by Joshua Silva
Graphic by Lexy Martinucci
“If we change the way movies are made…you can change the world,” said one character in Ryan Murphy’s new miniseries. Taken out of context, his statement harbors some truth. There are numerous examples of film altering history, but almost always for the worse. There were no films that culturally counteracted the horrific racism and xenophobia ignited by such hit propaganda pieces as Triumph of the Will and Birth of a Nation. Hollywood aims not to provide a counter-example to these atrocities, but to invent a history in which one existed.
Set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Hollywood begins with Jack, a down-on-his-luck aspiring film extra roped into prostitution to provide for him and his wife. While servicing wealthy clients at a gas station cum brothel, he meets Archie, a young, gay, black aspiring screenwriter. He joins the hustling enterprise and they bond over their dreams of making it big. Archie submits his screenplay, Peg, a biopic of fallen starlet Peg Entwistle, to Ace Studios. Raymond Ainsley, an anachronistically woke director, eagerly sets out to greenlight the picture. Amid an endlessly convoluted web of fornication and melodrama, all the protagonists’ paths cross to bring Peg, later renamed Meg, to the screen.
Raymond is not the only out of place character in Hollywood. By the end of the season, every character behaves as though they’d been transported from a present day focus group meeting. Never before have I seen such a willfully anachronistic, historically ignorant, and emotionally simplistic period piece. Hollywood’s knowledge of its subject matter is thoughtlessly cursory. Its dialogue feels as though an algorithm analyzed every prestige soap opera of the streaming era to write it, and is absent of any vernacular, save for the occasional placing of phrases no human being in 1946 would utter like “creative type” and “people of color” The garish digital cinematography undermines the period detail as much as possible, while most of the real locations have no architectural resemblance to the 40s. Some of this is attributable to laziness, but it also services Hollywood’s main purpose: historical revisionism.
Ryan Murphy has stated his intention was to give a Hollywood ending to unsung trailblazers like Hattie McDaniel, Anna May Wong, and Rock Hudson. It’s a well intentioned concept, but this fantasy’s self-awareness does not absolve its irresponsibility. In Ryan Murphy’s fantasy, every prejudice is a minor inconvenience easily overcome by good faith, passionate speeches, or sheer luck. The most egregious example involves none other than Eleanor Roosevelt convincing the studio executives of the progressive magic of cinema, pushing them to finally make a film that single-handedly extinguishes racism, sexism, and homophobia, while also permanently altering film distribution. This extravagant payoff relies on the premise that film representation is the ultimate tool of progress, rather than a result of it. Representation is far from frivolous, and the show’s endless speeches about seeing oneself on the screen ring true, but to suggest it is the be all end all of progress neglects the obstacles that prevented Murphy’s fantasy from becoming reality. Though he tries to honor them, Murphy strips the aforementioned trailblazers of their agencies by having their lives and careers effortlessly saved by his paper thin creations. In reality, those who pushed for progress in the industry could not reshape or escape the system that governed their work. But Murphy’s Tinseltown is a hierarchy that can be swiftly bypassed, condescendingly suggesting that if Hudson and Wong had merely changed their own careers, they could have changed the world.