Ryan Murphy continues his television domination with a new Netflix miniseries exploring every filmmakers’ favourite topic: the film industry itself. Viewers are introduced to a crisp, shiny 1940s Los Angeles through the eyes of the studio system’s newcomers, has-beens, brightest lights, and castaways. This mix of historical figures —Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah)—and original characters —WWII veteran Jack Castello (David Corenswet), the half-Filipino director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), and the up-and-coming starlet Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), and her white rival Claire Wood (Samara Weaving)— provide an ample playing field for experimentation and recreation against the backdrop of the industry’s most storied era.
Hollywood, however, never lives up to this polish and potential. The show is undeniably fun and gorgeously designed; who can resist showbiz glitz and a swinging soundtrack? But unfortunately, the show is never sure what it wants to be. This tonal uncertainty keeps characters and plots from feeling genuine and forming any meaningful connection. The performances are largely solid and charismatic, but they are hampered by an uneven mood and lacklustre dialogue. Even the ever-charming Darren Criss feels somewhat stilted. The women performers make the most of the material given: Laura Harrier imbues Camille with steel and vulnerability, Samara Weaving’s dryness keeps Claire on the endearing side of bitchy, and the legendary Patti LuPone swans and schemes her way through the system as studio mogul wife Avis Amberg. David Corenswet falls just short of his co-stars; while imbuing Castello’s quieter moments with humanity, it is hard to buy the star power seen in him by the studio. Jim Parsons’ repressed talent agent functions as both comic relief and the antagonist, and the gay stereotypes inhabited in both sit uneasily and undermine both ill-conceived functions.
Historical accuracy very much not a requirement in historical fiction narratives; a bit of creative liberty can provide new perspectives, create dramatic tension, and drive home key narrative themes and purposes. However, the anachronisms in Ryan Murphy’s world come across as sloppy. These moments, such as which stars were aware of each other, are something that a simple Google search could unearth, which feel like desperate, inorganic attempts to create drama rather than developing meaningful characterisations.
The show’s focus on the marginalised creatives is its unique strength, but a focus on the systemic mechanics rather than the underlying humanity squanders the opportunity. The fact that players must hide behind new personas or play up racist or heteronormative stereotypes in order to get work is dealt with frankly and with a keen —if inelegant— awareness of intersectional oppressions. That said, there is an underlying bite to the show, an almost-sadistic nastiness that keeps even its sympathetic underdogs and starry-eyed dreamers from winning viewers’ hearts. A hopeful flip towards the series’ conclusion thus feels hollow and unearned, no matter how refreshing this inclusive, progressive re-visioning of the Golden Age of Hollywood is.
This lack of humanity encapsulates Hollywood’s greatest weakness. While unabashed, uncritical odes to the glory and glamour of the film industry are tiresome in their own right, the cynicism underlying viewer’s introduction to this Golden Age makes one wonder why these bright and talented young people were so desperate to break in. The passion and drive are told, and the soul-sucking realities are shown. In the end, there may not be enough genuine love and kindness towards this world and its characters to leave a lasting impression. It is always important to re-examine history and imagine what could have been in slightly different circumstances; in the case of Hollywood, if black, Asian, and LGBT filmmakers and film stars could have shone in the same spotlight granted to their white-passing, straight-passing colleagues. It is a relevant and important exploration; however, the clunky script, missed character beats, and emphasis on spectacle — be that triumph or trauma — hamper Hollywood’s potential. The series is an entertaining, occasionally thought-provoking seven hours, but the missed opportunities are its biggest takeaway.
Hollywood is now available to stream on Netflix
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie