had been in power at the big movie studios early on. It’s a fun ride, but it’s played so over the top it feels like parody pretty much from the get-go — and this makes it hard to care too much about anyone involved.
Main character Jack (David Corenswet) comes off particularly plastic. A war vet with dreams of being a movie star, the handsome young man finds himself working for Ernie (a dashing and cool Dylan McDermott) at his infamous Golden Top Gas Station, a front for prostitution inspired by a real life pimp n’ pump from the ’40s and ’50s. Jack is straight, so when he’s asked to service men as well as women, he gets gay writer Archie (Jeremy Pope) to help out. But Archie, the most engaging character in the series with the best lines (“He likes the cat and the kitty,” he says of a bisexual fellow hustler.) has bigger aspirations as a screenwriter. He’s written a script based on starlet Peg Entwistle, who killed herself by jumping off the H in the Hollywood (then Hollywoodland) sign. But Archie is black so actually selling a script during a time when segregation was still a thing seems doubtful. In Murphy’s world, however, it’s anything but… in fact, it’s destiny.
Up-and-coming director Raymond (Glee‘s Darren Criss) gets the studio bigwigs to bite and eventually even tweak the script to star his girlfriend Camille (Laura Harrier) who is also black, in turn transforming the story from a tale about disillusionment and struggle in Hollywood to something more layered: a commentary on how racism never even affords people of color a chance to compete in the first place.
It’s a nice idea, but the way it all comes together is unbelievably trite and circumstantial. The overacting by Corenswet and the equally beefcakey Jake Picking as Rock Hudson don’t help matters here. As the series makes very clear, both are basically pretty boys who can’t act. But even when they’re not “acting” and just being themselves, they come off as dumb and trying way too hard. For a series that’s supposed to be about equality and showing us how Hollywood might benefit from more open minds, there’s a lot of stereotypes and cliches here, and instead of being called out, they seem to be validated.
Spewing abusive quips and cutting comments in every scene Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) is highly enjoyable to watch as real-life gay agent Henry Wilson, but again, his scenes are so villainous and excessive he doesn’t seem human, even when the storyline offers him some redemption near the end. Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) is an alcoholic Asian starlet who was robbed from a juicy role due to her race and gave up on her craft because of it, while Mira Sorvino plays an actress dealing with ageism and having affair with her studio head boss (Rob Reiner). Both women come off weak. Thank goodness for Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor as Reiner’s long-suffering wife and studio exec; the two women along with a fellow (gay) studio head, ultimately make some big decisions that change the course of movie history in Murphy’s “dreamland.”
If anyone is making the film industry more inclusive, it’s Murphy, so it’s easy to see why the premise here would appeal to the producer, and on paper this one’s got it all. Gorgeous period costuming that’s made shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel so popular, lots of sexy lore (gay and straight), and a stellar cast. But with a couple of exceptions, the one-dimensional acting and improbable story arc make the whole thing feel like a cartoon. Which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for. Hollywood might provide just the kind of flashback and eye candy audiences are looking for right now, but in the end it trivializes the very issues it seeks to highlight.