From Rock Hudson to Vivien Leigh: The real-life actors fictionalised in Netflix's Hollywood
While its central cast of dreamers are entirely fictional, Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood features plenty of real-life stars.
The new Netflix series - which has divided critics - follows a group of wannabe filmmakers as they attempt to make it big in post-Second World War Hollywood.
Though it’s commonly considered the “golden age,” late 1940s and 1950s Tinseltown remained rife with racism, sexism and ageism.
In Murphy’s glittering city, these injustices and discrimination are eventually overcome, but the real-life stories of people including Rock Hudson and Hattie McDaniel featured far more strife and heartbreak.
Read the true stories of the silver screen icons and behind-the-scenes star-makers…
Much of Hudson’s traumatic tale is told accurately in the first half of the series. After graduating from high school in 1943 he enlisted to help the USA’s war efforts and served in the Philippines working as an aircraft mechanic.
He arrived in Los Angeles shortly after returning to the States three years later and lived with his father while pursuing his dreams.
Murphy’s show sees Hudson (played expertly by Jake Picking) signed by agent Henry Willson (Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons) largely because of his looks and a mysterious star quality - which is largely true as the real-life Hudson first met with the notorious agent after sending a picture of himself.
Willson did also rename Hudson, previously Roy Fitzgerald, and he soon signed a contract with Universal Pictures, appearing in over 20 smaller roles before getting his big break.
Hudson’s line struggles in Hollywood are based on truth (though the film Peg/Meg is entirely fictional), as he took nearly 40 takes to deliver a simple line in his debut movie, Fighter Squadron, in 1948.
His step up to being a leading man came after plenty of acting lessons and practice, in the 1952 film Scarlet Angel. From here, Hudson’s career soared and he soon became one of the Golden Age’s most popular, famous and desirable heartthrobs.
But he was hiding a huge secret. While Hudson’s homosexuality was virtually an open secret in Hollywood circles, he never publicly discussed it and married - in what was likely an arranged nuptials - Willson’s assistant Phylis Gate in 1955. Their partnership broke down three years later.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Hudson - no longer the megastar he was at the height of the 1950s - landed multiple TV roles. In the early 1980s, he was diagnosed with HIV and kept his illness a secret as the AIDs crisis began to tighten its grip.
His publicists made multiple attempts to keep his health issues private but in mid-1985, his diagnosis was confirmed to the press. Hudson died in 1985, becoming the first high-profile celebrity to tragically lose their life to a HIV-related illness.
The powerful talent agent and scout started his Hollywood career as a journalist before fast realising his schmoozing would serve him well as an agent.
In Hollywood, Willson closeted as his main star is (which was true in real-life too, until his sexuality was publicly revealed later in his career) and portrayed as an abusive man.
The allegations against him were never addressed by Willson but numerous history books assert that he abused his powers and coerced young men into performing sex acts on him.
Addressing whether Hudson was abused by Willson, the actor’s biographer Mark Griffin previously told NPR: “I think it was fairly well-known that if you were a Henry Willson client, as Tony Curtis once expressed it, you probably had to sexually express yourself to Henry.”
Many Hollywood historians note the complexities of Willson’s relationships with his clients, who he remained protective of. It’s largely agreed that Willson organised Hudson’s marriage to Gates shortly after a magazine threatened to out him. He offered the publication, Confidential, information on another of his clients to save Hudson’s career.
Griffin added: “I think it's a pretty clear example of how Henry Willson took a definite and very proactive interest in how he managed his clients, and Rock Hudson, especially.”
His hold over Hollywood didn’t last forever though. When his homosexuality became an increasingly open secret, Willson turned to alcohol and drugs, and in turn, his career and business began to falter.
He died at the age of 67 in 1974 after moving into a retirement home for former entertainment industry professionals.
Leigh makes her first appearance at a dinner party held by director George Cukor (more on him later), which soon escalates to include increasingly x-rated behaviour.
Perhaps one of the best-known stars featured in the show (Hudson aside, of course), Leigh was born in India (then still under British rule) before her family moved back to England in 1931.
Her acting career began with small work as an extra and she also changed her name from Vivian Holman (the surname taken when she married her first husband, who she would divorce in 1940).
She soon went on to bigger film roles and landed increasingly high-profile stage parts, which would in turn lead her to meet future husband, Laurence Olivier.
In Hollywood, Leigh’s story is picked up post-Gone With the Wind, as critical acclaim for her star turn as Scarlett O’Hara continued to roll in.
At the 1940 Oscars, Leigh was named Best Actress. The year was also a big one for Leigh on a personal level, as her first husband agreed to divorce her, freeing her up to marry Olivier. The couple got hitched on 31 August and constantly combined business with pleasure, working on huge theatre and film projects together.
Life was far from straightforward for Leigh though. After suffering illness in 1944, she fell pregnant a year later but tragically lost the child.
In the following months, her mental health deteriorated and she suffered what would now be referred to as a bi-polar breakdown. Leigh recovered and continued forging a hugely successful career but mental health issues persisted and her bouts of recovery and depression became a pattern.
The Oliviers’ marriage deteriorated in the late 1950s and came to an end with divorce in 1960. Leigh continued working until her tuberculosis returned in 1967. She died at her London home with her then-partner Jack Merivale, who phoned Olivier when she collapsed.
As a mark of respect for one of its brightest stars, London’s West End went dark for an hour-long tribute when the news broke.
Anna May Wong
Murphy - as he does with Hudson and Willson - initially tells Anna May Wong’s true story before adding his imagined twists and turns.
Wong, whose original Chinese name means Yellow Frosted Willow, was born to first-generation Chinese-American parents Sam Sing Wong and Gon Toy Lee. The family lived nearby Chinatown.
Despite the obstacles - and racism - she faced, the young starlet vowed to become an actress - and began making silver screen appearances in silent films in the late 1920s film.
She consistently faced discrimination and despite having huge amounts of on-screen charisma and natural talent, Wong frequently found herself sidelined and overlooked by casting directors including, as chronicled by Murphy, the executives awarding The Good Earth roles.
Wong left America for Europe in 1929 and found her talents were recognised much quicker on this side of the Atlantic.
By the time of her death in 1961, Wong has starred in over 60 movies including Shanghai Express (alongside her good friend Marlene Dietrich) and trod the boards opposite Olivier. Read more about Wong’s incredible story here.
Cukor’s dinner party soon becomes a whole lot less kid-friendly as darkness settles on the director’s Los Angeles home.
While most of the writers, directors and filmmakers in the series are fictional, Cukor (who is overshadowed by his exuberant guests) was very much a real person.
Though discreet and intent on maintaining a public image that would please studio bosses, Cukor’s homosexuality was another open secret in Hollywood and the regular Sunday get-togethers were very much a staple for a collection of A-listers, some of whom were also gay.
How much of the salacious goings-on in Murphy’s version of Cukor’s Sunday night party are imagined? Thanks to the loyalty of his guests, it’s impossible to know. But as the LA Times wrote in 1991, “once the guests left his formal Sunday brunches, the director would then set up a buffet of leftovers poolside and a constantly changing parade of young men would begin to arrive.”
They added: “As the Baroness d’Erlanger once teased him, ‘Mr. Cukor has all these wonderful parties for ladies in the afternoon. Then in the evening naughty men come around to eat the crumbs!’”
Hattie McDaniel's extraordinary story of facing down racism in an industry which both celebrated her achievements and cast her aside, is rightly a vital piece of Hollywood history.
The actress (played by a modern day superstar) appears in the second half of the Netflix series and her Oscars win for Gone With the Wind is a triumph that really did happen.
But while McDaniel's numerous roles gave her significant screen time, she only ever played a maid or housekeeper.
This, in turn, received criticism from the black community and she was criticised by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for perpetuating negative stereotypes.
McDaniel continued working as an actress and singer until the 1950s, when she was tragically diagnosed with breast cancer. She died at the age of 57 in 1952.
Her story features in the second half of the series so we won't spoil too much. Read more about her life here.
Hollywood is available to stream on Netflix now.