Spoilers for all of Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood ahead.
“Movies don’t just show us how the world is,” says a character in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood. “They show us how the world can be.” That line, spoken in the second episode by aspiring director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), isn’t just his pitch to a studio executive. It’s the Netflix series’ pitch to its audience. The show, which Murphy created with Ian Brennan, spends a few episodes chipping away at the glamorous façade of Tinseltown’s golden age. Hollywood’s Hollywood, circa 1947, is a place where racial prejudice and homophobia run rampant and where fresh-faced young people arrive full of hopes and dreams only to end up turning tricks to pay the rent. The project Raymond ends up attached to is the story of Peg Entwistle, the real-life 24-year-old actress who jumped to her death from the Hollywood sign and became a tragic symbol of the movie industry’s heartlessness.
But midway though, the stories both Hollywood and its characters are telling begin to shift. Raymond convinces Ace Studios, currently being run by Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone) in the place of her convalescing husband, to cast his girlfriend, Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) in the lead, despite the fact that theaters all over the South have threatened to pull the studio’s movies if it releases a film starring a black actress. Since Entwistle was white, they change the protagonist’s name from Peg to Meg, but, as the studio’s head of production, Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello) points out, changing the character’s race changes the whole story. To end the first studio movie about a black woman with that woman jumping to her death in despair sends a terrible message. So, what Samuels’ version presupposes is, what if she didn’t?
Hollywood itself follows a similar arc. Rather than being defeated by the obstacles that would have stalled any attempt to make a movie fitting Meg’s description—black star, black screenwriter, half-Filipino director—the series’ characters don’t take no for an answer, and they eventually convince Ace Studios to say yes. Dick overcomes racist theater owners’ reluctance to book Meg by inventing the wide release, the movie becomes a box-office hit, and it goes on to triumph at the Academy Awards, winning for picture, director, actress, and screenplay—as well as for supporting actress Anna May Wong, the Asian American star whose Hollywood career was curtailed by her refusal to play stereotypical “dragon lady” roles. As if that weren’t enough, Archie uses his acceptance speech to come out of the closet, publicly affirming his love for his boyfriend, an as-yet-unknown Rock Hudson (Jake Picking). There are a few disgruntled mumblings in the audience, but in a coda to the series set a year later, we’re informed that Archie’s proclamation has had a sweeping effect. Dylan McDermott’s Ernie West, whose gas station is a front for a male prostitution ring, remarks that his business has dried up because gay men are no longer ashamed of their sexuality. A single act of defiance is all it took.
Murphy has repeated in interviews the idea that Hollywood was motivated by the desire to give a happy ending to people who didn’t get one in real life: Hudson, whose homosexuality only became public after he was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s; Wong, who died of a heart attack before she could make her planned return to the screen in 1961’s Flower Drum Song; and the progressives of Hollywood itself, which took decades to reach the milestones the series transplants to the 1940s. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have anybody to look at in terms of somebody who was like me,” Murphy explained to one interviewer. He hopes Hollywood begins to right that wrong and demonstrate the power that cultural representation has to change society at large.
The trouble is that Hollywood isn’t making history; it’s rewriting it. And when you rewrite history, you’re never starting with an empty page. The movie that Meg replaces as 1948’s Best Picture winner is Gentleman’s Agreement, an indictment of anti-Semitism that also won the Oscars for director and supporting actress the show gives to its fictional message movie. It feels like an intentional choice; Gentleman’s Agreement was nominated for eight Oscars that year, and another five nominations went to Crossfire, a film noir that also takes anti-Semitism as its subject—an indication that the movie industry of the time was pushing for change, if not the kind Hollywood has in mind.
But it’s also important to note that neither movie had the kind of effect that the show envisions. Gentleman’s Agreement was a box-office hit, earning back nearly four times its budget, but that success hardly portended the end of anti-Semitism in America, and two of its stars ended up on the Hollywood blacklist, along with the director and producer of Crossfire. Hollywood pays homage to real-life pioneers like Wong and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah), who was the first person of color to win an Oscar. But the breezy, frictionless way the series’ protagonists plow through decades, if not centuries, of entrenched racism inadvertently suggests that their predecessors might have had the same success if they’d only just worked up the nerve.
In Hollywood, the world is already ripe for change, and it’s just looking for a reason to take that last step. When Meg is released, viewers of all races flock to it without hesitation (never mind that in 1947 a good chunk of them would have had to sit in the “colored” section). As a newsreel reporter puts it, “Racial protests of every kind simply melted away as audiences rushed out to see a new kind of motion picture.” Hollywood, the non-italicized entity, has long trafficked in inspirational stories about determined individuals overcoming social injustice—so long, in fact, that it’s bizarre for Hollywood, the series, to suggest that the movie industry was ever categorically resistant to them. But those stories tend to reflect cultural shifts as much as, if not more than, they inspire them, and for Murphy and co. to suggest there’s an ironclad causal relationship between progressive mass entertainment and profound social change is … well, exactly the kind of story the industry has always loved to tell about itself. “I used to believe that good government could change the world,” Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Sansom Harris) tells Ace’s top executives during a visit to the studio. “I don’t know that I believe that anymore. However, what you do … can change the world.” When you factor in that the art Hollywood is talking about includes Hollywood itself, the self-congratulation verges on the obscene.
What rankles about Hollywood’s faux-progressive past isn’t the vision of a more equitable, more just society, but the ease with which it’s achieved. When Meg’s production is announced, Camille and Raymond are harassed on the phone and Avis awakens to a cross burning in her front yard, but no one is hurt, and the danger passes quickly. The casual anachronisms strewn throughout the dialogue—an editor from the silent era refers to people as “creatives”—are a winking acknowledgment of the show’s historical invention, but they’re also laden with smug presentism, the sense that people may not have known how to talk about those issues then but we do now. (Never mind how troglodytic the politics of 2020 will look in 70 years.) It’s an inadvertent but stinging rebuke to the trailblazers who struggled and sacrificed to win partial victories against almost impossible odds, even if the compromises they reached might now seem unacceptable. When Camille is nominated for an Oscar late in the series, McDaniel tells her the (not-quite-accurate) story of how she was barred from the ceremony and only allowed in to accept her award. Camille arrives at a similar moment, but when the security guards try to keep her out, she just stands her ground until they relent. If only Hattie McDaniel had thought of that.