In Netflix’s Hollywood, Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons will haunt your dreams
Hollywood spoilers follow.
Hollywood is Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan's very own 'What If?' exercise.
What would tinseltown, still very much bogged down in systemic racism today, look like if a black woman in the 1940s had landed both the starring role in a major motion picture and scooped an Oscar for it?
What would the mainstream film canon look like if a gay, black screenwriter had been given the platform to tell his stories freely and openly, and to be celebrated for it?
What if a woman sat behind the big desk at a leading production company, holding the purse strings and the power to greenlight the scripts delivered to her door?
Hollywood's co-creators posit myriad questions and scenarios in the seven-part lavish period drama, so many, in fact, that the series struggles to adequately explore all of its key players and their individual narratives.
As the final credits roll, certain characters feel underdeveloped, their complex stories reduced to a simple open-and-shut case which, given the subject matter, is both frustrating and a missed opportunity.
When one of your manifesto pledges is to delve into the trials and tribulations of Camille Washington, a young African American star in the making, but the audience spends significantly more time with Jack Castello, a white, heterosexual man who is told that his dashing good looks alone aren't enough to power him to the very top (boo hoo!), you've missed a trick.
Viewers, as a result, may feel like they've been promised something that hasn't been delivered.
Not only do we meet Hollywood hopefuls, desperate to achieve star status, we also meet its veterans who illustrate just how corrosive the industry can be.
Jim Parsons, of The Big Bang Theory fame, plays Henry Willson, a booking agent based on the real-life talent scout of the same name. The living and breathing Willson was responsible for kickstarting the career of Rock Hudson, one of several characters in the Netflix series based on a true story.
He was a deeply unpleasant man and Hollywood portrays him as such.
Henry exerts his power and influence to coerce young aspiring actors into allowing him to perform sex acts on them, and watching as they get to work on one another, in exchange for promises of fame and glory.
Henry doesn't physically lash out at his clients, many of whom hail from small rural towns that leave them vastly unprepared for the snakes in the Hollywood grass. But abuse is not always a black eye.
Coercive control and emotional exploitation are his weapons of choice, allowing him to load guilt and shame on to his victims.
Parsons nails all of the ghastly character traits that make Henry just one of a handful of show stealers in Hollywood – you'd expect more from such a large ensemble, but its performers' hands are tied by largely restrictive dialogue and half-baked storylines.
He lambasts the wide-eyed, innocent Rock with lashings of withering disdain, hurling insults, demanding that he change his name, undergo entirely unnecessary dental surgery and suffer restrictive diets to lose weight.
He chips away at his self esteem until he becomes putty in his hands, free to mould as he wishes.
You do not, for one second, believe that Henry is any less than the devil incarnate and yet so much of what he does is immensely fun to watch, which is troubling given that his currency is abuse.
Initially, that felt like a failing, Hollywood struggling tonally in its approach to Henry.
The vast array of insults he flings at Rock are so ghastly and ridiculous, his demands so outrageous, that they verge on comical. Naturalism takes a backseat – this is Hollywood, baby! – and as a result Henry's behaviour feels far-removed, losing much of its real-world punch.
In turn, he's less human, more caricature, which is an uncomfortable line to walk when you consider how he operates.
But it's that approach which allows the darker moments to filter through, such as when Henry opens a door to reveal several other young, half-naked men tucked away in a corner of his office, Rock registering what he's being asked to do.
Henry seeps into every room like a noxious gas, does his damage and then leaves, with zero trace that he was ever there except for a trembling Rock Hudson. And then the music picks up again, the story moves on and it's as if nothing has happened – apt for an industry which has perfected the art of looking away.
But while many will automatically compare him to Harvey Weinstein, there is one key difference: Willson was gay, and closeted, we should add. While that does not justify his behaviour, it does go some way to understanding the picture we get of him in Hollywood – he has been forced to bury his authentic self in the pursuit of success, and so, too, shall Rock Hudson, cementing the shame cycle.
There has been much written about the self-policing of minorities, people of colour and members of the LGBTQ+ community personally upholding the uber-conservative status quo for fear of persecution and worse.
Henry's repeated insistence to Rock that he must conceal his sexuality is a gesture of self-preservation, simultaneously selfish – as Rock's agent, he benefits if his client hits the big time – but also steeped in his first-hand experience of being gay in a society where death was – and still can be – a real-world consequence for openly loving another man.
It feels fitting, then, that Murphy and Brennen would want to give Henry a redemptive arc, demonstrating how coherent the shift from victim to abuser can be.
Not only do we witness him apologise to Rock for the manner in which he treated him, Henry then declares that he wants to "make it up" to the actor by putting him front and centre in a movie about two men who fall in love, the first of its kind.
This reevaluation of his own behaviour arrives with no warning. The drama is exceptionally pacey – characters declare their undying love for one another at the drop of a hat – which makes it difficult to get on board with Henry's dramatic shift.
Plus, we don't even witness the steps that lead to his transformation. That seismic change happens off screen, which makes it almost impossible to digest in light of how he's illustrated for the majority of the series.
Like nine-tenths of the show's central personalities, Henry could easily have sustained his own story, and therein lies one of the show's biggest problems: it's far too ambitious.
Murphy is often described as the busiest man in Hollywood, but his caseload appears less impressive and more of a handicap when titles such as Hollywood fall short of what they could have been.
Instead, the 'What If?' lens is turned on the drama itself, rather than the weighty themes and concepts it set out to explore.
Hollywood is streaming now on Netflix.
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