EJ Moreno on Netflix’s Hollywood and how to correctly rewrite cinematic history…
BEWARE: Spoilers for Hollywood follow. For our spoiler free thoughts, watch the video review here…
If you had the chance to go back in time and change the world to your vision, would you? That’s the question Ryan Murphy and company asked themselves before crafting the new Netflix series, Hollywood.
In this series, we go back to post-World War II Hollywood to see an alternative look at what could’ve been if things were more positive. Coming just a year after Quentin Tarantino attempted this with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, it’s even more apparent how misguided that felt, and how much Murphy and crew get it right with this new show.
Rewriting history is tricky. You can easily offend the people who were there if these changes are not treated with care. With that being said, I can’t see anyone finding Hollywood’s revisionism to be offensive.
In this version of ’40s Hollywood, people of color and queer folk push to the mainstream of filmmaking, something that is still a work in progress 70 years later. In Tarantino’s version, Bruce Lee is an enormous tool for the sake of making the fictional Cliff Booth more interesting. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood changes the fate of one of the industry’s worst nights, just to provide a big on-brand action scene. Tarantino’s new version of Hollywood does nothing to change the status quo or tell a new story; he simply wanted to stretch reality to fit his weak nostalgia.
While the nostalgia of an era long-gone is present in Netflix’s Hollywood, Murphy and the other creators aren’t blind to how bad that period was for anyone who wasn’t a straight, white male. And this is by no means trying to demonize the “straight, white males” as the show presents plenty of good characters like that, as well as explaining their co-operation in progressive movements is all too important.
There are multiple moments throughout this series that genuinely brought a tear to my eye. Something about seeing Anna May Wong get her much-deserved shot at an Oscar or seeing Rock Hudson come to terms with his sexuality felt touching in many ways. Reimagining these moments wasn’t for the shock and awe, but a way for tragic heroes to have a better world. Both stories weave so well into the narrative that you feel emotionally connected, no matter the real history. Although, the show knows these moments will give long-time fans of golden age Hollywood a fantastic reward.
It’s not just these two bits of Hollywood that goes for pure happiness; it’s an overall positive show. As a self-proclaimed Ryan Murphy fanboy, the happy tone is long-overdue. If you know any of Murphy’s work (Nip/Tuck, Feud, American Horror Story), you know the creator loves a bit of something we call “tragedy porn.” To quickly define that, it’s when a movie, novel, or TV show delves into sad stories just for the sake of exploitation of the characters. His series about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis is just a depressing look at how Hollywood beat up these two icons to sell more movies. There was never real moments of camp and happiness, which Ryan Murphy does very well.
Hollywood is not that at all. It’s a hilarious and campy but doesn’t sacrifice drama and tension. When you think the show is going to go down a dark route, it teeters the line ever so gently. The show doesn’t skimp on the scandal and drama, but it’s not making you wallow in the sadness of these characters; it would instead focus on showing them overcome and kick-ass. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood tries that with its handling of the Tate–LaBianca murders, but it regulates that to the “C plot.”
The change to Sharon Tate’s last night alive in Tarantino’s 2019 Oscar-winning film is supposed to feel heart-warming and compelling, and for a moment, it does. Then it sinks in that Tate still had no control over her destiny; in this universe, she doesn’t save herself but saved by two men she only meets afterward. If Netflix’s Hollywood dove into this story, Sharon Tate would’ve undoubtedly been a pretty significant role and give the actress more agency. She didn’t need to be a drastic 180 from the original person, but the show finds a way to enhancing reality without losing the soul of the person.
In Ryan Murphy’s series Hollywood, we see Haddie McDaniels, Viviene Leigh, Tallauh Bankhead, and many more real-life figures as fleshed out characters. Leigh is about to tackle A Streetcar Named Desire, and knows it could upset her mental health even further but puts the craft first. First black Oscar-winner Haddie McDaniels becomes a mentor figure to our fictional lead Camille Washington, something McDaniels spoke about wanting to do during this time.
But one of the most exciting showcases of how you handle the reality of a character but punch it up for the sake of filmmaker is Jim Parsons as talent agent Henry Willson. When I mentioned earlier bout “enhancing reality without losing the soul” of a real-life person, this is an excellent example of how to do it.
But unlike the Tate feeling like this untouchable angel, Parsons’ Wilson character is a disgusting monster rarely depicted to this degree. Henry Willson was a Hollywood talent agent who specialized in big, beefcake-style actors that became all the rage at the time. His credits include Rory Calhoun, Troy Donahue, Tab Hunter, and one of our supporting characters Rock Hudson. He brought all of these men to fame and, in reality, was doing shady things to make it all happen. He infamously sold stories about Rory Calhoun and Tab Hunter to tabloids to keep Rock Hudon’s sexuality under wraps.
This evil man is a crucial part of this story, and the filmmakers here are not scared to show the reality in such a bold way. Yes, there are real reports of Bruce Lee being an arrogant show-off, but Tarantino spent more time in his feature showcasing that than showing a real villain like Charles Manson. Giving the command over your audience, you are clearly sending messages that they will receive. In the cases of depicting real-life people, it says a lot about a creator when they pick and choose how to go about that.
With the power of filmmaking, you can change the world. That’s a central theme of Hollywood and why it speaks to me. When you are crafting something and using your platform to tell these stories, you have more power than you can imagine. And it’s lovely to see someone use that cinematic power to show a different side of reality, and do it with real intent and purpose.
Like the directors, actors, and producers in the show, Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Janet Mock all know they can do good with their work and want to use the tools given as filmmakers to change how we view things. This show doesn’t go back in time and have studios begin a cinematic revolution, but the escapism is needed in these times. Hollywood talks the talk, as well as walks the walk with its commitment to giving diversity a chance in the film industry. A gay man, a straight man, and a black trans woman all come together to give this bright future a past they genuinely deserve.