“This moment is so much bigger than me,” Halle Berry said in 2002, tears streaming down her face as she became the first black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened,” she said.
Nearly two decades after that touching moment, Berry remains — depressingly — the only woman of color to have achieved the honor. Though the Academy has made strides recently to be more inclusive, the fact remains that the organization — and the film industry at large— still serves as a gatekeeper with biases that preclude artists of color from getting a seat at the proverbial table.
But what if the people who have historically been overlooked were given the same opportunities as their white, straight-presenting counterparts? That’s essentially the question Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan ask in their new limited series, Hollywood, out today on Netflix. The show follows a slew of characters — some fabricated, others fictionalized versions of real-life stars — whose lives interact as they navigate the studio system–era Hollywood, aka the golden age of classic cinema in the United States.
"I've always been interested in this kind of buried history, and I wanted to create a universe where these icons got the endings that they deserved," Murphy told the Hollywood Reporter in a recent interview. "[The show] is this beautiful fantasy, and in these times, it could be a sort of balm in some way."
Among the people vying for opportunities in late-’40s Hollywood are Jack Castello (David Corenswet), a wide-eyed World War II veteran with dreams of becoming a leading man, Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) and Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), two talented black actors whose race and sexual orientaton (Archie is gay) keep them from securing roles. These characters operate in the same world alongside real-life icons, such as Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) and Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), who offer further insight into the struggles of black and queer artists during the time.
But they face stiff pushback from people who hold the power in Hollywood, such as Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons), a real-life Hollywood agent who forces young male actors to sleep with him for career promotion. And Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), a studio chief’s wife, who unexpectedly becomes the acting head honcho of the fictional Ace Studios. With her newfound power, like the sole ability to green-light films, Avis feels conflicted about producing a version of the Peg Entwistle tragedy with a black writer and lead actor. Not only does the show try to tackle how racist studio honchos prevented actors of color from competing head-to-head with their white peers, it also attempts to shed light on the casting couch from the point of view of aspiring young male artists who want a shot at fame. But while the show’s premise is an admirable attempt at imagining a different, more progressive power structure, the corrective it presents still feels superficial. (Major spoilers ahead).
In the last episode of the series, Anna May Wong, played by Michelle Krusiec, wins Best Supporting Actress at the 1948 Academy Awards. It’s a nice gesture on the show’s part since in real life Wong never won an Oscar and was passed over for the lead part in the 1937 film The Good Earth. (German actor Luise Rainer went on to take the role, appearing in yellowface and winning an Oscar in the Best Actress category.)
But while emotionally resonant, Wong’s fictitious win doesn’t feel particularly earned. Aside from a few moments where the show highlights, in broad strokes, the obstacles Wong faced trying to make it as a prominent star in the States, she’s largely offscreen for most of the series. The show suggests that her win is a harbinger of progress to come for actors of Asian descent in Hollywood and that it takes the softening of one woman studio head in a male-dominated and racist industry to make this history happen. But that requires imagining that the Oscars voting body of the late ’40s would be more inclined to vote for an Asian American performance than the same (very white, I might add) voting body that overlooked Awkwafina’s performance in The Farewell just last year.
This kind of surface-level treatment runs throughout Hollywood. In its review of the series, the Hollywood Reporter called the show “bizarrely disingenuous” and noted that it paints “progress as a thing that arrives magically if one is determined enough, and racial and gender hegemony as weak-willed forces that can be toppled if one is willing to stand one's ground.” There’s a similar dynamic with Harrier’s character, Camille, who wins the Oscar for Best Actress over Loretta Young in The Farmer's Daughter. This imagined amendment makes Camille the first black actor to win in that particular category, seven years before Dorothy Dandridge’s actual nomination for Carmen Jones and 54 years before Berry’s historic win. In her speech, Camille thanks the Academy for “making sure that no little girl staring up at that screen will ever again be told that there are limits to what you can achieve.”
Like Wong’s scene before, her syrupy moment is supposed to be great for representation, but it ends up ringing hollow. The character of Camille, who was likely inspired by real-life black actors like Lena Horne and Nina Mae McKinney, is also underdeveloped. We learn virtually nothing about her except that she’s supposed to be a really talented actor, but we never see this talent in action. Throughout most of the series, good things appear to happen to Camille by chance; there’s no grit to her character. And so in an ironic twist, she becomes another kind of stock character — the thwarted, long-suffering black woman with a heart of gold.
There’s one moment in the show that inadvertently captures the limits of these make-believe Oscar wins. Camille becomes friends with Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah), who in real life was the first black actor to ever win an Oscar for her supporting actor performance in Gone With the Wind. “You know, I thought winning was gonna change things for me,” McDaniel says. “No more goddamn maids. Maybe I get to play somebody romantic or a comedy part. You know, some funny, rich lady in New York with a feather in her cap. But...fucking no. The roles never came.” In a way, McDaniel’s words to Camille signify that representation of people of color onscreen by itself isn’t the panacea to Hollywood’s lack of racial diversity. One shining moment doesn’t necessarily mean another will follow.
Hollywood does get a few things right. It shows how power — no matter who wields it — is often the driving force behind sexual coercion and assault. When Jack, a war vet with a pregnant wife, meets Ernie (Dylan McDermott), a smooth-talking lothario who owns a gas station that secretly doubles as an escort business, he eventually forms a transactional, sexual relationship with Ace Studio’s studio head, Avis. The relationship is a smart depiction of what power dynamics can look like between two people on unequal playing fields.
There’s also Jim Parsons' character, Henry, the licentious “star-maker” who in real life is credited with discovering stars like Lana Turner and Roy Fitzgerald, aka Rock Hudson. He embodies the worst traits you could imagine in a person who is ostensibly tasked with helping actors get their big break. There’s a scene in one episode where he refuses to sign Hudson unless the aspiring actor lets him perform fellatio on him, and another where he forces Hudson to spend a night with him at his home in order to get a screen test.
The secrecy around being queer at this time allowed abuse to flourish. But while anti-gay behavior is part and parcel of this fictional world, as well as our current reality, the show also attempts to give Hudson a life he never had — one where he could attend the Academy Awards, out and proud, holding his boyfriend Archie’s hand. It’s another tender moment that feels like the cinematic equivalent of the often recited platitude that “love wins.” The glib moment, which is later followed by a rosy Oscars speech from Archie, is drained of all the dramatic effect it could’ve had because of its blind optimism. After all, Murphy seems to flourish in the lane of melodrama, which is not to say he doesn’t have the ability to create art that is both moving and unpredictable. Pose, which he created and executive produces, while still heavy on the melodrama, is much more layered and thoughtful about queerness without being shallow.
Hollywood is well acted and glamorously shot. But while Murphy made it clear he was not interested in making a biopic, the fantasy version of these real actors’ lives has ultimately done them a disservice. A story doesn’t always have to wrap up nicely to be a good Hollywood ending. ●