Hollywood: Murphy’s Fantasy-Fairytale Reimagines the Entertainment Industry in the 1940s–Netflix Now

WHAT IF…

Hollywood, Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s new “fantasy” series, which streams this weekend on Netflix, is a fairytale about how the entertainment industry might have evolved differently, if it was based on diversity and inclusion.

Murphy’s honorable goal was to reimagine an alternate history of Hollywood back in the 1940s.  However, the storyline and characters are so naïvely and simplistically conceived that the only way to relate to the series is as an escapist entertainment. 

The upbeat optimism of Hollywood marks a change of pace for Murphy, who is better (and better known) for darker material like American Horror Story and American Crime Story, and for biting satires like Feud, about the nasty rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.  Reportedly, he was encouraged by Netflix to do something more hopeful–to alleviate the grim times caused by the global pandemic, Covid-19.

Based on wishful thinking, Hollywood tries to reinvent the state of the industry–and by implication of American society at large–in such a positively inspiring way that its smacks of a crowd-pleasing mentality. You could say that Murphy and his team have created a world that they wished to will into existence.

What if a woman were in charge of a major studio, what if executives took bolder steps to contest and dismantle biases against race, gender and sexuality back in the 1940s.

 

Ryan Murphy's (Kinda) True 'Hollywood' Story: 1940s Meets Gay Stars, Interracial Romance and (Gasp!) a Female Studio Chief

The show follows a diverse group of some young creatives who join forces together to make Meg, a movie about a struggling black actress loosely based on the real-life story of Peg Enwistle, an actress who famously committed suicide by jumping off of the Hollywoodland sign in 1932.

Says Murphy: “I was always very interested in the Peg Entwistle story.  Halfway through the writing of the first episodes, it dawned on us that ‘African American girl should get this part.’ But we’ve all been indoctrinated to think, ‘Oh no, it’s the white blonde who should always play the romantic lead.’ Once we came upon that idea of casting Laura Harrier (a black actress) all we had to do is make it Meg instead of Peg. That was sort of meta idea: We were grappling with what Hollywood always grapples with, which is casting and who gets to tell what story, and who’s the lead and who’s the sidekick.”

The star-studded cast include many vets of Murphy’s previous series, such as  Patti LuPone, Dylan McDermott, Jim Parsons, Jeremy Pope, Samara Weaving, Laura Harrier and Darren Criss.

“If we’re setting this in the 1940s, had people seen or heard that they were given an equal opportunity, you only need to hear it or see it once to feel inspired, to know that there’s space in the room for you,” said Jeremy Pope, who plays screenwriter Archie Coleman.

“So I think those are the most moving and powerful cuts: when you see the families listening and hearing and feeling seen and feeling like it’s a win for the community, for women, for a black gay man, for a young black girl.  I think that is the most moving part of our story. It’s so hopeful.”

Thus, director Raymond Ainsley (Criss) decides to change Archie’s (Pope) original script about Entwistle into a fictional story about an actress named Meg Ennis, to be played by Camille Washington (Laura Harrier).

“This story is about how important representation is, and what could Hollywood look like if we had that representation at the beginning of Hollywood,” said Harrier, who plays starlet Camille. “The changes we’re seeing now, what if they were happening at the very beginning?”

 

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Rock Hudson (Picking) with his escort–screenwriter boyfriend, Archie (Pope)

“Women deserve and it’s time for their time in the power seat in this business and in our government,” says Patti LuPone, who plays Avis Amberg, a female studio chief. “We shouldn’t be fighting for this, it should just be happening organically.”

“I think it sends the same message to those in power in Hollywood as it does to any of us out in the world even if you’re not in show business, which is that when you make a move for something that you know is right, when you make a move in your life to help yourself and those around you for a very human reason, it has a greater effect on all of humanity than you could ever imagine,” said Jim Parsons, who portrays the star-making agent Henry Wilson.

“Well I think it will definitely strike a pretty significant chord,” said Darren Criss, who plays director Raymond Ainsley. “The show’s a great reminder of how far we have come, but also how far there is to go and how a lot of those prejudices still exist and they manifest in different ways. But I should hope it isn’t a scary finger wag. It’s checking in with a history that wasn’t always so glamorous.”

Safed Adyani, Netflix
Ernie (McDermott), with his “service” attendant (Corenswet)

Jim Parsons as Henry Wilson and Picking as Rock Hudson

The ending is also changed to make the story more hopeful, when the character of Meg decides to climb down off of the sign rather than jump to her death. Despite protests from conservative groups around the country objecting to the casting of a black lead actress opposite a white love interest, “Meg” becomes a box-office sensation and scores a number of Oscar nominations.

Henry Wilson as Monster

The creators  wanted to “correct” many issues, including the way that Anna May Wong and Hattie McDaniel (played by Queen Latifah) were treated by Hollywood, and to have Rock Hudson stand up to Henry Wilson and come out as a homosexual.

The show perceives Wilson as “one of the biggest monsters in the history of Hollywood, sort of the gay Harvey Weinstein. He would sign young actors if they agreed to sleep with him; he would exchange sexual favors for access. Like all monsters, there was a source for his pain, he had had a relationship with a young actor earlier who was killed in a car accident, and then he became an alcoholic. What he did was horrible and we wanted to document that, and I feel like a #MeToo story is a #MeToo story. It doesn’t matter what sex it is, it doesn’t matter what gender it is. It’s a violation.”

In the show,Henry asks Rock Hudson for forgiveness and Hudson refuses.  Murphy elaborates: “Giving Rock Hudson that empowerment was interesting and hopeful. Hudson in real life was able to break away from Wilson later in his career, and Wilson had a very sad and tragic ending–he drank himself to death and was destitute and lived in an apartment where he had paid his maid in furniture until there was no more furniture left. I was more interested in Rock Hudson finally being able to be free and be who he was, and not having to pretend that he was straight and lie.” beard.

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From the start, the 1948 Oscars was the climactic conclusion envisioned by Murphy.  “We got to the idea, what if somebody had been brave enough to make this movie in the late 1940s and it won all these Oscars, and all of these people who before were marginalized were suddenly the heroes and heroines of their story. Would that have changed, not just my life in what I had seen growing up but everybody else’s? And I came to the conclusion, it probably would have, because we would have been 50 years ahead of the curve in terms of women’s rights and gay rights and a black woman winning an Oscar.”

 

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Oscar Awards ceremony, 1948, attended by the show’s characters.

 

It was essential to conclude the series with the cast and crew of Meg earning the acceptance of their peers in the film industry, because even though it sadly didn’t happen, it’s a powerful message for viewers in 2020. And so, the climax of the series is the 1948 Academy Awards ceremony, with Meg winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay for Archie, Best Actress for Camille, and Best Supporting Actress for Anna May Wong (played by Michelle Krusiec).

In reality, the Best Picture winner was Elia Kazan’s drama about anti-semitism Gentleman’s Agreement, starring Gregory Peck Kazan also won the Best Director, and Celeste Holme the Best Supporting Actress for that movie. Edmund Gwenn was the winner of the Best Supporting Actor for the Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street.

Members of the cast would like to believe that, from the glamour to the drama to the inspiration, a show like Hollywood is both entertaining and relevant to binge while staying at home distnacing.

Says actor Pope: “We’re all quarantined, we’re in the house.  We’re looking for something hopeful and inspiring, so I think our show is going to give you seven episodes of an escape to a fantasy world with real characters, like Henry Wilson, Rock Hudson, and Anna May Wong. It has so many different characters that we know, but also these fictional characters who you root for them, you have empathy for them. And when you leave the show, you should feel inspired and a little bit hopeful, too.”

The limited series, now streaming on Netflix, delivers a finale that would have "ushered in a completely different, much more progressive era" for the entertainment industry, Murphy tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Netflix; Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images: Hollywood cast (left to right): Jeremy Pope, Jake Picking, Samara Weaving, Laura Harrier, Darren Criss and David Corenswet; Inset: Ryan Murphy