Roush Review: 'Hollywood' Exposes Tinseltown's Dark Side With a Light Touch
Hooray for Hollywood?
More like hooey, in Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan's colorful but undeniably cuckoo revisionist fantasy of a late-1940s dream factory. With clashing tones of earnest cornball schmaltz and R-rated satirical cynicism, the seven-part limited series Hollywood exposes the sexism, racism, and homophobia of the post-war period, then slaps on so many improbably upbeat twists it might give Walt Disney pause.
Even a repulsive fact-based character like Henry Willson (Jim Parsons gone garish), a profanely predatory snake of a closeted agent, softens up before it's all over. Even if you approve of the rose-colored approach, imagining a society that embraced progressive attitudes decades ahead of schedule, the artificiality of the execution may leave you thinking this should have been titled The Way It Wasn't.
Still, only a hard-hearted soul wouldn't cheer on the starry-eyed youngsters hoping to make it big — including the war vet coasting on his matinee-idol looks (David Corenswet, a discovery from Murphy's far-worse Netflix series The Politician); a gay African American screenwriter (Jeremy Pope) who embarks on a love affair with a hopelessly naive Rock Hudson (Jake Picking, who's quite convincing as a terrible actor); and a beautiful black starlet (Laura Harrier) mired in maid roles whose boyfriend (Darren Criss), a fledgling director, pledges to make her a star.
Too bad that the vehicle for their unlikely success, based on the story of a woman (Peg Entwhistle) who jumped off the Hollywood (then Hollywoodland) sign to her death, looks like a laughable dud. Somehow, Oscar voters fall for it. (Try telling that to Gentleman's Agreement, the now-dated message picture that won the actual trophy in 1947.) Best to beware any series about show business in which everyone insists their pet project will save and/or change the world. Ditto for any series which lists seemingly half the core cast as executive producers, a sure recipe for self-indulgence.
That said, there's fun to be had as the fictional characters rub shoulders (and occasional other body parts) with actual legends of the time. It's no surprise when the cast's hotbodies find themselves at one of director George Cukor's notorious pool parties, with caricatures of Vivien Leigh and Tallulah Bankhead in attendance. It's a more pleasant jolt when Queen Latifah appears as pioneering Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel (Gone With the Wind), whose triumph was clouded by race prejudice. She tells the rising star following in her footsteps, albeit in a leading role, "What's important is being in the room." It's one of Hollywood's better moments.
Throughout, it's the grown-ups who come off best, even when you know they know they’re slumming: Patti LuPone as the unsatisfied wife of a pig-headed studio boss (Rob Reiner) who gets her shot at power, Holland Taylor as a seasoned talent scout carrying a torch for Joe Mantello as that rare studio production head with taste (think Irving Thalberg, minus Norma Shearer), and especially Dylan McDermott, who steals the show as a wily bon vivant of a sex merchant using a gas station as a front.
His story is obviously inspired by the sensational documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (currently available on Starz), which is much more worth your time.
Hollywood, Series Premiere, Friday, May 1, Netflix