Having already dipped into a real slice of Tinseltown history with his FX channel series Feud: Bette and Joan (2017), the ever industrious Ryan Murphy – the creative force behind Nip/Tuck, Glee and American Horror Story, among others – turns his hand to a seven-part alternative-universe saga about the post-World War II dream factory. Here’s a world where in 1947 a gay black man can write an Oscar-nominated movie with a black female star for a studio headed by a woman and her openly gay production supervisor.
None of this could actually have happened, of course: this is Hollywood, but not as we know it. Perhaps taking a leaf from the Tarantino playbook, Murphy and his co-creator Ian Brennan present the past as they would like it to have been rather than as it actually was. There’s a suggestion here, though, that the essentially straight, Wasp society presented by the Hollywood cinema of the era was a propaganda version of the nation, which sustained prejudices and had an oppressive impact on non-white and gay communities in particular. It’s a point so obvious it’s almost unarguable, but one still worth making, notwithstanding the reduced cultural footprint of 1940s and early 50s cinema, which shrinks year on year so far as today’s youthful audiences are concerned.
Either way, the focus is on a group of young hopefuls planning to storm the seemingly impregnable citadel that is Ace Pictures, a made-up studio whose entrance boasts a Paramount-style triumphal arch. There’s handsomely dimpled Jack (David Corenswet), would-be actor with a young pregnant wife and a deepening cashflow problem. Darren Criss features as Raymond, an aspiring director who’s had to hide his own half-Filipino background, an experience of racism which helps him bond with his black girlfriend Camille (Laura Harrier), who’s seemingly stuck playing maids, and indeed with screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope), who’s sold a spec script to the studio and is fretting about the consequences when they discover he’s also ‘coloured’.
Intriguingly, Archie’s screenplay is based on the true story of Peg Entwistle, a minor British actress who in 1932 jumped to her death from the top of the ‘H’ in what was then the Hollywoodland sign. That’s one of the ways in which the scripts, largely the work of Murphy and Brennan, adeptly explore some of the town’s byways. Elsewhere, there’s a key role for Michelle Krusiec as Anna May Wong, and a telling cameo from a regal Queen Latifah as Hattie McDaniel – actresses whose careers suffered because of their Chinese and African-American ethnicity.
Moreover, Pope’s fictional writer is also romantically involved with a lovable hunk who is being groomed for the big time as Rock Hudson (Jake Picking). Hudson’s real-life agent Henry Wilson (a marvellously waspish Jim Parsons, leaving The Big Bang Theory convincingly behind him) is not keen that his client’s, or indeed his own homosexuality become public knowledge.
And to blur the fact/fiction boundaries yet further, Dylan McDermott whoops it up as Ernie West, proprietor of a Beverly Hills garage whose real business is providing sexual services to the stars, whatever their sexual inclinations. This, to those in the know, is a thinly disguised portrayal of the legendary Scotty Bowers, who wrote the tell-all autobiography Full Service (2012), and whose activities exemplified the tension between private vice and public virtue that Murphy is intent on bringing into the light.
Viewers fully genned up on vintage Hollywood will enjoy sorting out the fake news in this teeming fresco, shot throughout in bright and breezy widescreen HD – unatmospheric and not entirely persuasive when presenting scenes from its own black-and-white celluloid fakes. But will viewers au fait with the historical aspects invest wholeheartedly in the progress of the speculative movie production that becomes central to the plot? Won’t they be only too aware that its suggestive fiction is essentially a social justice warrior point-scoring exercise? The unaware audience for whom the borderlines of authenticity simply don’t come into it may be at an advantage – though they too might notice that the construction becomes more slapdash as the episodes wear on.
Still, while we certainly get the revisionist point pretty quickly, and the sheer earnestness of the overall approach won’t be to all tastes, Murphy does tellingly bring to life the bitter experiences of those suffering everyday oppression. He draws memorable performances from the theatre director Joe Mantello as a studio production head who’s been in the closet so long he’s almost lost the ability to love, and from the Broadway diva Patti Lupone as the studio head’s spouse, bitterly squaring up to decades of sexist and anti-semitic belittlement.
Equally affecting is Mira Sorvino as fictional movie-star Jeanne Crandall, who’s put up with years of sexual abuse by a vulgarian mogul to keep her career alive. Given Sorvino’s disturbing encounters with Harvey Weinstein, the role provides Hollywood with a highly charged connection between a contentious imaginary then and a still-challenged now.