Weirdly awful and compulsively watchable — few hurrays for ‘Hollywood’
“Equality and progress – that’s what we should stand for!” said no 1940s studio mogul ever.
But that’s exactly what Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone) proclaims as she hoists a martini as big as the Hollywood sign in “Hollywood,” the seven-part Netflix series set in 1947 Tinseltown. (It comes from Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, co-creators of “Glee.”) In this fever-dream alternate history, women have power, an interracial couple kisses on screen (explicitly prohibited by the Production Code then in force) and a gay screenwriter and his actor lover walk the red carpet holding hands.
Time is ripe for, and rife with, counterfactual entertainment. The what-if story – as in what if Sharon Tate hadn’t been killed in 1969? What if FDR hadn’t been elected president in 1940 and the Hitler-accommodating Charles Lindbergh had? – is the basis of Quentin Tarantino’s fairytale “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and David Simon’s nightmarish “The Plot Against America,” based on the Philip Roth novel.
Now, most counterfactual stories take place in the past and suggest how today might have been better/worse had there been a precipitating event making history unfold differently.
The what-if here: Imagine the movie industry in 1947 had the political and social consciousness of 2020 and the political changes wrought by Alfred Kinsey, the Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation and LGBTQ movements just happened overnight? But what’s the precipitating event? How did the movie industry get woke and make films created by and about women, gays and ethnic minorities? Did Malcolm X and Gloria Steinem time-travel back from the 1960s and raise consciousness? Had that happened, then it might have established the atmosphere for a present-day industry where inclusion is a given and predators like Harvey Weinstein are not tolerated.
“Hollywood,” which freely and arbitrarily mixes its counterfactual premise with actual people (Rock Hudson, Anna May Wong, and Hattie McDaniel) and events (the 1948 Oscar ceremony) is both weirdly awful and compulsively watchable. But once the vulgarian Jewish mogul, Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner), declares that a movie needs one of the following pairs to be profitable: “Tits, sword ’n’ sandals, or a boy and his dog!” I couldn’t turn off the damn thing. Even though much of it is not true, it is what you might call true-ish.
It seems to have a cast of thousands, but there are only ten or so who matter: The closeted producer (Joe Mantello); the mogul (Reiner); his nymphomaniacal wife (LuPone); their aspiring-actress daughter (Samara Weaving); the spinsterish casting director (Holland Taylor), the aspiring ingenues (Laura Harrier as Camille Washington, Jake Picking as Rock Hudson and David Corenswet as Jack Castello); the fledgling director (Darren Criss); the sexually opportunistic agent (Jim Parsons as the real-life Henry Wilson); the fledgling screenwriter (Jeremy Pope); and the town’s sexual majordomo (Dylan McDermott, terrific), who runs a gas station that sexually services Hollywood executives. (While McDermott’s Ernie seems the most far-fetched, he is based on Scotty Bowers, a real-life sexual entrepreneur and so-called ”pimp to the stars.”)
Creator of both the deliriously entertaining “Glee” and the excellent true-life drama “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” Murphy has solidly established himself in fiction and non-fiction TV. I had problems with his prior showbiz series, Feud: Bette vs. Joan (about Madames David and Crawford during the making of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”) Despite its perceptive critique of a business that believes women over 35 are gargoyles, the show made gargoyles out of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and took liberties with the life of Olivia de Havilland, who is still living.
Whatever its flaws, “Feud” had a consistent tabloid tone and atmosphere – by which to say exaggerated but true — unlike anything else I’ve seen before in popular entertainment. “Hollywood,” sadly, is tonally inconsistent, veering from affectionate camp to salacious wishful thinking, with PG-13 porn at regular intervals, like where the songs would be if this was a musical.
I laughed heartily at the camp, winced at the wishful thinking and was more interested when the actors were dressed than undressed.
When Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah, who is wonderful), the first African-American Oscar winner (for Mammy in “Gone with the Wind”), reads that the fictional black ingenue Camille (Harrier) is cast in an interracial romance, she screams, “M——-f———, Praise be!”
But when McDaniel gets out of bed one morning with actress Tallulah Bankhead (Paget Brewster), the real-life, pansexual actress, I cupped my head in hands. Their “relationship” was promulgated by Kenneth Anger, an avant-garde filmmaker, in his extremely dubious history, “Hollywood Babylon.” Bankhead was a self-confessed sexual adventuress, that’s true. But lacking a smoking lipstick or otherwise authoritative documentation, hands off Hattie’s sex life.
Despite its flights of fantasy, “Hollywood” reminds its audience of uncomfortable showbiz truths. That’s not a bad thing. Both male and female newcomers were preyed on by sexual opportunists who had power over hiring. Willson’s character, the agent played with malicious glee by Parsons, seems like a cartoon horrowshow, but he was a real one. (Parsons obviously had fun playing him, and so does the audience.)
And despite the fact that Hollywood studios had Asian-American talent like Anna May Wong and African-American talent like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge (on whom Camille is likely based), they were under-utilized assets. It’s true, as is mentioned in the series, that in 1940 when she won her Oscar, McDaniel couldn’t be seated with other nominees because the ceremonies were held at a segregated hotel. (Movie theaters were segregated then, as well.) It’s true that in 1937 third-generation Asian-American Anna May Wong didn’t get the role of the Chinese mother in “The Good Earth”; it was given to German-Jewish actress Luise Rainer. It’s important to remember that lot of racism and sexism then, not the inclusion and intersectionality celebrated here.
Halfway through the series, “Hollywood” pivots from catalogue of the industry’s injustices to dispenser of retributive justice to women, gays, and people of color who were denied their rightful place in the movies. It’s a weird shift, like putting a 2020 transmission into a 1947 sedan. But I couldn’t stop watching.
And I couldn’t stop thinking: If Murphy and Brennan wanted to celebrate diversity in the movie industry, why didn’t they set it Hollywood in 1920 when there were dozens of female directors, African-American independent filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux and Asian-American stars like Sessue Hayakawa?