In 2018, Ryan Murphy signed the biggest producer contract in television history – a five-year development deal with Netflix worth up to a staggering $300 million. This is what showbiz dreams are made of, which is what the characters in his second series for the streaming giant are striving for. In the aftermath of World War Two, Los Angeles is a boomtown selling an image of stardom that few will actually achieve. Simply titled Hollywood, the seven-part limited series follows a group of young actors, directors and writers all aspiring to become legends by wooing and defying the gatekeepers with the power to make or break them.
Desire and the pitfalls of fame is a thread running through Murphy’s bountiful TV career, whether the high school musical theatre aficionados of Glee or the high profile real-life cases as depicted in American Crime Story. These shows highlight how the fantasy of stardom extends far beyond the parameters of the infamous Hollywood sign; hypocrisy and corruption have the power to poison big dreams across the United States.
Nevertheless, this is not the first time the studio system has fallen under his creative microscope. Unlike Feud: Bette and Joan, which portrayed the legendary rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the focus here is on a mostly fictitious group of characters looking to alter the decades-old power dynamic ruling this town. Tackling obstacles predicated on race, sexuality and gender, the first two episodes set the tone (with varying success) hinting an alternate version of the entertainment industry will follow.
‘Hooray for Hollywood’ (Parts One and Two) introduces the major players, including struggling actor Jack (David Corenswet), screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope), up-and-coming director Raymond (Darren Criss), and studio contract players Camille (Laura Harrier) and Claire (Samara Weaving). The leads posses plenty of charm – Tony Award-nominee Pope is an early standout – and the cast is a mix of famous names, familiar faces and newcomers, which matches the aesthetic of a story interconnecting real figures with fictional characters.
Murphy has long cultivated an unofficial acting troupe of sorts, using the same players across multiple projects and Hollywood is no different. (This is Darren Criss’ fourth time working with the producer – he recently won an Emmy and Golden Globe for playing spree killer Andrew Cunanan in American Crime Story – and Raymond’s half-Filipino remarks reflect comments the actor has made in the past about casting and race.)
“Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be,” Raymond earnestly states in a meeting while discussing his dream picture, starring Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. This is one of several references to the power of cinema, but also how restrictive these stories are if you aren’t white (or white-passing). The conversation about diversity and the failings of this industry is important, but some of the dialogue is heavy-handed, a knowing wink that hints at the power structure twist to come. More successful is the manner in which sexuality as a commodity to be sold and sanitised (depending on which part of Tinseltown you are in) is depicted.
Knowledge of the major players and scandals of the mid-century period is not a requirement (although viewers with an in-depth interest will get a kick out of references and locations like Western Costume Co), however, pausing mid-episode to deep dive into the stories behind The Good Earth’s casting and the Peg Entwistle Hollywoodland sign suicide will prolong the viewing time. The iconic landmark is featured in an opening credits sequence that captures the lure of the industry while also revealing the show’s lack of subtlety.
Costumes by Sarah Evelyn and Lou Eyrich, coupled with Matthew Flood Ferguson’s production design, allow us to slip into this world; for anyone itching for the gap between The Aviator and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, this is it. Still, echoing the eponymous setting, there are serious flaws hidden beneath the glossy veneer.
Hollywood is available on Netflix from 1 May.
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