According to Hollywood legend, stars of bygone eras would frequent gas stations for more than just a full tank and a tinker with their engine. Instead, attendees would render them with other services of a more personal nature, providing a safe haven for those whose sexualities weren’t accepted in everyday life. This is just one bit of LA legend that Ryan Murphy retells in his new Netflix mini-series – the aptly titled Hollywood – which chronicles the lives of aspiring actors and filmmakers who were shut out by the industry.
In the lead role is David Corenswet (River in The Politician) who plays Jack – an ex-serviceman recently returned from the second world war. Desperate to become an actor, he lines up outside the gates of Ace Studios every day in the hopes of being picked as an extra. He has a pregnant wife, Henriette (Maude Apatow), at home to provide for and, currently, no way to do so. When he is overlooked again, Jack heads to a bar to drown his sorrows and meets Ernie West (Dylan McDermott), the owner of Golden Tip gas station who promises him some suspiciously well-paid work. There’s a catch, obviously, and Castello senses that. But he’s so hard up that he accepts the offer and soon discovers what’s really expected of him.
In true “it’s who you know, not what you know” style, working at the gas station opens up several doors for Jack that were previously firmly closed. He satisfies casting directors and Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), the wife of Ace Studios’ head honcho, who offers him advice and opportunities. As Castello finds himself ushered inside Hollywood, we meet a group of fellow dreamers forging their own paths from the outside in – Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), the half-Asian director burdened with shame for “passing” as white; Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), a wannabe actor hiding his sexuality; Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), a black actress who can only get roles as housekeepers and maids; and Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a black, gay screenwriter turning tricks in a porn theatre who’s just had his script for a movie about ’20s icon Peg Entwistle accepted by Ace.
Peg tells the story of an aspiring actress who threw herself to her death from the top of the letter H in the famous Hollywood sign. It becomes the group’s connecting bond as they transform the flick into Meg and make Washington their lead, but struggle to get the very 2020 casting past the resolutely 1940s attitude of studio boss Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner). There are death threats and protests, flaming crosses planted in the lawns of those involved and meddling lawyers who try to hinder production at every turn.
Hollywood – a Lana Del Rey-inspired fever dream of tragic starlets, dashing all-American men and the promise of land both mythic and very real – doesn’t settle for predictable plotlines or faithful retellings of history. It surprises and revises, as should be expected of Murphy by now, and offers a hopeful, optimistic take on a familiar story. It asks “What if?” instead of accepting what happened and reveals the answers in an escapist format that’s as addictive as it is poignant. It treats its characters as humans, be they the initially intimidating, sleazy agent Henry Wilson (played brilliantly by Jim Parsons) or the reticent Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), who’s suffered at the hands of industry racism before. The sex scenes (of which there are many) are colourful and non-judgemental – it’s particularly refreshing to see women in their seventies like Avis Amberg getting their kit off as often as their youthful counterparts.
Most of all, Hollywood understands the power of telling diverse, interesting stories on screen. “Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be,” Ainsley says in a passionate statement early on. “If we change the way that movies are made – you take a chance and you make a different kind of story – I think you can change the world.” Murphy has done that himself in his own work many times before and, here, he uses a time machine (and a whole heap of Netflix cash) to do it again, with beautiful, moving results.
‘Hollywood’ streams on Netflix from May 1