Monday, May 18, 2020

Hollywood: Ryan Murphy’s Woke Fantasyland

Jeremy Pope, Darren Criss, and Laura Harrier in Hollywood. now streaming on Netflix.

This review contains spoilers.

Ryan Murphy’s latest offering, the Netflix limited series Hollywood (co-created with Ian Brennan), is so flat-footed and dopey that you watch it with a sort of indolent fascination, as if you’d been brained with a frying pan just before turning on your television set. It should be a camp classic, but it isn’t quite; still, it’s too stupefying to be boring. Murphy has chosen Hollywood in 1947 as the locale for a woke fantasy – an alternate history in which people of color and women and gay men manage, in the course of just a few months, to liberate themselves and make Hollywood the forefront of a cultural revolution decades before America got around to it. Despite opposition from a crew of two-dimensional bigots, while the head of Ace Studios (Rob Reiner) is hovering near death after a heart attack his wife (Patti LuPone) takes over the reins and, stirred by the pleas of her friend Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Harris), lets a young director (Darren Criss) cast his African American girlfriend (Laura Harrier) in the lead of a movie called Meg written by a gay black writer (Jeremy Pope). The producer (Joe Mantello) invents wide distribution to get over the southern boycotts; the movie is an immediate hit and wins a raft of Oscars, including three for non-whites. At the ceremony the writer kisses his boyfriend – a young unknown named Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) – on the mouth before going up to accept his. Hollywood changes overnight. All it takes is a few courageous souls.

The idea is pretty hilarious. The film industry, after all, had been so terrified in the early days of sound that highly vocal Catholic groups and women’s groups enraged by the Hollywood scandals of the 1920s might incite the government to censor their product that it set up its own self-censoring body (the Production Code office) – which infantilized audiences far more and presented a far worse threat to artists than any outsider organization ever would have. It’s true that movies got grittier in the post-war days: film noir was king, previously verboten material was green-lit (usually in the form of social-problem pictures like Gentleman’s Agreement, about anti-Semitism, which won the actual Academy Award in 1947), and by the early fifties a new generation of movie stars, Method-trained and uncorseted, led by Marlon Brando, introduced a new sensibility that scrambled audiences’ notions of what acting was. No one could have anticipated that Elia Kazan would get away with altering so little of A Streetcar Named Desire when he brought it to the screen in 1951. But the Hays Code (as the Production Code was popularly called, in honor of its first director, Will B. Hays) was still around and still made plenty of noise. The careers of talented actors of color like Juano Hernandez and James Edwards were stalled. And you still couldn’t put gay material on the screen unless you coded it. Though it’s hard to believe that anyone in the audience failed to decipher the sexuality of the Sal Mineo character in Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 (or Judith Anderson’s in Rebecca in 1940 or that of half the male characters in The Maltese Falcon in 1941), the subplot about Blanche’s young husband in Streetcar, a suicide in Tennessee Williams’s play because she’d caught him in bed with another man, was muted beyond recognition.

Alternate histories can be appealing (Inglourious Basterds) and even potent (Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, Stephen King’s masterpiece 11.22.63). But Hollywood is like last summer’s Yesterday, in which, after a planetary occurrence has set history off course, a young musician freakishly unaffected by the global amnesia causes a sensation by “writing” the Beatles songs no one else knows about. The people who put that idiotic trifle together had nothing but a pitch; they never stopped to consider the implications of their own plot premise, like the fact that great art and great entertainment don’t just materialize out of the ether. Murphy and Brennan fast-track American cultural history as if you could just skip a few decades of social change. Their Hollywood is divided between the good guys who were apparently born without prejudice, like Mantello’s Dick Samuels and his buddy Ellen Kincaid (played by Holland Taylor), and the bad guys who either want to burn crosses on people’s lawns or are so fixated on the profit margin that they can’t think of anything else – which, of course, would have included and would still include most of the movie industry.

Dylan McDermott and David Corenswet in Hollywood.

It’s not a problem that Hollywood is a melodrama but that it’s such an awful melodrama. The main characters are the young hopefuls who come together to make Meg. Jack Castello (David Corenswet) is a young war vet, a handsome all-American type, who moves to L.A. with his wife (Maude Apatow) to try to forge a career as an actor; desperate to make ends meet while he’s trying and failing to get extra work at Ace Studios, he goes to work at a gas station that’s a front for a high-end prostitution service. It’s run by Ernie West (Dylan McDermott) – a character inspired by Scotty Bowers (the author of the memoir Full Service and the subject of the 2018 documentary Scotty Bowers and the Secret Life of Hollywood) – who spots him at a bar and sees potential in him. It’s Jack’s bedroom prowess, not his acting, that gets him an entrée when his favorite client turns out to be Avis Amberg, the sexually frustrated wife of the head of Ace Studios. Jack is conflicted about tricking but dead set against servicing Ernie’s gay clientele, so Ernie threatens to fire him unless he can round up another sexy guy without those particular scruples. So, in perhaps the most preposterous scene in all seven episodes, Jack borrows a cop suit from a pal in the wardrobe department, visits a male porno theatre, and when he spots another young man hitting up a middle-aged patron for money before blowing him, pretends to arrest him and then takes him out for a drink so he can woo him to work for Ernie. The hustler turns out to be Archie Coleman, the screenwriter who has turned a news story about a would-be starlet who jumped off the Hollywood sign into Peg. (That’s the original title of Meg, before a black actress is cast in the title role.) Unlike Jack, Archie doesn’t mind prostituting himself – until one of his johns, a nervous aspiring actor whose agent, Henry Willson (Jim Parsons) insists he change his name to Rock Hudson, turns out to be the love of his life and doesn’t want to share him with strangers. The director, Raymond Ainsley, is mixed-race (he’s half Filipino) but he’s passed for white all his life. However, like Archie, he has a crisis of social conscience, the end result of which, for both of them, is the mixed-race casting of Meg. The main contender for the title part besides Raymond’s main squeeze Camille is Claire Wood (Samantha Weaving), a neurotic blonde siren who has changed her name so no one will know she’s Ace and Avis Amberg’s daughter, pursuing acting against their express wishes.

For the first three episodes Hollywood focuses mainly on the scene at Ernie’s – episode 3 takes place at one of the notorious sex parties at the mansion of director George Cukor (Daniel London) that Bowers covers at length in his memoir – which gives it, at least, a tawdry energy. But in episode 4 Murphy and Brennan shift to the Peg/Meg project, and we don’t even have inserts of Jack shtupping Avis against the banister of her Gone with the Wind staircase to divert us. From this point we ‘re meant to take the young talents seriously, though from what we see and hear the movie that breaks box-office records, wins all those Academy Awards and changes the face of the industry is not exactly Sunset Boulevard. The centerpiece of the series is a sequence where Jack, Camille, Claire and Rock screen-test for Archie and Raymond’s picture. Rock’s test is a fiasco, and Picking is way too bad an actor to be convincing even as a bad actor. As for the other three, the reactions of Raymond, Dick Samuels and Ellen Kincaid – and later Avis, when she’s shown the tests – are so out of sync with what we’re watching that the effect is a little like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Corenswet comes across like a rank amateur and Harrier is shockingly bad; her idea of committing emotionally to the material is to make cute baby faces. Yet everyone thinks he’s good and she’s great. The only one of the quartet whose audition shows any sign of acting talent is Weaving’s. Yet for some reason Claire throws it away at the end, presumably because she realizes that it’s Camille who deserves the part.

Much of the acting in Hollywood is wretched, including that of Jeremy Pope, who’s a real scenery chewer, and Jim Parsons. Henry Willson is Murphy and Brennan’s pet villain, a self-hating homosexual with a casting couch and a taste for blackmail. We’re supposed to hate him – that is, until Murphy and Brennan give him a totally out-of-character redemption in the final episode. But it was Parsons I hated; he crosses the line between playing an ugly character and giving an ugly performance. A variety of bland stock-company types wander in and out of the series pretending to be “Vivien Leigh,” “Noël Coward,” “Tallulah Bankhead” and others, but except for Michelle Krusiec as Anna May Wong (whom Raymond, a lifelong fan, tempts out of retirement for a plum supporting role that wins her one of the movie’s Oscars), I didn’t buy anyone cast as a real-life celebrity. Harriet Harris is amusing as Eleanor Roosevelt, at least, and though Queen Latifah isn’t right as Hattie McDaniel, only a fool would complain about the chance to see Queen Latifah act in anything. Reiner does pretty much the same thing in all his scenes, but it’s entertaining, and LuPone and McDermott both get better as the series goes on and they don’t have to keep playing caricatures. The only actors who really make you sit up and take notice, though, are Joe Mantello and Holland Taylor, whose scenes together are so good that they might have come from some other show altogether. Mantello, playing a gay man so successfully closeted that no one suspects the truth, has some upfront emotional moments, but unlike everyone else’s big moments they’re completely grounded. This supposed exposé of Tinseltown is almost entirely tinsel, but Mantello mines pure gold.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. Just for the record, Rock Hudson's agent's name was Henry Willson.