Netflix series Hollywood is a revisionist retelling of the classic showbiz story that could have been so much more

Set in the golden age of Hollywood soon after World War II, Hollywood has been co-created by Netflix regular Ryan Murphy (American Crime Story, The Politician) and Ian Brennan

Pradeep Menon May 18, 2020 17:18:19 IST
Netflix series Hollywood is a revisionist retelling of the classic showbiz story that could have been so much more

There’s an early scene in the first episode of Netflix miniseries Hollywood, involving one of the central characters – former soldier and aspiring actor, the Captain-America-handsome Jack Castello (David Corenswet). He’s been scrounging around LA for work, a young wife in tow and stars in his eyes, as he also chases the studios like a thousand others pursuing dreams of being a moviestar.

Unfortunately, the long path to the red carpet begins, for him, at a gas station that also services certain wealthy clients in their carnal requirements. When Castello is with his first ever client – a former silent-era movie star, Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone) who got lost after talkies gained popularity – he discloses to her his dream of becoming a moviestar. The older woman, who has seen it all, asks him, off the cuff, ‘why?’.

He wants to be someone, to do something that matters, he replies. ‘Do movies matter?’ comes the counter-question from the world-weary woman, who now happens to be the homebound wife of a studio owner. His earnest response, complete with a slow-tracking close up into his face, is a romantic’s answer about the magic of the movies and feeling alive.

Netflix series Hollywood is a revisionist retelling of the classic showbiz story that could have been so much more

The poster for Netflix series Hollywood.

It is a self-aware build-up to the inevitable - the older woman soon tells the handsome younger man to ‘perform’ for her and please her in bed. And Castello performs. He may not be attracted to this older woman, but he has to act like he does, the art of making love as much a performance as anything else.

This was a moment that indicated that this aspiring revisionist retelling of the classical Hollywood tale about itself had the potential to be something that dissected yet celebrated the pinnacle of glamour – a Hollywood what-could-have-been for the ages. Seven episodes later, though, the show ends up being a breezy, crowd-pleasing collection of mere moments, but dramatically nothing one hasn’t seen before even closer home, in Luck By Chance (and so many other movies that depict the gruelling role of fate in the quest for moviestar-dom).

Set in the golden age of Hollywood soon after World War II, Hollywood has been co-created by Netflix regular Ryan Murphy (American Crime Story, The Politician) and Ian Brennan. Now the truth of the matter is that whether we like it or not, the stories created by the storytellers in cinema have a deep ongoing relationship with the real, world over.

Looking back at that time from where we are today, we can only but yearn for where society could have been had its movies been another way – and, indeed, vice versa.

That one queer screenwriter who could have gotten a chance earlier than they did; that woman whose outstanding performance was overlooked because she was the ‘wrong’ colour (they said); that other person who could have been an inspiration to little children, across genders and races, but who wasn’t even considered because they weren’t straight, white men of privilege.

Hollywood, the show, touches on all that and much more, altering tropes and fitting them for an audience that’s more ready, some would say even eager, for stories from varying perspectives, about those among us whose realities and fantasies are hidden away by the insecurities of those who hold the keys to power.

The show basically tracks the circumstances that lead up to the making of a fictional movie based on a real story - that of Peg Entwistle, an actress who jumped off the Hollywoodland sign in 1932. The prospect is enticing, and all the little nods to real history while narrating a fictionalised version of it make things that much more promising.

Any story about the making of a motion picture always has the potential for drama. And in this case, the project in question also has all these firmly entrenched socio-economic barriers to contend with. Yet, Hollywood often favours feel-good moments celebrating diversity, foregoing nuance in favour of the spectacle.

The people struggling with the realities of their skin colour and closeted identities get the shots that they always deserved, and they get them much sooner than real life afforded their counterparts. It’s a ride you won’t mind going along with, until you get off feeling that there’s a multitude of reasons all of these things didn’t happen; and the complex realities associated with it are sometimes lost while cheering for a history that never was.

Hollywood could have been funny and brutal, but it prefers its humour with a healthy dose of cheerful optimism instead. That, of course is the choice and prerogative of the makers, but the fact is that the show is only partially satisfying.

There are some truly affecting characters that manage to gnaw at the meat of their respective conflicts, such as the studio head Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello), who is caught between an owner who only thinks of the bottom line, and his inner voice that wishes for him to greenlight unique stories by fresh voices.

He’s a good man who hasn’t always done what he should have, who has buried much of his own fears and identity issues somewhere deep within. His journey towards making big decisions on behalf of the business correlate with his personal demons, and it’s a journey of discovery and closure.

But certain other characters have just not been done justice to, such as young, talented, black actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), who manages to become the first woman of colour to play the lead in a studio film. She cracks it and more, yes, but her struggle isn’t depicted with the same self-aware intensity.

Then, there are the crowd-pleasing redemptions in characters such as Dylan McDermott’s boisterous Ernie West, the gas station owner who had come to Hollywood years ago with the same dream as Jack Castello, but he was one of those who fate didn’t smile on; or Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), the young, black, gay screenwriter who makes it big after an excruciating life of conformity for the comfort of the privileged.

Make no mistake, the show is fun. And at seven episodes long, Hollywood doesn’t even command too much of a time investment. A pity that it isn’t deeper, darker and funnier, because it ends up doing only so much justice to the immense, grotesque history that actually was.

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