Netflix series Hollywood is a simplistic take on a tangled industry

Topics Netflix | Hollywood | Weekend Reads

The makers fail at creating a balance between Old Hollywood’s dark underbelly and the fantasies of its newer generation
The thing about films is that they often end up overstating their importance, and have the annoying tendency to view all things distressing in the world through their own rarefied prism. Racism, homophobia, gender inequality — grave issues that the movie industry underscores and offers inspiring personal stories as possible solutions. While that is praiseworthy, this propensity also leads to a world so removed from reality that it makes you wonder if films are capable of bringing about any change at all.

It’s amply evident that Hollywood, Netflix’s latest production, fancies itself as such a catalyst. “Movies don’t just show us how the world is. They show us how the world can be,” mouths Darren Criss as the up-and-coming director Raymond Ainsley in the second episode of this Ryan Murphy mini-series. The world Ainsley is talking about is Hollywood, circa 1947, the industry’s golden age where black actors struggle to find work and white ones have to sleep with men and women alike to make it to the top.

This is a revisionist take on 1940s’ Hollywood by Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan (— with the likes of Vivien Leigh, Anna May Wong and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The series mostly revolves around Jack Castello (David Corenswet), a World War II soldier desperate for his first break; Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), an actor of colour seeking her first lead role; Ernie West (Dylan McDermott), a high-society pimp whose gasoline station is a front for a prostitution racket; and Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a black screenwriter hoping to get accepted into the industry. Also prominent are Henry Willson, the devilish real-life agent by Jim Parsons, as well as a fictionalised version of Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), who was one of Willson’s clients.

The first few episodes breezily capture the dreams of these young aspirants and the sordid measures needed to survive in the pernicious environs of tinsel town. Desperate to make ends meet, Castello and Coleman sign up for West’s gas station shenanigans, while Hudson is shown to make up for his pitiful lack of acting skills by granting Willson sexual favours. All this as Ainsley — an outsider himself since he’s half-Filipino — is out to finalise the cast for his new project, Peg, a film about Peg Entwistle, the British actor who jumped to her death from the Hollywood sign in 1932.

But just as this alternative version of history begins to entice, the show spectacularly falls apart. For one, the ease with which some of the characters are shown to realise their dreams is staggering. As things go, the producers of Peg buckle and reward Washington with the role of her dreams; Coleman makes it as a writer even as everybody is certain that the film would be boycotted in the South; and the despicable Willson is reformed overnight — rapid signs of progression that beggar belief.

Matters are compounded by a convoluted storyline, with needless subplots thrown in. But, perhaps, what’s most amazing is that Murphy’s Hollywood is just a small world of five people, lovely professionals always looking out for each other. And we thought this was a cutthroat business.

There are, however, some honourable mentions: Parsons is a delight, surprising with his nasty but occasionally funny portrayal of Willson; Joe Mantello and Holland Taylor, who play studio executives at Ace Pictures, are immensely enjoyable, offering an exquisite gravitas that lifts the series in places; and Roosevelt’s speech, trying to persuade the studio to give Washington a chance as the leading lady, hits all the right notes.

The performances, in fact, are never much of a problem in Hollywood. The issue is the makers’ failed attempt at creating a balance between showcasing Old Hollywood’s dark underbelly and the wish-fulfilment fantasies of its newer generation. It tries to capture both, but is unable to do justice to either. What it implies, instead, is that had a handful of powerful people made tough choices all those years ago, we would be living in a very different, more just world today — a suggestion as simplistic and preposterous as the some of the characters’ rise to fame in the show. 

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