Review: 'Hollywood' Is Ryan Murphy's Miniseries For Netflix

May 1, 2020
Originally published on May 1, 2020 6:10 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The stories of Hollywood legends like Rock Hudson get a new frame in "Hollywood," a new limited series from Netflix from superstar producer Ryan Murphy. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show which debuts today presents a Hollywood that never was but should've been.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Ryan Murphy's "Hollywood" asks a poignant question. What if 1940s-era Hollywood, the film industry's so-called golden age, really was a golden age for everyone? In other words, what if a black, gay man wrote the script for a major motion picture starring a black woman that also happened to give a closeted Rock Hudson his first movie role? Yeah, it's a lot. "Hollywood" is a fantasy about a group of outsider friends who find insider success in the movie biz. Let's start with aspiring screenwriter Archie Colman. Here, he explains why, as a black man, he decided to write a movie script about a white woman who jumped to her death from the Hollywoodland sign in Los Angeles in 1930.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOLLYWOOD")

JEREMY POPE: (As Archie Coleman) I understand her rage - talented as the next gal but never appreciated. So writing her story, I feel like I'm telling her, hey, somebody's finally going to break you into this business. You and me both.

DEGGANS: The film's director wants to cast his African American girlfriend, Camille Washington, as the star - a tough task given that black actresses often played maids back then. When the head of the studio, played in a nice twist by noted liberal Rob Reiner, hears who actually wrote the film, he puts his foot down.

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ROB REINER: (As Ace Amberg) Never in the history of Hollywood has there ever been a motion picture made by a motion picture studio for a mainstream audience, written by a colored person. And I'm not going to be the first.

DEGGANS: But then the studio head has a heart attack. And his wife gets a passionate plea to cast Camille from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

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HARRIET SANSOM HARRIS: (As Eleanor Roosevelt) Think about it - what it might mean to a little black girl living in a shanty where she's told she's free, but really, her life is no better than that of her grandparents.

DEGGANS: Yeah, they wind up casting Camille. Murphy, the creator of TV hits like "Glee" and "Pose," has a long-standing love for old Hollywood, and it shows here. The art direction is gleaming and lush, recreating the style of '40s-era Los Angeles as a city teeming with sharp suits, bright smiles and grand, looming buildings. But there's a dark edge to that sunny side epitomized, by Jim Parsons' character, Henry Wilson. He's an abusive, closeted talent agent who gives a young closeted actor named Roy Fitzgerald a new name.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOLLYWOOD")

JIM PARSONS: (As Henry Wilson) Rock Hudson - strong like the Rock of Gibraltar. You don't like what you're hearing? You can get out of my office. Farm boys don't just roll into Hollywood and stumble into pictures. They need somebody to show them the ropes, to give them a real-life character that's every bit as scripted as any role you'll ever play onscreen. I won't just be your agent. I'll be your godfather.

DEGGANS: This series shows people defeating racism, sexism, ageism and homophobia in a way that wasn't really possible back then. And the characters take several episodes to evolve from cardboard stereotypes to more fleshed-out people, which may test some viewers' patience. There's a lot of sex, including a recreation of a real-life gas station where the attendants were secretly male prostitutes patronized by stars. At times, it feels like an impractical fable. But Netflix's "Hollywood" is also an ambitious, well-crafted attempt to take control of the narrative, creating a vision of classic Hollywood that modern audiences can watch with a lot less shame and anger. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT JAZZ ENSEMBLE'S "QUIET HERO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.