Glitzy new Netflix TV show is soulless
Hollywood is a town for dreamers, and who doesn't love a good fairytale?
But fairytales have their limits, and so does Ryan Murphy's latest Netflix drama Hollywood, a slick, wish-fulfilment story about ambitious young up-and-comers in post-World War II Los Angeles.
Starring Darren Criss, Samara Weaving, Laura Harrier, David Corenswet and Jeremy Pope, the seven-part miniseries is an exercise in good intentions - and an expensive and lavish one at that.
The series is focused on six dreamers trying to get their start in the business of show: wannabe actors Jack (Corenswet), Camille (Harrier), Roy (Jay Picking) and Claire (Weaving), plus fledgling director Raymond (Criss) and screenwriter Archie (Pope).
Claire and Camille are on contract at the fictional Ace Studios while veteran Jack is desperate to get in the door. Roy, soon to be renamed by his agent Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons) as Rock Hudson - yes, that Rock Hudson - is newly arrived in town from Illinois.
The half-Filipino Raymond is given the opportunity to direct his first movie, but not the one he wants to make with Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), a looked-over real-life Hollywood star of the 1930s, the first actor of Chinese heritage to make it big in Hollywood but who was still relegated to stereotyped villains and passed over for Asian roles in favour of white actors in yellowface.
Instead, Raymond picks a screenplay about the doomed Peg Enwhistle by Archie, who wants to break through the barrier as an African-American writer.
With the exception of Jack and Claire, everyone has something to hold them back, whether it's their race or homosexuality.
Hollywood is an unforgiving, competitive town full of people who will rip you down at any opportunity to further their own wants. Even more so, it's a place that's reflective of its context - a deeply racist America that condemns gay people and oppresses women.
In real-life Hollywood history, the late-1940s was not a place of inclusivity and diversity, beholden as much to the moralistic Hays Code as it was to the social and political prejudices of the audiences that paid to see the pictures.
Not to mention the toxic studio system which churned out manufactured stars like Henry Ford churned out cars off the production line.
Murphy's Hollywood is a Pollyanna, revisionist version of what he wished had gone on, if only a few compassionate and empathetic souls had taken a stand and made the correct choice instead of the easy one, and bolstered each other up along the way.
At a time when movie theatres are closed, Murphy's clear love of cinema, of the power of a story strikes the right note.
As does Murphy's fervent declaration that screen representation matters. Of course it matters, but the idea that all that needed to happen for the past 70 years of racial, sexual, gender and political struggles to have not been necessary was one movie defying anti-miscegenation laws and anti-homosexuality laws to have been a hit in 1947 is ludicrous.
To that end, Hollywood is really let down by its plot armour. There are twists, story choices and character turnarounds that are not earnt, all in the service of this idealised 2020 version.
Hollywood wanted to pull back the curtain of the dehumanising and unethical practices of an industry that sold you a dream and then crushed it as soon as you dared to chase it, before offering a different "what if?" path.
The first half is a noble aim, but it's one that's been told before, and it's certainly not as effective as, say, Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, published eight years before Hollywood is set.
As for Hollywood's second aim, it's so earnest in its execution, you can only roll your eyes when characters declare, with all sincerity, "I didn't have anything, except a dream."
To be fair, while Murphy's shows, which also includes Glee, The Politician and American Horror Story, are often a mixed bag, at least they're never boring and Hollywood is very watchable. It's also beautiful to look at in that glitzy, no-expenses-spared way - the production design and photography is spectacular to take in.
There are many great, moving performances here, especially from the more established actors including Queen Latifah as Hattie McDaniel, Krusiec as Anna May Wong, Patti LuPone as Avis Amberg, the wife of a fictional studio head, Mira Sorvino as an older actor and Holland Taylor as an acting coach.
There are genuinely moving moments when the characters express their desire to be seen and heard in a world that would rather wish they weren't, but it's all a bit sledgehammer-y.
For all of its impressive parts, it doesn't gel all that well, which leaves Hollywood feeling a bit soulless. But then again, so is the real one.
Hollywood is available to stream on Netflix from 5pm AEST
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Originally published as Glitzy new Netflix TV show is soulless