***Warning: Mild spoilers ahead***
While the #MeToo Movement has ignited a wave of change across various industries, that change is perhaps most obvious in the entertainment sector. Titan likes producer turned convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein, former Today show host Matt Lauer, and R&B legend R. Kelly (FINALLY!) have all been brought down in recent years after decades of alleged sexual abuse. But while things are slowly getting better in terms of gender equity, racial diversity, etc., these problems have been with the entertainment industry since the beginning. But what if they weren’t? Writer/producer Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime) explores what that alternative history could look like in his new Netflix miniseries, Hollywood.
Loosely based Scotty Bowers’s book Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood takes us back to the so-called “Golden Age” of Tinsel Town, a period lasting from 1913-1969. If billion dollar blockbusters, Meryl Streep, and TMZ are today’s planets and stars, then Hollywood’s Golden Age was the Big Bang that birth them all. But while audiences clamored for a glimpse into the glitter, the reality for those working in the film industry was far less glamorous.
Hollywood takes the real life stories of screen legends like Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), and Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) and others, and corrects the wrongs that marred their lives and careers. Interwoven in their narratives are fictional representations of starry-eyed actors, writers, and directors whose marginalized backgrounds would otherwise stifle their Hollywood dreams.
There’s Black leading lady-in-waiting Camille (Laura Harrier), her half-Filipino director boyfriend Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), and Black and gay screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope). Hollywood begins by introducing us to Jack Costello (David Corenswet), a White aspiring actor and war hero who moves with his pregnant wife from the Midwest to Los Angeles. After getting a job at a gas station that doubles as a male prostitution ring, Jack begins to meet the other characters as they work together to produce the first movie with a Black leading actress.
As you can imagine, it’s not an entirely smooth ride, but creator Ryan Murphy goes out of his way to show us what could happen if individuals in power are inspired to rise above their privilege to fight for fairness. Housewife-turned-studio head Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone) co-leads the charge as the studio weathers boycotts, violence, and a company coup over Camille’s starring role. But throughout it all, the team is able to outmaneuver racists, abusers, and homophobes to prove that the talkies (non-silent pictures) work best when diversity and inclusion are part of the picture.
Ask anyone who works in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles and they’ll probably have a story about some handsy producer or hot-headed executive who mistreated someone they know. Some stories are laughable, while others are downright heartbreaking. Just google #PayUpHollywood to find anecdotes of the hell people are put through just to try to make it in a tough industry.
That’s what can make Hollywood such a hard watch. Imagine if those who came before us were seen as whole people who deserved equal opportunities. Would Harvey Weinstein have had cart blanche if predators like legendary agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons) had been dispatched with earlier? Would Halle Berry STILL be the lone Black woman to win Best Actress in the Academy Awards 92-year history? Would Asian, Indigenous, and other creatives of color already have equal footing with everyone else in Hollywood today?
Take for instance Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), one of the world’s first true movie stars. In Hollywood, Hudson fearlessly holds onto the love of his boyfriend Archie, with both ultimately willing to risk life, limb, and career to maintain their interracial homosexual relationship. In real life, Hudson lived a closeted life before dying of AIDS-related complications in 1985. For all his fame, wealth, and prestige, Hudson was denied the chance to love boldly and live openly, a right other people easily can take for granted.
While Hattie McDaniel will forever be honored as the first Black person to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, her acceptance speech remains a sore spot for some Black Americans. After being forced to sit in the back of the ballroom due to the host hotel’s segregation policy, McDaniel tearfully accepted her award and promised to be a “credit to [her] race” in her speech.
Though Hollywood doesn’t rewrite McDaniel’s story, it does give her the opportunity to mentor young Camille (Lara Harrier) as she campaigns to be the first Black actress to win the Oscar for a leading role. Their scenes together are touching, but it’s hard for your heart not to break for McDaniel, whose career never received the bump an Oscar win gave her white contemporaries.
The list goes on and on with the wrongs Hollywood tries to right and many people will likely walk away feeling good about that. Some may look back on the show and lament what could’ve been had more of those battles been won in the early days of the film/television industry.
But we can’t change the past. We can, however, learn from it. If anything, Hollywood shows us how great the world can be when we treat each other with respect, dignity, and compassion. If you find yourself in a position to fight for the dignity of someone, be they a colleague or a stranger, maybe take the opportunity to do so. And if you’re the one making a decision, think about whatever isms may be holding you back and how you can resolve them for the better. Because when equality is on the menu, everybody eats.
Hollywood is now streaming on Netflix.