REVIEW: ‘Hollywood’ rewrites Tinseltown’s history

REVIEW: ‘Hollywood’ rewrites Tinseltown’s history
A scene from Ryan Murphy's new series 'Hollywood.' (Netflix)
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Updated 18 May 2020

REVIEW: ‘Hollywood’ rewrites Tinseltown’s history

REVIEW: ‘Hollywood’ rewrites Tinseltown’s history
  • New series from Ryan Murphy imagines alternative path for the movie business of the 1940s

LONDON: Netflix’s 2018 deal with writer, director and producer Ryan Murphy was a real statement of intent for the streaming service, and the arrival of “Hollywood” marks the second Netflix project from the US powerhouse behind shows including “Nip/Tuck,” “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” and “Eat, Pray, Love.”

In some ways, “Hollywood” is a love letter to the pomp and grandeur of the movie business. Aesthetically, no expense has been spared, and this lavish miniseries captures the sheer spectacle of 1940s Hollywoodland in breathtaking detail — the world of “Hollywood” drips with opulence, while the Big Band music and period soundtrack are immersive masterstrokes.

Similarly, the ensemble cast boasts an appropriate blend of wide-eyed hopefuls and industry veterans, lending the show an inherently believable combination of optimistic naivety and hard-bitten cynicism. The glory days of the movie business, characterized by the switch from silent films to ‘the talkies’ and more realistic, less melodramatic styles of acting are painted in glorious Technicolor.

Sadly, there are missteps. Somewhat confusingly, “Hollywood” is a series of two halves. During early episodes, Murphy opts for a warts-and-all portrayal of Tinseltown — the earnest wannabe movie stars are given shockingly brutal crash courses in the seedy machinations that power the movie-making machine, with all the rude awakenings and inevitable prejudices that were commonplace.

But once the true scale of the unpleasantness is revealed, the show takes an unexpected turn. Rather than examining Hollywood’s problematic history through a more modern lens, the story takes a revisionist, ‘what-if’ stance. What if the chauvinistic, racist, homophobic movie business had been publicly called out during its post-WWII heyday? What if such entrenched prejudices had been challenged by a brave movie studio head willing to take a chance on a breakthrough film, despite the protestations of naysayers? As a concept, it’s an interesting one – but “Hollywood” ends up feeling more like a missed opportunity for the entertainment business to take a long, hard look at itself.

Technically, the show is a glorious achievement, and the glitz of the industry has seldom been more vividly portrayed. But just as it threatens to ask some really hard, necessary questions about the foundations upon which the movie business is built, “Hollywood” fluffs its lines and takes the easy way out.