Hollywood. The title says it all: big, brassy, and full of false promises. Although generations of movie-makers have felt compelled to pore over the industry’s dirty secrets there’s never been anything quite like the new Netflix series by Ian Brennan and Ryan Murphy. Please don’t take that as an endorsement.
A typical Hollywood saga is rags to riches, and usually back to rags. Brennan and Murphy have rewritten history in the form of a PC fairytale, mingling fact and fiction to lay bare the sexism, racism and homophobia that determined the kinds of movies that were made (and not made) during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Instead of a tragic tale along the lines of A Star is Born, we get a revisionist version of the late 1940s in which those who happen to be black, gay, Asian, or some combination of the above, get their chance to live the Dream.
There’s much talk of the Dream in this series. It’s a conviction that all the characters share, regardless of ethnicity or sexual preference: that an ordinary boy or girl from smalltown America may walk through the gates of a big studio and become a movie star, a director or a scriptwriter – that is, become “Somebody”.
This sounds like satire, or so I tried to believe for the first few episodes until it became obvious that we, the audience, were also being invited to embrace the Dream. It was a sobering realisation that the clichéd dialogue and unlovable, cardboard characters did not denote a deliberate attempt to poke fun at Hollywood stereotypes. The series aims to preserve those stereotypes but imbue them with new, positive values.
With the first scenes we enter a world that is so brightly lit, so clean and colourful, that it looks like a childrens’ pantomime. This feeling is reinforced by the first character we meet, Jack Castello (David Corenswet), who resembles a cartoonists’ idea of the handsome, masculine male lead. Jack, as it turns out, is a demobbed serviceman who fought at Anzio, and has now decided to try his luck as an actor. He looks amazing, but can’t act. It’s tempting to say the same about David Corenswet.
As the series progresses we’ll meet Archie (Jeremy Pope) – a gay, black, would-be writer who has a script accepted by Ace Studios; Raymond (Darren Criss) – an aspiring director who wants to make mainstream movies that include ‘real’ people; his girlfriend, Camille (Laura Harrier), a talented actress who just happens to be black; Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) – portrayed as a gormless, handsome hunk from the backwoods who falls in love with Archie; and Claire (Samara Weaving), another emerging actrine, who is really the daughter of Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner), who owns the studios.
These are the young wannabees chasing the Dream. Those who can make it happen for them include Ace’s formidable wife, Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone); studio executives, Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello) and Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor); and the perverse talent agent, Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons). The wild card is Ernie, (Dylan McDermott), a pimp with a heart of gold.
The series blends historical figures such as Rock Hudson and Henry Wilson with entirely fictional characters, but the real biographies are also fictionalised. There’s a lot of vulgar talk and action, but for the most part it’s all good will and mutual supportiveness, quite contrary to every successful drama you’ve ever seen.
The plot is wildly implausible, making a mockery of historical fact. Brennan and Murphy are aware of the liberties they are taking but this is no justification for the feeling of smug self-satisfaction that radiates from such a pedestrian script. Each new episode strengthens the impression that the filmmakers believe they should be congratulated for their ground-breaking, revolutionary work.
This caring and sharing tale also wants to show us the sordid side of old Hollywood. Ernie, who runs a gas station as a front for a male prostitution racket, is treated as a kind of magus – a benevolent wizard who rescues Jack and Archie from poverty and makes them into cheerful gigolos. Even Henry, an agent who exploits his beefcake clients for his own sexual fantasies, is portrayed as an eccentric, comic character who gets his moment of redemption.
As for Raymond, he sees nothing wrong with casting his girlfriend in the lead role of his movie, even if the decision is dressed up as an advance for racial equality. In this and other connections, nepotism and conflicts of interest are simply taken for granted. We are expected to ignore this shameless behaviour in our joyful recognition that coloured people and homosexuals are finally enjoying their share of the spotlight. But the plot is so brittle and silly, so lacking in light and shade, that it’s impossible to feel empathy with any of the characters. They are all too glamorous or too nice.
Each twist is so predictable I found myself mouthing dialogue before it came out of the characters’ mouths. Once we have disposed of the idea that we’re watching a parody, the story becomes increasingly difficult to swallow. This logic of this PC fantasia develops an unstoppable momentum. By the final episode it has become unbearable.
At a time when the Harvey Weinstein case has imposed a new scrutiny on the way Hollywood operates, it seems a little, err… insensitive to make a series in which the supposedly lovable lead characters are happy to prostitute themselves for cash or favours, and a pimp is a benevolent father figure.
An even bigger issue is the way this series addresses the divided state of America under the Trump administration, which has given such solace to white supremacists and other bigots. Brennan and Murphy’s answer is a fictional Hollywood of the post-war years that rejects racism and homophobia, exercising a powerful influence on the minds of the American people. This fantasy must be truly appalling to anyone with personal experience of the hatred and intolerance that still flourish in the United States. It belittles the work of those who fought genuine battles for civil rights in the 1960s and 70s.
To falsify history so comprehensively, even in the name of good causes, is hardly better than the Maoists spinning tales about heroic peasants and workers. Stories that stray too far from viewers’ personal experience, casting an absurdly rosy light on the immediate past, are mere propaganda. The filmmakers seem to believe the only way to combat the lies that emanate from the White House is with their own fatuous make-believe. But when the assault on truth has become the greatest danger of our times it seems a peculiar strategy to push the process even further.
Created by Ian Brennan & Ryan Murphy
Starring David Corenswet, Darren Criss, Jeremy Pope, Laura Harrier, Jake Picking, Joe Mantello, Patti LuPone, Jim Parsons, Holland Taylor, Samara Weaving, Dylan McDermott, Mira Sorvino, Rob Reiner
USA, rated MA 15+, (7 episodes of 44 mins each)
Streaming on Netflix
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 16 May, 2020