WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, now streaming on Netflix.
This isn’t your typical Hollywood fairy tale: it’s a better one. American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy’s latest venture is Hollywood, a creative retelling of the film industry’s past. The series is set in post-World War II Hollywood, following the careers of a handful of aspiring actors, a writer and a director, all looking for their big break – but this is far from your average story of rising young stars in a brutal business.
The twist in Hollywood is that, while a number of the characters existed in real life, but Murphy has rewritten their story. Hollywood gives the world a tiny peek into what could have been the foundation for a more tolerant, diverse film industry. It shows what the world may have looked like if there was proper representation in the 1940s, posing the question of the effect it may have had on the world today. Unfortunately, this story is far from reality, and that fact is what makes the show heartbreaking.
Much like Quentin Tarantino’s Academy Award-nominated 2019 film Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, the Ryan Murphy series takes the truth and plays with it. Both filmmakers created an alternate reality based in truth, giving a few celebrities the endings they deserve. Where Tarantino spared Sharon Tate a brutal death at the hands of the Manson family, Ryan Murphy posits a world much more accepting of people based on their race and sexual orientation… a world less realistic than we’d like it to be, even in 2020.
Hollywood follows a few burgeoning careers: Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a gay African-American screenwriter who sells a script to the fictional Ace Studios; Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), an African-American actress who snags the lead role in Coleman’s script; and Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), a white-passing half-Filipino director who is chosen to helm the feature. The show also features a young Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), along with Jack Castello (David Corenswet), a white actor who plays opposite Camille in the film.
Coleman’s screenplay pegs Peg is about about the real story of Peg Entwistle who committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign. The script is changed to Meg, to star Camille, and the story ends with the character deciding to live. If this seems a bit convoluted, that’s because it’s a lot to keep track of: a story within a story, involving characters that exist in real-life, based on a true story that’s also true in the world of the film. The biggest potential downfall of the series is the mental gymnastics it takes to remember who’s real, who’s fictitious and what’s been rewritten. However, if viewers take the approach to simply take the show at face value, it is a much simpler and more enjoyable viewing experience.
A few have criticized Murphy’s fictional world of Hollywood for sugar-coating the very real history of discrimination against people of colour and members of the LGBTQ+ community. However, that’s not the story Murphy is trying to tell, and those who walk away with that interpretation may be missing the point. What Murphy achieves in Hollywood is presenting to the world of 2020 what could have been a strong foundation for a more tolerant industry today.
Rewriting the Peg script within the series serves as the perfect meta-representation of Hollywood‘s rewriting of history. In a crucial scene in Episode 5, “Jump,” Coleman, Ainsley and studio exec Dick Samuels (in a beautiful turn by Joe Mantello) sit down for a working dinner to make changes to the script. Samuels expresses that since the story is now about a black woman, it can’t end with her giving up and committing suicide. Ainsley remarks, “That’s a very different movie,” to which Coleman replies, “It’s a better movie.” This exchange perfectly encapsulates what Murphy was trying to do with Hollywood in his rewriting of history. It wasn’t about changing the story, it was about improving the story. As Ainsley says in Episode 2, “Hooray For Hollywood: Part 2,” movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be.
The series is about taking a chance on making a different kind of story. Coleman and Ainsley fight for the studio to take a chance on a film starring both starring and made by people of colour. In 1947, the idea of having a gay black screenwriter, a half-Filipino director and a black leading lady was beyond unfathomable. Even in 2020, people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community are struggling to get their voices heard, although enormous strides have been taken in the last few decades. Ryan Murphy includes real life stories of discrimination: Hattie McDaniel being told she can’t sit in the main auditorium for the Oscars ceremony at which she won an award for Best Supporting Actress; Anna May Wong losing out on a chance to win an Oscar after being passed over in favour of a white actress; Rock Hudson struggling with his sexuality – but then he gives these characters the happy endings they deserved.
Like many Ryan Murphy projects, Hollywood is an exercise in diversity and representation. Its holds up a mirror to the film industry and points out the flaws. Offering up an alternate reality wherein marginalized people find enormous success isn’t sugar-coating oppression, or making light of real-life struggles. What Hollywood presents is an answer to the question of where we could be as a society had we taken these steps sooner. Murphy gives a glimpse into what it looks like to have your dreams come true, no matter how lofty they may seem, at a time when we need it most. For once, a Hollywood project offers a Hollywood ending not just showing how the world is, but how it could be.
Starring David Corenswet, Darren Criss, Jeremy Pope, Laura Harrier, Samara Weaving, Dylan McDermott, Holland Taylor, Patti LuPone, Jake Picking, Joe Mantello and Jim Parsons, all seven episodes of Hollywood are available on Netflix.
This isn't your typical Hollywood fairy tale: it's a better one. Ryan Murphy's miniseries Hollywood creatively retells the film industry's past.