To love classic Hollywood and live in the world at the same time is hardly the greatest of conundrums, but a conundrum it is. It means being transported by the craft and the art of films made under political conditions one may find entirely unacceptable, or engaging deeply with characters who all look a certain way at the exclusion of so many others, or finding subtleties in the shadows left by the things the movies dared not allow themselves say. To name a single example: “Gone With the Wind,” shockingly ahead of its time as a piece of spectacle and utterly contemporary in its antiheroine lead, also reflected on the glories of the antebellum South. Its supporting turn by Hattie McDaniel, one that won a pathbreaking Oscar and has been remembered for generations, represents, too, a gifted actor being told that all she can do in a too-short career is play a maid. Loving classic Hollywood for what made it great comes with the mournful realization that it frequently failed to be good.
This is the path Ryan Murphy walks in “Hollywood,” which he co-created with Ian Brennan, effectively Murphy’s debut as a Netflix contract player. (His 2019 Netflix comedy series “The Politician” was produced by his former professional partners at Fox.) 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. 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.
The show follows Jack Castello (David Corenswet), an archetypal aspiring actor — amiably blank, burdened with more charisma than backstory, ready for the screen to provide him a reinvention. Murphy remains enough in thrall to the Hollywood myth to do little more with Jack’s character than that, but also is committed enough to subverting it that he plops Jack in a purposefully raunchy milieu; after meeting a local businessman-slash-pimp (Dylan McDermott), Jack finds himself providing the service at an unorthodox service station. (Staffed by prostitutes, it has an analogue in the real-life gas station owned by Scotty Bowers, subject of a superlative recent documentary.) Jack’s loyal client is a studio head’s wife (Patti LuPone); a co-worker (Jake Picking), available for male johns, is another aspiring actor, and will eventually change his name to Rock Hudson.
It’s through Rock that the story picks up; he falls in love with a thwarted would-be screenwriter (Jeremy Pope), who cannot hide that he’s black the way Rock can hide that he’s gay. All together, with the involvement of a Filipino director (Darren Criss) and a black actor (Laura Harrier) who have similarly been blocked from the fame we are meant to understand they richly deserve, this crew works to make the first-ever broadly and deeply inclusive production in Hollywood history. LuPone’s Avis, a power player with liberal leanings, opens the town’s arms to these new stars, and, by the time their movie, “Meg,” comes out, they’re megastars. “Racial protests,” we’re told in a newsreel, “simply melted away.” Solving Hollywood’s lack of inclusivity was as simple as just doing it — why hadn’t anyone had the idea before?
It’s a dreamy fantasy, one so high on its own ingenuity that it hardly needs to make time for characterization beyond the broadest of types. (Every one of these characters, give or take Hudson, is “the brilliant one.”) But it’s also a reverie that’s brought to Earth wrenchingly, wretchedly. Murphy has infinite sympathy for some of his characters and similarly boundless contempt for others: We seesaw between, say, scenes in which an imagined Hollywood that never was falls at our protagonists’ feet and scenes of Jim Parsons’ Henry Willson — a real-life talent agent known for grooming young men into matinee hunks — spewing venom toward, or violating, his client, whom he desperately wants both to convert into a straight-acting man for the public eye and to inculcate into a libertine underworld in private. (An episode involving a party at George Cukor’s house distills a great deal of disdain and scorn for gay men into one set-piece.) It’s not that this sort of behavior, and this sort of internalized homophobia, didn’t exist, or doesn’t. But choosing as the two sorts of gay people who could exist in “Hollywood” either a viperish and cruel villain or a genially frank hero, as becomes the case when Rock comes out, belies above all else a lack of imagination.
It also raises the question of what Murphy likes about Hollywood at all. If one’s vision of Rock Hudson as a potential hero is that of someone who used an understanding of homosexuality that existed only in nascent form in the cultural context of his time to radically reshape Americans’ understanding of what love could look like, then the real one must look pretty uninspired, or downright shabby! Similarly, achievements of art and of painstaking, incremental progress that actually exist in our Hollywood cannot compare with the gains in the Hollywood Murphy imagines, in which a movie that cannot be resisted by any force standing in its way comes to change the town forever. No wonder we lose Jack so much in the show’s second half; short of depicting him as a literal superhero, his achievements defy belief. It’s telling that — a bit like Emma Stone’s entirely unseen one-woman show in “La La Land,” similarly a project that largely exists to burnish its creator’s legend as a unique genius — we see little of “Meg.” (Given that the film is portrayed as being a corrective, equal and opposite, to “Gone With the Wind,” that’s certainly for the best. Even Netflix money can’t sustain that conceit.) It’s also telling that the story “Meg” relates is of a young woman burned out, and indeed driven to suicide, by the unfairness and prejudices of Hollywood. This, it seems, is the tale Murphy wants to tell. Why dress it up as hopeful and optimistic when it’s caustic, raw and so barely within its creator’s control?
Murphy has waded into these waters before. His ongoing project of casting accomplished women left behind by the world of movies makes a sly meta-comment on the industry he’d like to see. And he put two of them, Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, in “Feud,” a series that weaponized Murphy’s love of cinema by re-creating the world in which Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were encouraged to mistreat one another. It was a show that wished things could have been different but understood that it could never be so, and through forensic restaging as well as sympathetic imagination for the real artists at its heart, showed us why. The “Hollywood” take on this material would, perhaps, insist that Crawford and Davis find their way toward sharing success (thus suggesting that the real women simply lacked the wit to do so). “Hollywood” insists that we were just a few people being brave and clever away from living in a world entirely unlike our own, and then yells at us about characters who are only brave and clever — rather than human — until we give in.
Part of loving classic Hollywood is wishing that it could do better. But part of it, too, is finding the nuance and the meaning in stories that were produced by a broken town but written and directed and acted by people doing their best, not as archetypes of ingenuity but as artists. Meeting their work where it is, and hoping for more and better in the years ahead, is more productive and more worthy than inventing alternate histories. It also might make for a more interesting story than the inevitable victory of people precisely as smart, back then, as Ryan Murphy is now.