What if Hollywood was a more inclusive environment years ago? What if we saw an origin story about a diverse group of talent ready to shake the very foundation of Hollywood to its core? That’s the premise of Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix limited series, Hollywood. Following the stories of real-life and fictional key players during the post-World War II era, this group intends to cement their names in the Hollywood Golden Age and beyond.
Slowly starting with the introduction of Jack Castello (David Cornswet, The Politician) a military veteran and aspiring actor, we follow his journey through love and his “by any means necessary” approach to getting his name on the marquee. On his rise to fame, he serendipitously meets Ernie (Dylan McDermott, American Horror Story), a keeper of secrets & former Hollywood actor who now runs a lucrative and thriving gas station, managing a plethora of Hollywood hopefuls. Once Jack takes a job at Ernie’s urging, he meets so many up-and-coming talents and they start to change the Hollywood from the inside out. Jack recruits Archie (Jeremy Pope, Choir Boy), who turns out to be an exceptional screenwriter with a blind sold script to the illustrious Ace Studios, ran by Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner, The Princess Bride). Archie meets Rock Hudson (Jake Picking, Horse Girl) who is a naïve Midwesterner and aspiring actor, who has the look and a heart of gold but needs more work on the talent side. Rock catches the eye of crass Hollywood talent manager, Henry Willson (Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory), who is known for being a villain, who gets ahead in Hollywood by using his connections to keep the secrets that the most powerful don’t want out, and also by coercing his clients and holding his power over their heads. On his rise to the top, he encounters an actress with an undisclosed family connection to the business, Claire Wood (Samara Weaving, Ready or Not).
Meanwhile, Ace Studio’s key players are comprised of colleagues and development visionaries turned best friends, Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor, Two and a Half Men) and Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello, The Normal Heart) whose unlikely partnership with Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone, Penny Dreadful) in the face of an unforeseen crisis, sets all of them and Ace Studios on an unexpected trailblazing path. They partner with a new director, Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story), and his newly contracted actress girlfriend, Camille Washington (Laura Harrier, BlacKkKlansman) on a body of work that forever changes the course of Hollywood.
Being a fan of Murphy’s since Nip/Tuck, Hollywood is an unfiltered and raw deep dive into the inner circle and workings of Hollywood. Hollywood boldly touches on everything that has historically been wrong and in some ways is still wrong, with the entertainment industry. Hollywood starts slow, but by the end of its seven-episode arc, I found myself not only engrossed in what the series was trying to accomplish but even rooting for characters that I initially was not that fond of, particularly Avis and Ernie. With Avis specifically, her role blossomed in such an unexpected way that by the end, she was more authentically human and also beyond wise, and I found myself fully invested in her success. With Ernie, while still his unapologetic self, he started to open up and I could see more of his heart in the end.
While the story begins with Jack, it ends up coming full circle and encompasses so much more. From the third episode on, the series blossoms and starts to more seamlessly weave individual character growth with the over-arching themes. Hollywood daringly tackles racism, sexism, and homophobia in ways that sometimes misses the mark, but overall sticks the landing. The breakout star for me in this series is Jeremy Pope, whose character Archie struggles with being his full self in a business that does not openly accept any facet of who is, but willingly continues to make money off of his work, with or without proper credit to him. Pope is vivacious, strong-willed, vulnerable and endearing in his portrayal as a black creative who is searching for full acceptance as an artist and a human, in a town that is notorious for telling those who are not white men, “no.” Darren Criss does well as the overeager Raymond Ainsley, who not only wants equality for other Asian-American artists like himself, but also champions for others who have been wronged as well, such as actress Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec, One World). He also fights for his love, Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), and her career. Harrier portrays Washington as someone with her own agency, who is in a healthy and supportive partnership. Some of my favorite scenes are when Criss, Pope, and Harrier are plotting their Hollywood takeover. There is a freshness and richness when they all share the screen, playing off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses almost effortlessly.
With cameos from Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah, Living Single) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Harris, Desperate Housewives), Hollywood’s unique immersion into this revisionist and ultimately idyllic industry take, answers most questions but still leaves a few. While they tackle homophobia head-on, they fail to fully address the stress and strain of the multitude of interracial relationships that are present as well. They touch on the black characters and their individual struggles with race in professional capacities but don’t fully flush out how this strains their personal relationships or what pushback they receive in the real world for being with their non-black partners. As an aside, I also wanted to see more interaction between Camille and Hattie, more of the bond that they forged through the fires and pressures of the industry. We at least got to see an embrace between the two of them, a small moment to recognize two black women who defied the odds and broke down barriers in a town and at a time where they were often overlooked, underappreciated, and stereotypically represented.
Hollywood has no shortage of intense themes and hard conversations, and that is the point. It is brash, sad, funny, and everything in between. Even in the parts that are lacking, the show is still intended to make us think and even hope. In the end, I found myself dreaming of the progress that has yet to be made, and what I and my peers can and will do to ignite further change. If only we had made these types of strides several decades ago, imagine where the industry would be now? How that level of progression would mold and shape Hollywood into a more creative and innovative space with an even richer, more robust, and diverse pool of voices at the helm. Until we get there, we will have to keep working and doing our part to change the dynamics and landscape of the industry, one script, one role, one project and one studio at a time. Until then, watch Hollywood when it drops on Netflix, May 1st!