The Hollywood fairy tale has changed over the decades. Long the story of a small-town yokel winding up on Hollywood Boulevard with nothing but a dollar and a dream, creators have looked at that set-up from practically every angle; so much so that the snake has turned on its tail and what we’re seeing now is Hollywood revising its own history. The eye is turning away from Hollywood as a Dream Factory to looking at the machinery of what has made that factory run.
Last year, director Quentin Tarantino rewrote one of Los Angeles’ darkest days — the murder of Sharon Tate — with his feature “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” That film, which garnered 10 Academy Award nominations and won two, received just as much flack as it did praise for the way it gave Tate a happy ending and presented the late 1960s Hollywood as a halcyon playground we’ll never see again. With that positivity came a complete erasure — or at least ignorance of — the real problems Hollywood endured with regards to its history.
For Tarantino, Hollywood’s golden glow is directly tied to the blonde hair and wide eyes of Tate. Long cited as the angel of innocence whose brutal murder marked the end of the 1960s era of free love, it’s hard to watch Tarantino’s feature and ignore the white privilege presented in its depiction of Los Angeles. The Hollywood of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is one where minority actors and their struggles are erased or just non-existent.
And that is why Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series, simply dubbed “Hollywood,” feels more like a true entertainment fairy tale. It not only contains revised backstories for famous personalities; it presents a landscape where the dream is that the people sitting behind the desks at various movie studios actually care about diversity. Taking place at the fictional Ace Studios (though bearing the famous Paramount Pictures gates), the series’ seven episodes create a world where the first African-American woman wins an Oscar for Best Actress in 1947, where actor Rock Hudson was able to live out and proud, and where a studio head — played by Broadway legend Patti LuPone, no less — understands that it’s not just about who is cast on-screen, but how a minority audience will feel seeing themselves presented on-screen.
It’s a compassionate view of Old Hollywood at a time when classic musicals are regularly referred to in modern movies and are providing escapism in the midst of the global pandemic. There’s a happiness and safety found within the black-and-white celluloid worlds of Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, this in spite of knowing about the medium’s use of blackface, sexual harassment of actresses, and the exclusion of actors and directors of color.
Throughout the seven episodes of “Hollywood” the audience sees the creation of the fictional movie, “Meg,” a reinterpretation of the story of doomed wannabe actress Peg Entwhistle. Black actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) is given the opportunity to play the Peg-esque character in a story written by Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a black screenwriter who’s also gay. Queen Latifah’s Hattie McDaniel talks to Camille about winning her own Academy Award for playing the stereotypical Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” and being unable to sit in the room where the Oscars were given out because of segregation.
Camille’s win becomes a validation for McDaniel but also, if you’re an Old Hollywood fan, a moment for the black actresses whose careers were stymied by racism. Actresses like Dorothy Dandridge or Lena Horne; the latter refused the role of a mixed-race character in the 1951 iteration of “Show Boat.” (The role went to white actress Ava Gardner.) To watch Camille be the first black actress to win an Oscar for Leading Actress in the ’40s is to remind you it took until 2001 for Halle Berry to achieve that same feat. It’s even more painful to see a fictional black man secure an Oscar for Best Screenplay, knowing it was just last year that Jordan Peele became the first black man, ever, to win an Oscar for the same category.
As “Meg” comes together, the goal of director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) is not just to give these two characters a chance to tell their story, but also give a role of substance to Asian-American actress Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec). Wong’s story is just one of many happy endings for stars who suffered tragic ends. Wong, long stuck playing the “dragon lady” or exotic femme fatales throughout the 1930s, auditioned for the role of O-Lan, a Chinese woman in the 1937 adaptation of “The Good Earth.” The role went to Germany actress Luise Rainer, winning her the second of two Academy Awards. As Murphy’s world unfolds, Wong is given a new lease on life playing a part in “Meg,” winning an Academy Award and striking a blow to the depiction of “yellow face” in classic cinema. It’s a bittersweet moment considering the real Wong remained stereotyped well into the 1960s before dying of a heart attack at 56.
This is probably the saddest angle “Hollywood” showcases, for as much as it gives Wong and Hudson a world with acceptance and love, free of pain and judgement, the audience knows this isn’t so. For all the warmth of LuPone’s Avis Ambler — who finds common ground and understanding with her husband’s mistress — as the head of Ace Pictures, there’s the tyranny of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who treated Judy Garland like garbage, forcing her down a spiral of pills and alcoholism. Vicious manager Henry Willson, played by Jim Parsons, may have been able to apologize for his abuse and exploitation of Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), but in reality Willson continued to abuse actors. More than anything, Murphy uses his show to apologize for the sins of the past and give these people the love and respect they deserved in life.
This isn’t to say Murphy’s version is a perfect utopia (and neither is Tarantino’s). Murphy still abides by a world filled with racism and homophobia, and he’s open about the exploitation and casting couch system both men and women endured and continue to do. The distinction is his overall tone. Yes, Henry Willson was a terrible man, but in Murphy’s world he might have deigned to ask for forgiveness, and the vindication comes from knowing he’ll never receive it from his victim. Those Willson hurt are left with the power; they’re believed and they are able to go out into the world stronger than they might have without that support system in place. For Murphy, there is a support system and it’s more than Judy Garland, Anna May Wong, or any other fallen star ever got.
In comparison to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” what Murphy does is craft a fairy tale where the machine is a beating heart. Where moguls care about their stars, where race isn’t just an easy, exploitable buzzword to put butts in seats but a true ability to change the world. The characters understand the responsibility film has to change hearts and minds, and it acts on it. There’s a bigger role at play. And while the time period is a world we’ll never see, it’s an acknowledgement not about what we lost, but what we have failed to achieve. The reality is more painful than fiction.