“Welcome to Hollywood! What’s your dream? Everybody comes here; this is Hollywood, land of dreams. Some dreams come true, some don’t; but keep on dreamin’ – this is Hollywood. Always time to dream, so keep on dreamin’.”
So ends the 1990 film Pretty Woman. However, people flocking to Hollywood chasing that ever elusive “Hollywood dream” is by no means a relatively new phenomena. Ever since motion pictures set up their base on the West Coast, men and women from all around the globe have made the journey with mixed successes. Yes luck and talent plays an enormous part in it, but for some, the achievement of this dream has been exponentially easier purely down to their sex, the colour of their skin, their sexual preference. Just how different a place would Hollywood be if the playing field was leveled a tad and a lot earlier than occurred in reality? This is the world explored in the latest limited series from Glee collaborators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan.
Dropping last Friday (May 1) on Netflix, the seven-episode series Hollywood, is not only a homage to the Golden era of the silver screen but a rewriting of its history. While it doesn’t hide the seedier underbelly running rife through the hills… the misogyny, the sexism, the racism, the exploitation, it also presents an idealised version of this mythic time where good can triumph over evil, everyone gets what they deserve (both good and bad), and where anything truly is possible.
The story takes anecdotes from the time and mixes it with an exploration of what if things were different as Hollywood took off post-World War II. What if a studio head was female? What if a coloured story was told? What if coloured actresses were able to have interesting, leading roles not just playing the maids or stereotypes? What if artists came out publicly? And while not exactly a novel idea, it is in the exploration of these questions that the series really shines and elevates it to another level.
That was the series’ biggest downfall for me. It took too long, for a seven-episode series, to get to the heart of the story. As has been the case with the last couple of seasons of American Horror Story, while entertaining, the first three episodes did not really grab me. They were useful in establishing the characters and the world we are inhabiting but it’s was only with episode 4’s “(Screen) Tests” and we dived into the production of Meg that the series really captured my attention and I started to actually care and love these characters and what was going in their lives. The fight to greenlight the picture, the fight to cast how they wanted to cast, the fight to tell the story they wanted to have told and then the fight to distribute it. Would I have cared as much without the prep work done in episodes 1-3, that is hard to say, but I was definitely left feeling that I could have done with an episode or two less of the build up. It was scenes from the latter episodes that stick with me rather than the earlier eps – well apart from Jim Parsons performance of the Dance of the Seven Veils.
Murphy has once again gathered a powerhouse of talent, doing what he does best… bringing back members of the Murphy players, amassing some giants from stage and screen and introducing little known or overlooked artists and giving them roles they can really sink their teeth into. Unsurprisingly, this tactic works again, producing some amazing performances from all involved.
There are two distinct categories of characters in Hollywood: the young, aspiring artists, and the old hands of the business. Focussing on the first group, we have aspiring actors: the all American Jack Castello (David Corenswet), the closeted Roy Fitzgerald (Jack Picking), renamed Rock Hudson by his sleazy agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), the black ingénue Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) and the poor little rich girl Claire Woods (Samara Weaving). Rounding out this group is aspiring director the American-Filipino Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) and black writer Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope). In the more established positions, we have Parson’s Henry, wife of Ace Studios head Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), Ace Studios’ executives Richard “Dick” Samuels (Joe Mantello) and Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor) and pimp to the stars Ernie West (Dylan McDermott).
It’s hard to choose standout performances from the core group and the joy that the group had playing off of one another was apparent throughout the series. Pope, who has largely worked in Broadway, was unknown to me and I am so glad that this series rectified this. His smile could just light up a room and he so beautifully portrayed the complexities in Archie and made you root for him from the get go.
Parsons wonderfully mixed the comedic elements of Henry with the pure vindictiveness. With The Big Bang Theory behind him, I hope we get to see him in more varied roles such as this. LuPone, Taylor and Mantello… tour de force performances. I loved every minute of them on screen and their powerhouse scenes together.
Criss, though fantastic in the role, was under utilised. We have all seen what he is capable of, but the bigger character moments serving the story were handed to other members of the cast. While it worked for the story, it would have been great to have seen more of Raymond. All turned in stellar performances and be prepared to see a number of these names gracing nomination lists come award season.
In addition to the main cast, there are some extraordinary guest turns from Queen Latifah as Hattie McDaniel, Mira Sorvino as Jeanne Crandall, Michelle Krusiec as Anna May Wong, and a personal favourite of mine, Lord of the Rings’ Billy Boyd as Noel Coward.
There is no questioning that Hollywood is a fantasy, the final episode is testament to that. However, over the span of four episodes in the latter half of the series, it manages to make you care desperately for the characters and their situations, that it will have you bawling through most of the finale. But this is the escape and catharsis that we all so desperately need at the moment and this series couldn’t have come along at a better time. And though set in the 1940s, the key messages about equality and non-discrimination are just as pertinent today.
Hollywood is now streaming on Netflix.
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