Don’t let the phrase “Jim Parsons almost walks away with Ryan Murphy’s ‘Hollywood‘” scare you off, “Big Bang” haters. Because it’s “almost,” for starters. And Parsons, playing real-life “eye for the beefcake” predator/agent Henry Willson, is villainously vile, and a hoot.
The man who bedded the handsomest Hollywood wannabes of his generation, and made some of them — Rock Hudson, most famously — movie stars, is one of the standout figures in this gay fantasia on Hollywood “as it could have been.”
It’s exactly what you’d expect a limited series from the guys who came up with “Glee” (Murphy and Ian Brennan) and one who went on to take on the Bette Davis/Joan Crawford “Feud” — a soapy, dishy gloss on inclusion, race, sex and sexuality in a history of Hollywood as it never really was.
As the gay black screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) enthuses, they “take the story of Hollywood,” with its racism, sexism and closet-closing homophobia, “and give it a rewrite.”
The seven episodes aren’t uneven in quality or gloriously-detailed production values, but they vary entirely too much in impact. There are moments — just moments — of giddy fun. Yeah, they could have made this a romp. And then there are a couple of emotional highs, remembering the doors closed and dreams deferred. It could have been a straight melodrama, too.
Its take-off point is “Scotty’s Secret History of Hollywood,”the book and documentary it inspired about a service station run by gigolos, “servicing” the men and women of the film colony. Ernie (Dylan McDermott) runs this version of that real story, a dapper “gigolo” stereotype, right down to the pencil-thin mustache.
Ernie’s greying, and he’s got that “first act cough.” Uh oh.
Ernie “head hunts” broke wannabe Jack Castello (David Corenswet, earnest but merely OK in the part), married and with a baby on the way — too “straight” to be a “full service” employee. But handsome Jack, a freshly-discharged WWII vet, becomes the favorite of regular client Avis (Patti Lupone), an aged starlet who was told she was “too Jewy” (ethnic) to make it as an actress. And Avis is married to the “Ace” (Rob Reiner, a fine vulgarian) “Ace Pictures,” the fictional studio all these fictional (and non-fictional) characters circle around.
Maybe Jack can get that big screen test.
And Jack recruits Archie, a gay cruiser he tracks down in a gay porno theater. Archie’s (Pope) an aspiring screenwriter at a time when the only movies black screenwriters could get paid for were “race” pictures by the Oscar Micheaux of the day.
Archie’s got this script — “Peg” — about Peg Entwistle, a failed-actress who famously jumped off the Hollywoodland sign to her death in the 1930s. EVERYbody wants a piece of “Peg.”
Except Raymond Ainsley, a pal and fellow screenwriter sleeping with Archie’s sister. Ray (“Glee” veteran Darren Criss) has his own script and dream. He has a Chinese story he wants to film that will give Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), a silent star who lost the lead in “The Good Earth” to a non-Chinese actress (Luise Rainer) who won an Oscar playing it.
Anna May, “the first Chinese-American movie star,” is another real person, an actress who crawled into a bottle after being typecast as “exotic Asians” and “dragon ladies.” Look at her credits on IMDb and see what Murphy and Brennan want to “save her from” in this alternative history.
Laura Harrier plays Ray’s “woman of color” girlfriend, Camille, a great beauty condemned to playing maids, unless these crazy, optimistic outsiders can “make our own rules by breaking some of’em!”
Fictional characters like production chief Dick Samuels (stage director/actor Joe Mantello, cynical and when he needs to be, sentimental) and real-life “players” like Willson (Parsons) relate real-life Hollywood anecdotes with the usual “Let me tell you a little story” moments dished to the newcomers.
Legends from John Wayne and Irving Thalberg take it on the chin in the those legendary bits of gossip.
On screen? Rock Hudson is eviscerated. Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Sansom Harris, terrific) is nominated for sainthood.
Others are shown at their glossiest, with their human weaknesses included — storied director George Cukor’s (Daniel London) famed gay pool parties, Vivien Leigh’s (Kate McGuiness) fragile “Scarlett O’Hara” vanity, Tallulah Bankhead’s (Paget Brewster) bawdy wit.
Here’s Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) and playwright/wit and gay swain Noël Coward (former hobbit Billy Boyd, not really anybody’s idea of Coward).
Holland Taylor plays a talent scout and acting and locution coach, the one who teaches would-be actors like Jack and Rock Hudson (Jake Picking, so bland he might be the real Rock) and prophesies “There’s a movement, a whole new style of acting, coming. NATURALISM!”
In a cynical story about how Hollywood “hypocrisy,” the way the town has ALWAYS run — the sexual barter system (“screwing your way into the movies”) — Taylor’s Ellen Kincaid is the series’ conscience. An old timer who recognizes that the prejudice in this town colonized by Jewish outsiders is mostly fear of what “they” — Middle American moviegoers — will “accept,” she has the best and campiest line of all, when Ellen meets the screenwriter of “Peg.”
“You’re colored...I LOVE it!”
Hollywood history fans will lose themselves in this vamp of “actual” history. Keep your smart phone IMDb page open and and look up the figures to see who’s real and who isn’t.
Oscar winner Mira Sorvino has a small but sweet and showy role, Samara Weaving plays a cutthroat starlet, and nearly-forgotten names and faces like “Tab” and “Rory” and “Guy” may have you doing homework between episodes.
“Peg” was never a movie, but one called “Peggy” played a big part in making Rock Hudson’s career. Look it up.
It’s the zingers that will keep you watching. Ernie berates Jack for not “servicing” a regular client in the behind-the-station trailer, a client who is anything but “regular.”
“It’s COLE PORTER! Yesterday, I heard you humming, ‘Don’t Fence Me In.’ If I can’t count on you to lend a helping hand to a National Treasure like Cole Porter…”
Yes, it’s a mixed bag, but unlike TOO many streaming series to name (Mindy Kaling are your ears burning?), this one gets right down to business, delivering right from the start of the opening episode. There’s heart in the “Hollywood can change the world, let’s try it” ethos. And there are laughs, none bigger than Jim Parsons, letting his contemptuous, foul-mouthed freak flag fly at every gorgeous “Greek god” who comes to his office for a “meeting,” a signing and a sexual transaction.
“You f—–g hayseed!”
Wait’ll you see him do the Dance of the Seven Veils.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, sex, nudity, profanity, smoking, alcohol abuse
Cast: David Corenswet, Darren Criss, Laura Harrier, Dylan McDermott, Jeremy Pope, Jake Picking, Holland Taylor, Patti Lupone, Joe Mantello, and Jim Parsons
Credits: Created by Ian Brennan and Ryan Murphy. A Netflix release.
Running time: 7 episodes @:44-60 minutes each.