Television

What’s Real and What’s Not in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood

The new Netflix miniseries blends history with fantasy. Here’s a guide to which is which.

Scotty Bowers and Dylan McDermott.
Scotty Bowers and Dylan McDermott. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Greenwich Entertainment and Netflix.

This article contains spoilers for the first season of Hollywood.

Hollywood, Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s soapy, gleefully ahistorical Netflix miniseries about postwar Hollywood, is not so much a work of historical fiction as it is an exercise in wish fulfilment. Murphy and Brennan have imagined an alternate history in which first the film industry, then the entire country set off on a radically different course in 1947, inspired by a single film studio’s embrace of diversity during the making of a single film. It’s a project that is closer to Inglourious Basterds than a realistic treatment of golden age Hollywood, but it does touch on plenty of real people, places, and things. Here’s a breakdown of what’s real and what’s invented in Hollywood.

Scotty Bowers (Dylan McDermott, Sort Of)

Dylan McDermott’s character on Hollywood is named “Ernie,” but many of his biographical details come from the life of Scotty Bowers, whose 2012 memoir Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars was one of Hollywood’s primary sources. Bowers was a Marine who moved to Hollywood after World War II and started turning tricks while working at the Richfield Oil station at Hollywood and Van Ness. (Ernie gives the address of his service station as “Citrus and Normandie,” two streets that do not intersect. Luis Lopez Automotive in Atwater Village played the role of “Golden Tip Gasoline,” Hollywood’s version of Richfield Oil.) Bowers recruited his Marine buddies to work for him, parlaying that into a lengthy career as a pimp to the stars, based at first out of the service station—he didn’t own it—then later, as a bartender-for-hire. His clients included Cole Porter, George Cukor, Anthony Perkins, and Malcolm Forbes. Unlike Ernie, who takes a 50 percent commission on the money brought in by wide-eyed newcomer Jack Castello (David Corenswet), Bowers claims he didn’t take a cut from the people he arranged liaisons for. Also unlike Ernie, Bowers didn’t have lung cancer: He lived to see his memoir adapted into a documentary in 2017 and died last fall at the age of 96.

Cole Porter (Darren Richardson)

Cole Porter and Darren Richardson.
Cole Porter and Darren Richardson. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by the United States Library of Congress and Netflix.

Legendary songwriter Cole Porter was legendarily gay and, according to Scotty Bowers, one of his frequent clients. Although Bowers says he was usually asked to send men to the house Porter was renting, the trailer in the back of the service station shown on Hollywood was also real: a friend of Bowers’ made the mistake of renting space to park his custom trailer (with two bedrooms!) in a field behind Richfield Oil and the further mistake of giving Bowers a key. “In later years many people told me that some of the best memories of their lives were created in that trailer,” Bowers wrote.

Ace Studios

The gates with signs that say Ace Studios and Paramount Pictures.
Ace Studios and Paramount Pictures. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix and Gene Lester/Archive Photos/Getty Images.

The fictional movie studio at the center of Hollywood doesn’t have a real-life counterpart when it comes to the internal politics, managerial structure, or surprisingly progressive company culture. What it does have is the Bronson Gate from Paramount Pictures, where would-be extras really did gather in hope of work. But although studio head Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner) is imaginary, his production slate is as real as his studio’s front gate—and also borrowed from Paramount. Hollywood’s first episode mentions Beyond Glory, The Emperor Waltz, and Seven Were Saved, all Paramount films released in 1947 or 1948. (In our timeline, these productions did not overlap, mostly because The Emperor Waltz, one of the only duds Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett ever made, was shelved for nearly two years.) Later episodes move some non-Paramount films to the Ace lot—one character does a screen test for Tap Roots, a Universal film—but it’s clear that Paramount was the initial model.

Rock Hudson (Jake Picking)

Rock Hudson and Jake Picking.
Rock Hudson and Jake Picking. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by RR Auction/Publicity photo of Rock Hudson and Netflix.

Although the real Rock Hudson moved to Hollywood in 1946, he wouldn’t become a star until 1954’s Magnificent Obsession, which gives Hollywood significant room to imagine how his life and career might have gone differently if he’d been more open about his sexuality. When we meet him on the show, he’s still Roy Fitzgerald; his name was an invention of talent agent Henry Willson. Hollywood’s Hudson is very much like the real man in the late 1940s: clumsy, nervous, and a terrible, terrible actor. Hudson signed with Willson in 1947, around the time Scotty Bowers met him for the first time at the Richfield Oil station. Although the screen test Hudson botches in Hollywood is invented, his auditions were indeed atrocious, and after landing his first role, in Fighter Squadron at Warner Bros., he took 38 takes to successfully deliver a single line. (The line was “Or we’re gonna need a bigger blackboard,” and Hudson kept saying “backboard.”) Hollywood’s Hudson diverges very quickly from the real man, who, far from coming out in 1948, remained publicly closeted until 1985, when he could no longer hide the fact that he had contracted AIDS.

Henry Willson (Jim Parsons)

Henry Willson and Jim Parsons.
Henry Willson and Jim Parsons. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images and Saeed Adyani/Netflix.

Hollywood’s Henry Willson is a pretty close match for the real one, at least at the beginning of the show. A journalist-turned-agent, Willson spent much of his career transforming young actors like Robert Moseley, Merle Johnson Jr., and Arthur Gelien into stars with new, comically masculine names like Guy Madison, Troy Donahue, and Tab Hunter, sleeping with many of his clients along the way. Willson was gay, and early in his career lived with an up-and-coming actor named Junior Durkin, who died in a car crash at the age of 19, a tragedy that becomes the subject of a monologue from Hollywood’s Willson.

According to Robert Hofler’s biography The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, Willson was also connected to the mafia, which owed him favors for getting his clients to appear in Las Vegas. In Hollywood, Willson gets Mickey Cohen to have a journalist beaten to a pulp in order to conceal an actor’s police record, and in real life, Willson often indulged in this sort of skullduggery, most notoriously in 1955, when he gave the gossip magazine Confidential information about his client Rory Calhoun’s criminal past and his former client Tab Hunter’s homosexuality in exchange for burying a story revealing that Hudson was gay. (According to Hofler, Willson also used his mafia connections to have two men who planned to go public about Hudson killed.) But while Hollywood’s Willson comes to terms with his sexuality and stops abusing his clients, the real man wasn’t as lucky: He struggled with drugs and alcohol and died a pauper at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in 1978.

Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec)

Anna May Wong and Michelle Krusiec.
Anna May Wong and Michelle Krusiec. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Carl Van Vechten/United States Library of Congress and Netflix.

Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star, was very real, but Murphy and Brennan give her a happier career than she had in real life. Wong, a native of Los Angeles, rose from extra to her first leading role by the age of 17 but struggled to be cast in anything but stereotypical Asian parts. As seen in Hollywood, she was very vocal about being boxed in by stereotypes, telling Film Daily in 1933:

I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass? We are not like that. How should we be, with a civilization that’s so many times older than that of the West? We have our own virtues. We have our own rigid code of behavior, of honor. Why do they never show these on the screen? Why should we always scheme, rob, kill? I got so weary of it all—of the scenarist’s concept of Chinese characters. You remember Fu Manchu? Daughter of the Dragon? So wicked.

In 1930, Wong’s career became still more difficult when Hollywood adopted the self-censorship guidelines known as the Hays Code, which bluntly stated, “Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.” That went for the white and Asian races as well, which meant that for Wong to be a leading lady, she needed an Asian leading man, and Hollywood barely had any.

When producer Irving Thalberg first started planning a film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Good Earth, he wanted an all-Chinese cast performing in Chinese with subtitles, and both Wong and Soo Yong were considered for the lead female role of O-Lan. Once the studio decided on English, though, The Good Earth became what Variety called a “bad casting headache,” because “Orientals are hard to find and Hays office won’t stand for mixing racials in romantic sequences.” Wong did film a screen test for The Good Earth, but while Hollywood shows her auditioning to play O-Lan, Wong actually tested for the part of Lotus, yet another Chinese villain. According to an interview she gave Modern Screen in 1937, she told MGM she had no interest in the role before testing for it:

I’ll be glad to take the test, but I won’t play the part. If you let me play O-Lan, I’ll be very glad. But you’re asking me—with Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in a picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.

Ultimately, all the major roles were played by white actors in yellowface, as seen in the trailer for the film’s general release, which shows some of Luise Rainer’s Oscar-winning performance:

The 10th Academy Awards were held at the Biltmore Hotel, as seen on the show, but although Hollywood has Rainer give a teary-eyed speech dedicating her award to producer Irving Thalberg, in the actual event, her complete acceptance speech was “I thank you.” After The Good Earth, Wong, who by then had a well-earned reputation as a drinker, made a string of B-movies for Paramount and eventually landed a TV show on the DuMont Television Network, dying of a heart attack at the age of 56. Her late career revival on Hollywood, unfortunately, is entirely imaginary.

George Cukor (Daniel London)

In the third episode of Hollywood, many of the characters attend a wild party at the house of The Philadelphia Story director George Cukor. On the show, this is depicted as a star-studded dinner party that eventually moves outdoors to Cukor’s pool around the time most of the heterosexual dinner guests excuse themselves and a group of University of Southern California football players and some of Ernie’s service station employees arrive. This combines two true things about Cukor: He was known for throwing formal dinner parties attended by Hollywood royalty, and he was also known for throwing more private and casual Sunday afternoon parties, attended by gay Hollywood royalty and their dates. The drunken bash depicted on Hollywood isn’t quite true-to-life either: Cukor didn’t drink much himself, and it was difficult to find liquor at one of his parties.

Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah)

Hattie McDaniel and Queen Latifah.
Hattie McDaniel and Queen Latifah. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by CBS Radio/Wikipedia and Saeed Adyani/Netflix.

Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to win an Academy Award for her performance in Gone With the Wind, becomes a mentor to Hollywood’s fictional black starlet, Camille Washington (Laura Harrier). On the show, McDaniel tells Washington about her experience at the Oscars in 1940: The ceremony was held at the Cocoanut Grove lounge of the Ambassador Hotel, which had a “no blacks” policy. Hollywood shows McDaniel arguing with two security guards who refuse her entry and suggests she was only allowed to come into the ceremony while accepting her award. In reality, producer David O. Selznick had previously arranged for McDaniel to be admitted to the ceremony, but she, her date, and her agent were required to sit at a separate table in the back of the room. The indignities continued after the Oscars: McDaniel’s Gone With the Wind co-stars went to celebrate their awards at a whites-only nightclub.

The 20th Academy Awards

Vivien Leigh and Katie McGuinness.
Vivien Leigh and Katie McGuinness. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by AFP via Getty Images and Saeed Adyani/Netflix

By the end of Hollywood, the show has taken a delirious turn into alternate history, and a significant part of the final episode is a recreation of the 20th Academy Awards. In Ryan Murphy’s version, Meg, the show’s fictional film about a black actress loosely based on Peg Entwistle, wins at least six Academy Awards, including Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Picture. As you’ll see in newsreel footage of the actual ceremony, Hollywood did a great job of recreating the stage of the Shrine Auditorium as it appeared on March 20, 1948:

To make room for Meg’s near sweep, Hollywood had to be considerably less meticulous about the winners. Here’s how the ceremony went down in real life, plus the nominees that Hollywood snubbed:

Best Supporting Actress: This actually went to Celeste Holm for Gentleman’s Agreement. Ethel Barrymore’s nomination for The Paradine Case was omitted from Hollywood’s list of nominees.

Best Supporting Actor: In Hollywood as in life, Edmund Gwenn wins this for Miracle on 34th Street. Robert Ryan’s nomination for Crossfire was snubbed.

Best Original Screenplay: Sidney Sheldon won this for The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. Hollywood omits the nomination of Shoeshine, which was a wise decision in terms of running time, because the film had four credited screenwriters: Sergio Amidei, Adolfo Franci, Cesare Giulio Viola, and Cesare Zavattini.

Best Director: This was actually won by Elia Kazan for Gentleman’s Agreement. Edward Dmytryk is omitted from the list of nominees, the second time Hollywood omits Crossfire, perhaps because Crossfire omitted the references to homosexuality in its source material.

Best Actress: Loretta Young won this category for The Farmer’s Daughter. Dorothy McGuire’s nomination for Gentleman’s Agreement gets dropped to make room for Meg.

Best Picture: We don’t hear the full list of nominees for Best Motion Picture, but in our world, Darryl F. Zanuck won for Gentleman’s Agreement.

The Milestones

The final episode of Hollywood envisions a world in which the entertainment industry publicly embraced racial and sexual diversity by 1948, and the public followed its lead. In the words of one of the show’s newsreels, “racial protests across the country simply melted away” once one studio opened one film with a black lead, because the movie was just that good. (Hollywood also has Eleanor Roosevelt—who you might recall was first lady when the United States went to war with Adolf Hitler—tell a room of studio executives that they have more power to change the world than a government does; the show puts an extremely high value on art as a force for social change.) None of that really happened, so here’s when some of those barriers fell, in chronological order.

The First Major Studio Film With an Interracial Kiss

Meg, the movie Hollywood revolves around, ends with a passionate kiss between a black actress (Harrier’s Washington) and a white one (Corenswet’s Castello), but determining when this first happened in real life depends on your definitions of “interracial,” “kiss,” and “major studio.” There is an on-screen kiss between black actress Bertha Regustus and white actor Broncho Billy Anderson in the 1903 Edison short “What Happened in the Tunnel,” but it’s a prank, not part of an interracial romance. Between 1930 and December of 1956, kisses between actors of different races were explicitly forbidden by the Hays Code, although that didn’t stop Stanley Kubrick from having Frank Silvera and Irene Kane lock lips in 1955’s Killer’s Kiss, which United Artists distributed. (Silvera, who was part Jamaican, plays an Italian-American man in the film.) Although the 1957 film Island in the Sun deals with interracial romance, and is occasionally listed as the first Hollywood movie to contain an interracial kiss, it does not: Dorothy Dandridge and John Justin dance cheek-to-cheek in the film but do not kiss. (Dandridge does kiss Stuart Whitman in 1958’s The Decks Ran Red, but only while stealing his gun. She also kisses Curd Jürgens in Tamango, but it was filmed abroad and not released in the U.S. until 1959.) One possible candidate for the first major Hollywood studio film in which actors of two different races, playing characters of two different races, share a romantic kiss on the lips is Sayonara, the Warner Bros. adaptation of James Michener’s novel, released in December of 1957. Marlon Brando and Japanese American actress Miiko Taka (a replacement for director Joshua Logan’s first choice for the role, Audrey Hepburn) kiss, and the shot made the trailer. (You can see it about two minutes and 40 seconds in.) There are fireworks!

To find a comparable kiss in a major-studio film between white and black actors, you have to skip forward to 1967, when Columbia released Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

The First Asian Actress to Win Best Actress in a Supporting Role

In Hollywood, Anna May Wong becomes the first actress of Chinese descent to win an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting role, a barrier that has still not been broken. But Japanese actress Miyoshi Umeki won for Sayonara in 1957:

She remains the only woman of East Asian descent to win an Academy Award for acting.

The First Female Producer to Win Best Picture

Julia Phillips for The Sting in 1974, 26 years after Avis Amberg’s win on Hollywood:

The First Woman to Head a Major Studio

In Hollywood, Murphy and Brennan have to contrive a series of unforeseeable and unlikely events to put Patti LuPone’s character at the head of a major motion picture studio, even temporarily. In the real world, this didn’t happen until 1980, when Sherry Lansing was named president of 20th Century-Fox Productions.

The First Oscar Winner to Thank a Same-Sex Partner in Their Acceptance Speech

Although Hollywood has screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) thank his boyfriend at the 20th Academy Awards, this didn’t happen in real life for another 44 years. The first openly gay person to thank their same-sex partner on stage at the Oscars was Debra Chasnoff, who won the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) in 1992 for Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons, and Our Environment. Her speech, in which she thanked “Kim Klausner, my life partner,” begins at 5:44:

The First Black Woman to Win Best Actress

Hollywood’s Camille Washington wins this in 1947, but in our timeline it didn’t happen until 2002, when Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball:

The First Black Man to Win Best Original Screenplay

Jordan Peele, only two years ago:

The First Movie to Make Racism and Homophobia “Simply Melt Away” All Over the Country

Although Hollywood makes this seem easy, it doesn’t appear that anyone has made this movie yet. Will you be the lucky filmmaker to do it? Anything is possible … in Hollywood!