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Netflix series Hollywood dreams up a timely alternate version of showbiz

David Corenswet

Netflix

There’s a scene in the new Netflix miniseries Hollywood where Patti LuPone says, “If you want something done, let a woman do it.” I’d love to know what 2020 would look like if 1940s Hollywood had been anything like the industry conceived in this show.

Created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan and streaming starting Friday, May 1, this seven-episode miniseries imagines an alternate version of Los Angeles. Real locations are filled with versions of real-life film folk like Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) or Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah). But while things look familiar at first glance, they take a totally unexpected and completely welcome turn.

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Don’t be fooled by the title or even the first episode: This is neither merely a romanticized portrayal of Hollywood’s classical period nor a straightforward critique of the blatant racism, sexism, homophobia and sexual abuse that went on there. It’s both those things, sure, but it’s something more as well: not just a look at what Hollywood is, but a dream of what Hollywood could be.

This Hollywood is a parallel universe where actors, writers, directors and even studio executives dare to be bold. They understand their responsibility, and they use it in a way the real Hollywood was too scared to do. The message in Murphy’s Hollywood is explicit: Film and TV are powerful educational tools that can and should challenge prejudice and broaden the concept of what’s normal or acceptable.

“I used to think good government could change the world. I don’t know if I believe that anymore,” Hollywood’s version of Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Sansom Harris) tells a group of studio honchos. “But what you do can change the world.”

The ensemble stars several of Murphy’s usual suspects. Darren Criss (The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story) plays Raymond, an ambitious aspiring director. David Corenswet (The Politician) is a WWII veteran with a Clark Kent quality. He just moved to Los Angeles and dreams of becoming a movie star. Dylan McDermott (The Politician, American Horror Story) is Ernie, someone who also dreamed big but ended up managing a gas station where they sell sex as well as gasoline. Broadway legend LuPone has one of the juiciest parts, as a woman unaware of her power. And Jim Parsons, who appeared in Murphy’s The Normal Heart, takes his first major role since the end of The Big Bang Theory as an alternate version of colorful real-life Hollywood agent Henry Wilson. 

Newcomers include Jeremy Pope as a black, gay screenwriter who knows no studio will ever sign him up. The cast is rounded out by veterans like Mira Sorvino as an aging actress who never reached her full potential, and Holland Taylor as a zealous studio executive. 

Dylan McDermott, Jeremy Pope and David Corenswet at Musso and Frank Grill.

Netflix

Hollywood is also a show about Los Angeles filmed in actual Los Angeles. Many of the city’s glamorous institutions, like The Beverly Hills Hotel, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the Orpheum Theater, Paramount Studios and the Hollywood sign make cameos. You might recognize decadent old-fashioned restaurants like The Prince, The Dresden and the film favorite Musso and Frank Grill. The show also re-created industry hangout Schwab’s Pharmacy, torn down in the 1980s.

There’s constant name-dropping of movie titles, actors, directors and events that actually happened, mixed in with the fictional ones. You might end up reaching for your phone to check if George Cukor really threw wild parties (he did), if Tallulah Bankhead had an affair with a certain actress (almost certainly), and what became of silent movie star Billy Haines (it involves interior design).

The plot follows the struggle to make a movie that, in its turn, is about the toll Hollywood takes on a young actress making another fictional movie. A movie inside a movie inside a miniseries — it doesn’t get more meta than that. Even setting aside all of the show’s alternate-universe imaginings, the film buff in you will eat up Hollywood the same way you’d enjoy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, The Artist or François Truffaut’s Day for Night.

We learn the meaning of terms like helming and lensing. Why a movie is “produced” and not merely “made.” We catch sight of a class for actresses mastering the transatlantic accent. 

Murphy and co-creator Brennan, who have writing credits for most of the episodes, even make fun of their trade. “I’m the writer,” announces a screenwriter character. “I hate to break it to you, but you’re fucking the least powerful person in Hollywood.”

Laura Harrier

Netflix

Not everything works in Hollywood (the show). The veneer of perfection feels unnervingly fantasized, even unreal, from the immaculate costumes and picture-perfect cast to the always sunny Los Angeles. But that unblemished look fits with the show’s idea of the idealized 1940s, as a classical Hollywood homage. This is Hollywood as it was, but it’s also Hollywood as it should be. It’s an alternate Tinseltown where dreams are possible, no matter your race, gender or sexual orientation.

Like Brennan and Murphy, I strongly believe in the pedagogical power of film and TV. It’s almost unbelievable how timely this show set in the 1940s is right now, as many of the issues of the time are still very much with us today. 

Here’s hoping for a Hollywood that more closely resembles Brennan and Murphy’s and where more women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and minorities get the opportunity to show there are other ways of making — sorry, producing — movies and TV shows.

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