Sex, lies and celluloid: how realistic is Netflix's drama Hollywood?

Hollywood loves a happy ending and Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series of the same name is no exception. This seductively glossy drama is a speculative story about postwar Hollywood, a revisionist fantasy in which a group of gay men and people of colour sweep prejudice aside on the road to box-office victory and Oscar glory. Thanks to the show’s attention to set design, costuming and name-dropping, it certainly looks a lot like 1947, but the events that take place bear a complex, ironic relationship to history.

Murphy, the creator of hits including Glee, Pose and Feud, about the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, has taken inspiration from the cheerfully lewd, largely unverifiable memoirs of Scotty Bowers. In his book Full Service, best read with a shaker or two of salt to hand, Bowers recalls decades spent hooking up with stars or supplying them with sex partners, starting with the days when he picked up clients while working at a petrol station in Hollywood.

Murphy’s show professionalises that operation, with Dylan McDermott playing Ernie: a likable, brisk chap who marshals an army of young men and women into the beds of the Hollywood elite from his forecourt. Those giving and receiving the password “Dreamland” at the pumps include such made-up characters as aspiring actor Jack Castello (David Corenswet), gay black screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), and Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), the neglected wife of a studio mogul. Historical figures using the service include Cole Porter and Rock Hudson (played by Jake Picking), who in this version of reality falls in love with Coleman.

Many other Hollywood names appear in the series, often in roughly sketched caricatures, from George Cukor, Hattie McDaniel, Anna May Wong and Vivien Leigh, to lesser-known names such as Henry Willson (Jim Parsons) a gay man who was Hudson’s agent, and promoted many hunky “beefcake” stars of the 1950s. In the show, he uses mob connections to keep a story about Hudson’s sexuality out of the press – in real life Willson did this in 1955 by selling scandal on two other stars to the magazine in question.

While Hollywood revels in often-retold stories about orgies, arrests and eccentricities, it lands on two facts that are unequivocally true: that many people working in golden age Hollywood were gay (although not out to the public), and that the careers of talented people of colour suffered because of ingrained racism. This was true for Wong and McDaniel, but also figures such as Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, who have inspired another key fictional character in the show, actor Camille Washington, played by Laura Harrier.

In the show, Archie has written a screenplay called Peg that alludes to the outsider status shared by Washington, himself and many others. It dramatises the tragedy of Peg Entwistle, a young British actor who killed herself by jumping from the H of the Hollywoodland sign in 1932, after struggling to get into the movies. At first Coleman sees a symbol for his own exclusion in Peg’s history, but after he finds a director and studio to make the film, he starts rewriting history, eventually dismissing Entwistle as a “dumb-ass white girl”. Camille suggests that the film should be Meg, not Peg – the story of a black woman who comes to Hollywood to be a star, but ends up rejected and depressed as Entwistle did. It’s a far bolder choice.

Avis, temporarily in charge of her husband’s studio (something the show presents as a first, although there had been female studio bosses in the silent era), gives Meg the green light, encouraged by a gay male executive and a visit from Eleanor Roosevelt. Camille is the best person to play the lead, although she has only had one film role before, a demeaning maid role far beneath her talents. Jack plays her love interest, beating Rock Hudson, who flunks his screen test by mixing up his lines. Hudson did indeed need repeated takes early in his career, though he wasn’t quite the clot this show makes him out to be.

Avis sets the budget for Meg very low (although it is still referred to as a “major motion picture”) and retains some understandable concerns: that there will be protests against the studio, and that the film won’t recoup its costs because it can’t be shown in the South. Despite the KKK burning crosses on studio lawns, the production continues and the team eventually give Meg a happy ending, in which she climbs down from the sign and into the arms of her boyfriend.

Groundbreaking … Pinky, starring Jeanne Crain and Ethel Waters, 1949.
Groundbreaking … Pinky, starring Jeanne Crain and Ethel Waters, 1949. Photograph: Ronald Grant

What Avis doesn’t take into account is that censorship would have nixed Meg from the start. In real life, the villains of this piece weren’t protesters from outside but Hollywood’s own Joseph Breen and the Production Code he enforced. So-called miscegenation, the romance between Meg and her white boyfriend, was not allowed on screen, a rule that was relaxed only slightly for the real Pinky, made two years later. Pinky features a young black woman who passes for white, who was in fact played by a white actor, Jeanne Crain. Both Dandridge and Horne wanted that role, but women of colour were not cast as romantic leads in Hollywood at that time.

Breen’s influence is revealed in the casting of Fannie Hurst’s novel, Imitation of Life, which was filmed twice. In 1934, just as Breen began enforcing the Code, Fredi Washington, a woman of colour, played the white-passing lead, but in the 1959 remake the part was taken by a white actor, Susan Kohner. In 1951, black actor-singer Horne lobbied for a lead role in the musical Show Boat, but was rejected in favour of the white Ava Gardner, whose singing voice had to be dubbed. Hollywood refers to this kind of whitewashing by re-enacting Wong’s failure to win the lead role of The Good Earth despite being the only Asian star – and the best actor – to audition, but implies it is all in the past.

One historical angle oddly absent from Murphy’s reconstruction is the Hollywood blacklist, first drawn up in 1947 after growing unrest in the industry about the corrupting influence of creatives with communist sympathies. Studios scoured movie scripts for subversive leftwing messages, and in any other version of 1947 Meg would have been heavily scrutinised.

Which is not to say that progressive films weren’t made at that time, including two of Meg’s competitors at the 1948 Oscars, both taking antisemitism as their subject. The big winner that year was Gentleman’s Agreement, directed by former Communist party member Elia Kazan (he also directed Pinky, and would testify against his friends), in which Gregory Peck plays an investigative journalist going undercover to expose antisemitism.

The other was Crossfire, a B-movie directed by Edward Dmytryk, one of the original blacklisted Hollywood Ten. It was actually based on a novel about about homophobia, but homosexuality was another subject that the Production Code prohibited. Arguably, it was because of the success of these “message pictures”, that Hollywood turned its attention to race prejudice with Pinky and another popular 1949 film, Home of the Brave. The latter was based on a play about antisemitism in the armed forces but was given a black lead because, as its gay author Arthur Laurents was told: “Jews have been done.” Hollywood picks its causes and progressiveness is not always linear. As with many more movie treatments of racism from Broken Blossoms to Green Book, these films are deeply compromised if well-intentioned.

Regardless, in Murphy’s revisionist world Meg does indeed get made, with a little financial boost from Ernie and his gas-station hustlers. It is a hit with the public, after opening in the kind of “wide” release across the US that wouldn’t be seen until the 70s. In real life, the biggest box-office hit of 1947 was musical comedy Welcome Stranger, starring Bing Crosby as a singing doctor.

Meg also sweeps up at the Academy Awards, where Archie and Hudson share a very public kiss. This romantic moment sadly defies credibility. Although there were rumours, the culture of secrecy around homosexuality meant that Hudson’s sexuality was not public knowledge until it was confirmed by friends shortly before his Aids-related death in 1985. Hudson may have been a huge star, but studio “morality clauses” kept him in the closet. The show refers to the story of William Haines, whose career ended in the 1930s after he rejected MGM’s demand that he enter a lavender marriage. In the mid-50s, Hudson was married to Willson’s secretary Phyllis Gates.

Later in the ceremony, when Camille clutches her best actress Oscar for playing Meg, we witness a moment of triumph for women of colour in film that would not actually take place until the following century, when Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball in 2001 and began her speech by saying: “This moment is so much bigger than me…” McDaniel was not even allowed in the room until the moment she was ushered in to accept her best supporting actress award for playing Mammy in 1939’s Gone With the Wind.

Camille is banned from the room, too, as it happens, but she gathers her nerve and successfully demands a seat on the front row. Murphy seems to be implying that a woman of colour only needs to ask for a seat at the table, which is an offensive lie when you consider that even now the Oscars remain #SoWhite, and the industry wildly unbalanced in terms of gender, race, sexuality and class diversity.

In its own well-meaning way, Murphy’s Hollywood is a rescue fantasy as outlandish as Quentin Tarantino’s re-enactment of the Manson murders, in which Sharon and her unborn child are saved by the intervention of a stuntman. Murphy has imagined away decades of institutional prejudice in favour of an ahistorical narrative about optimists pluckily seizing control of the power structures. In the same way that Meg twists the tragic story of Peg Entwistle, Hollywood betrays the legacy of those who had to fight for their rightful place in the film industry. Hollywood suggests a happy ending is just within our grasp – but that only happens at the movies.