Monday 11 May 2020

On Netflix - John Baxter unpacks HOLLYWOOD (Created by Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, USA, 2020)

Hollywood  Poster (Laura Harrier)
Anyone writing about the American film industry, a business more plagued than most by prejudice and ignorance, has played the “what if?” game. Imagine that the deputation of stars, led by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which went to Washington in 1947 to “observe” the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, wasn’t scared off, but instead sent the HUAC running for cover. Would there have been a Hollywood Ten or a black list? Suppose Newton Minow’s stigmatizing of American television as a “vast wasteland” had reversed the slide into mediocrity. Would Playhouse 90and not I Love Lucy have become the norm?

Under the slogan What If You Could Rewrite the Story, Netflix’s seven-part series Hollywood rounds up every complaint about sexual and racial prejudice in today’s commercial cinema and imagines them nipped in the bud by a single 1947 film. In this alternative universe, the 1948 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress wasn’t won by Celeste Holm for Gentleman’s Agreement, Darryl Zanuck’s tepid sermon against anti-Semitism, nor was Dorothy McGuire nominated for Best Actress in the same film. Instead, the statuettes went to Camille Washington, a fictitious black actress, and real-life Chinese performer Anna May Wong for a film called Meg. Moreover, its scriptwriter was a black homosexual who seized the opportunity of his appearance on the red carpet to be seen holding hands with his white lover, none other than the young Rock Hudson.  

Meg begins as Peg, inspired by the true story of Welsh actress Peg Entwistle, who, in despair at her failure to make it in movies, threw herself in 1932 off the HOLLYWOOD (or as it was then, HOLLYWOODLAND) sign. One of the period’s few surviving artifacts, the sign gets plenty of use in Hollywood, beginning with the series credits in which its protagonists, after helping one another scale its giant letters, stand triumphant, facing the rising sun (right). 
        After Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) has protested repeatedly about being cast as a maid, Archie Coleman adapts his screenplay Peg into Meg, tailored to her talents. Notwithstanding studio chief Carl Reiner succumbing to a sex-induced heart attack and evil agent Henry Willson burning the negative, the film is made. Following which, we assume, everyone lives happily ever after.

In the run-up to the release of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino recorded a long interview about the films that inspired it. On French TV, and presumably elsewhere, portions of the interview were used to introduce screenings of the films, which included Gunman’s Walk, model for the western in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays the heavy,and The Wrecking Crew,  which Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate revisits one Westwood afternoon. 
      Tarantino adulates the commercial cinema of the fifties and sixties and the people who created it. Who, then, are the gods of Hollywood’s creators Ryan Murphy, Janet Mock and Ian Brennan, who were not even born until the mid-sixties? Mainly, one would guess, they’re from television: writer/producer Steven Bochco of Hill Street Blues and L.A.Law, Stephen J. Cannell of The Rockford Files, and, among series, those, like Cagney and LaceyIronside, Hill Street Blues and Cheers, which featured  ensemble casts, urban settings, and edgy plots that sometimes pushed at social and sexual boundaries. 
David Cronenswet, Darren Criss, Jake Picking, Jeremy Pope
tries to apply the sensibility of these films and film-makers to the problems of the forties film industry, beginning with the prejudice against homosexuality. Its key text is Scotty Bowers’ memoir Full Service, about the male prostitution service run out of a Wilshire Boulevard gas station. Three of the series’ principals, Jack Castello  (David Corenswet), Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) and Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) work there for horny-handed entrepreneur Ernie West (Dylan McDermott) before they make the Big Time. 

Other films have already documented the gay poolside parties of James Whale and George Cukor, and their significance as an extension of the casting couch tradition. Hollywood adds more graphic episodes, mostly drawn from Robert Hofler’s The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson.Jim Parsons plays notorious gay agent Henry Willson with vulpine glee. His performance of The Dance of the Seven Veils à la  Isadora  Duncan in full drag for an incredulous Rock Hudson may be long on energy and short on art, but Parsons is the only actor in the series who convinces as someone living in 1948. 

To call the premise of Hollywood “improbable” is hardly a criticism, since probability has never been the test of cinematic success. The more preposterous the premise, however, the greater the artistry needed to persuade an audience. On this count, Hollywood fails dismally.  Its lack of authenticity is in contrast to another current Netflix offering, Babylon Berlin, which evokes that city’s pre-war life in all its glitz and squalor. You can smell the drains and sweat. Its characters appear literally warts and all - not to mention pimples, tattoos, crooked teeth, hairy armpits and scars. The male principals of Hollywood have none of these, nor do they suggest men who have lived through a war. One glaring anomaly is the near absence of tobacco. Butts, ashtrays, packs, lighters, matches and smoke were ubiquitous at the time in cars, cafes, private homes, offices, even cinemas.  It’s clear, however, that smoking, along with how to eat with chopsticks, is not a skill taught to today’s young actors. The gingerly way these performers place a fag between their lips suggests that, given the choice between a Lucky and the male member, they would not hesitate.

Whatever one thinks of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood,  it deserves credit for attention to detail. Margot Robbie’s starry-eyed Sharon Tate and Leonardo DiCaprio’s self-disgusted Rick Dalton belong to a tradition that encompasses Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Tim Robbins inThe Player and Ian McKellen’s James Whale in Gods and Monsters. In Hollywood, however, the performances, excepting those of Parsons, Dylan McDermott’s genial pimp and Joe Mantello’s oppressed studio executive, are indifferent to both the sensibility of the time and the demands, such as they are, of the text. Clients of the gas station looking for a sexual assignation would say “I want to go to Dreamland.” Sorry, but you can’t get there from here.

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