The Netflix limited series — starring David Corenswet, Darren Criss, Patti LuPone, Jim Parsons and more — offers a (re)vision of a diverse post-War movie industry.

By Darren Franich and Kristen Baldwin
April 29, 2020 at 03:00 AM EDT
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SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX

The 7-episode limited series Hollywood, Ryan Murphy’s second project at Netflix, premieres May 1. Co-created by Ian Brennan (Glee), the dramedy imagines a reality where society’s underdogs (African-Americans, Asians, homosexuals, women) are able to make it big in post-War Tinseltown. EW TV critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich debate the merits of Murphy and Brennan's revisionist take on showbiz history.

KRISTEN: Hollywood begins — where else? — at the movies, where soldier-turned-aspiring actor Jack Castello (The Politician’s David Corenswet) is taking in a helpfully expositional newsreel. “Tinseltown is boomtown!” bellows the announcer. “The studio system is king!” With the war over, Jack is one of the thousands of eager guys and dolls flocking to the gates of Ace Studios each day, hoping to be chosen as an extra. He wants to be a star, see — but he’s also just another untrained, handsome mug in a sea of L.A. beauty. “Kid, you’re a dime a dozen,” sniffs a casting agent. So what’s a big lug with a pregnant wife (Maude Apatow, in a truly thankless role) supposed to do?

A desperate Jack takes a job as a pump jockey/gigolo at a service station — a full-service station, if you will — called Golden Tip Gasoline. (Did we mention this is a Ryan Murphy show?) The gig serves dual purposes: It gives Hollywood an excuse to strip Corenswet down to his skivvies in the premiere and leads Jack to cross paths with the other key characters: Archie (Jeremy Pope), a black, gay screenwriter; Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), the neglected wife of a studio mogul (and Jack’s first client); Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking), a shy, closeted hunk destined to become Rock Hudson; and Raymond Ainsely (Darren Criss), an earnest, half-Asian director hoping to lure actress Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) out of retirement.

Eventually, this motley gang of telegenic outsiders will join forces to film Archie’s screenplay about Peg Entwistle, the British actress who jumped to her death from the Hollywood sign — and became an indelible symbol of the dark side of show business. By the end of the seven episodes, this storyline will take some very clumsy turns (more on that later), but there’s a lot to love about Hollywood. Darren, the sheer joy of Dylan McDermott’s performance as Ernie, the smooth-talking owner of Golden Tip Gas, made me absolutely giddy. McDermott’s first scene has no dialogue, as Eddie — an aging rake with a pencil mustache and slicked-back silver hair — observes Jack from down the bar. In his second, Eddie breaks the ice with a story about his penis (“Twelve inches, soup to nuts!”), and the actor is equally hilarious in both.

A lot of what I enjoyed about Hollywood is based in history, as the show weaves real-life figures into its reimagining of the studio era. Jim Parsons is a mercurial wonder as Henry Willson, the brutal, high-powered agent (and closeted homosexual) who turns bumbling Roy into marquee star Rock Hudson through sheer force of will (and compulsory dental work). The second episode dives into Wong’s real-life backstory as a rising Asian-American star who nonetheless lost the lead role in The Good Earth — a Chinese woman named O-Lan — to a white actress. I found myself hopping online to read more about Willson and Wong and Hattie McDaniel (played here by Queen Latifah), the first black Oscar winner… and truth be told, I think a take on these real stories might have been more compelling than the fairy tale Murphy and Brennan delivered.

But then we wouldn’t have the pleasure of watching Patti LuPone as the grandly disdainful Avis Amberg. Were there any performances that stood out for you, Darren? And how did you feel about Hollywood’s attempt to revise history?

DARREN: Historical revision was the great project of Ryan Murphy’s last decade. The producer’s FX anthologies were essential American counter-myths, real and imagined and always table-flippingly vivid, from the nightmarish outcast fantasia of American Horror Story: Asylum to the epic resurrection of Marcia Clark’s reputation in The People v. O.J. Simpson. Electric currents of nostalgic camp fused with unabashed progressivism in period extravaganzas like Pose and Feud. Murphy’s failures could be abject — see the grotesquely synthetic Scream Queens or any Horror Story past Hotel — but there’s a reason we both made room for his successes on our Best TV of the Decade lists, Kristen.

Hollywood is an outright alternate history, transforming Ace Studios into a what-if paragon of triumphant diversity and power-structure representation. Unfortunately, the series suffers from a critical lack of personality. Too many performances stand out for sheer blandness. Corenswet and Picking play like interchangeable Clark Kent-a-likes, and the latter’s duncy portrayal of Rock Hudson is practically character assassination. Laura Harrier and Samara Weaving were so charismatic in BlackkKlansman and Ready or Not, respectively, but there’s no sign of that fire here. They’re both playing ambitious young performers seeking stardom, but Hollywood flattens their ambition into noble niceness.

Everyone is noble, everyone is nice. The wonderful McDermott plays that oily gas station pimp — would you believe he, too, has a heart of gold? All Hollywood hearts are as gold as Oscar trophies, and the sweetness turns sour fast. Murphy and Brennan aren’t just crafting a hopeful vision of history. They’re unspooling a morality textbook, every whiff of potential drama vaporized into hugs. A jilted wife immediately forgives the woman who’s been secretly sleeping with her husband for a decade. Rivals become friends, because of goodness. Divorce is amicable; adultery is justified. A studio executive gives great notes and — now this is alternate history —everyone loves the screenwriter.

I’m not immune to all the charms, Kristen. The postwar recreation is handsome and huge. Joe Mantello is in his own little character piece as Dick Samuels, a studio executive so closeted he’s mummified. I’m pre-converted to the messages it’s preaching. Diversity is vital. Embedded racism and sexism are original La La Land sins, still active maladies a century later.

But I’ll tell you the exact moment Hollywood lost me. Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Harris) comes to Ace Studios, a saint sent to assure the main characters they’re doing the Lord’s work. “I used to believe good government could change the world,” she explains. “I don’t know that I believe that anymore. However, what you do? The three of you can change the world.” There’s a secret cynicism in there: A lifelong Democratic activist, who in actual 1947 was drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, parachutes in to assure the characters that they’re heroic heroes doing heroism. I do believe movies can change the world, but it’s a complex process, never quite moving from point A to point B. Something about Hollywood’s grinning simplicity — its crushing certainty that good people make good art that earns good money and is good for society — left me cold.

You mentioned some of the storyline’s clumsy turns, Kristen. Am I dwelling too much on the clumsiness? Do you see more virtue in Hollywood’s frantic optimism?

KRISTEN: I’m not going to argue that the storytelling isn’t sometimes too facile — especially in the final episode, which is literally called “A Hollywood Ending” and is appropriately pat. But I appreciate the sentiment of what Hollywood is trying to do. The idea that a black woman (Laura Harrier’s Camille) could star in a major motion picture in 1947, that Rock Hudson could have lived his life as an out gay man and still be a star, that a woman would get the chance to run a movie studio 16 years before JFK signed the Equal Pay Act — there’s a simple beauty in imagining all of those things, even if the emphasis is on simple.

For me, it comes back to something Billy Porter, Emmy-winning star of Murphy’s FX series Pose, told EW in an interview last year: “As artists, we have the power to create change. And it’s in these spaces and in these times when it’s our responsibility to create the fantasy, to create the what-if.” Of course in Pose, the what-if moments, like Candy’s posthumous reconciliation with her parents — are flashes of hope in a narrative that lays bare the dark reality of being trans in 1980s New York. Hollywood dabbles in that darkness, too — Camille and her boyfriend Ray become the targets of racist harassment, bigots protest the studio, and so on — and then skitters back into the sunshine before things get too bleak.

Is that really so bad, though? Especially at this very moment in our collective history? And Hollywood, like Murphy’s previous Netflix project, The Politician, is visually stunning — he’s clearly entering his Art Direction period. While I agree that much of the younger cast struggles to do more than look pretty, Hollywood’s veteran stars fill the void with casual brilliance. Dick Samuels is a fictional character, but Mantello infuses him with an aching loneliness and painful self-loathing that’s all too real. His scenes with Holland Taylor, as his fellow Ace Pictures producer and close friend Ellen Kincaid, are particularly tender. Parsons slithers effortlessly between all of Willson's many manipulative facades — vicious, unctuous, avuncular — and he gives a performance of breathtaking detail, right down to Willson's wordless, split-second realization that dimwitted Roy is going to be his magnum opus.

For all of these reasons — and the sheer bliss of watching LuPone drawl, “You selfish piece of garbage” to her daughter — I left Hollywood feeling more entertained and uplifted than annoyed. Sometimes it's nice to see the good guys get a win, even if they haven't really earned it.

DARREN: To be as outrageously blunt as Henry Willson: It is really so bad! I prefer Punk Rock Ryan Murphy, I guess, and it's striking to consider Hollywood in the towering shadow of Asylum, a gutbucket masterpiece that conjures its own vision of outsider community with hyperbole and heartbreak. That second American Horror Story anthology arrived in 2012, and eight years later only one thing about it has aged: The Nazi got topical, god damn him.

It's possible that Murphy now considers something as bleak as Asylum to be re-victimizing, an inadvertent celebration of old pain. Maybe he thinks it's bolder to tell a happy story about happy people working together happily. What stuck with me most about Hollywood — more than McDermott's snarly charisma, Mantello's buttoned-up sensitivity, or LuPone's imperial swagger — was the feeling of Ryan Murphy admiring and despairing of the studios of yore. He's a student of film history who loves this period: A cafeteria full of costumed extras from seven different pictures, young contract players learning Mid-Atlantic accents, parties at George Cukor's house with no press and no judgment. So much of that is tied up with cultural travesties, whole peoples ignored and subjugated, generations of artists who had to hide for their work (or never got to work at all).

Everyone who loves film history grapples with this. My family just rewatched the ever-splendid Singin' in the Rain here in our quarantine bunker. For the first time, I wondered if Jean Hagen's loathsomely cheetah-voiced Lina Lamont was getting a raw deal, this shrill grotesquerie of daffy-damery. I believe that thought was incepted in my brain from years of watching Ryan Murphy TV — and just imagine his Lina Lamont Netflix prequel!

But Hollywood just never worked for me on its own terms. The comedy can be embarrassingly crass, with waaaaay too many punchlines that miss the mark (including two different "I f---ed Gloria Swanson" gags.) I don't share your Parsons love, and his rat-a-tat one-liners come off like a vain attempt to Sue-Sylvesterize an amoral monster. The movie-within-a-movie looks, well, awful. Characters like Anna May Wong get reduced to single notes of inspiration, their personal lives never really dramatized by a show with too much time for Jack's cornball infidelity. I respect Ryan Murphy's attempt to change history, but I wish he'd get back to making it.

Kristen's Grade: B

Darren's Grade: C

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