Once Upon a Time ... in Post-War Hollywood, aspiring actor Rock Hudson lived with African-American screenwriter Archie Coleman; Hattie McDaniel became a mentor to Camille Washington, the first black woman to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar; the wife of legendary studio boss Ace Amberg took the reins when Amberg suffered a heart attack, and Vivien Leigh had an ongoing sexual affair with a failed actor named Ernie who operated a prostitution ring out of a full-service gas station.
If only some of those names ring a bell, that’s because in the Netflix limited series “Hollywood,” co-creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan (“Glee,” “Scream Queens”) have fashioned a revisionist history look at 1940s Hollywood with a mix of real-life and fictional characters, a la Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.” The main players in “Hollywood” — a director, a screenwriter, a couple of actors, the aforementioned studio chief and the gas station owner/pimp — are made up, but they interact with the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Noel Coward, Anna May Wong, real-life talent agent Henry Wilson, Cole Porter, even Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s a fascinating blend of fact (or least stories based on factual characters) and fiction, and the performances from the cast of rising stars and reliable veterans are dazzling — but like many a motion picture, “Hollywood” can’t overcome script problems that surface about midway through the story.
With big-band classics from Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller on the soundtrack and a nonstop parade of fabulous period-piece fashions and automobiles helping to set the post-war Golden Age tone, “Hollywood” devotes its early episodes to introducing us to a group of young hopefuls who arrive in Los Angeles at about the same time to pursue their showbiz dreams, including:
• Jack Costello (David Corenswet), a handsome corn-fed actor from the Midwest.
• Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), a talented aspiring director, who lives with Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), a gorgeous actress with real star power.
• Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a screenwriter whose very first script is garnering some serious buzz.
• Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), a gee-whiz fella from Illinois who looks like a Greek statue come to life but is a very unpolished actor, and that’s putting it kindly.
When we meet this bunch, they’re all struggling, and in some cases, they resort to desperate and seedy measures to survive. Jack is married with a child on the way, but he hesitates for all of a Hollywood minute before joining the team of handsome young gigolos who pose as attendants at the Golden Tip Gasoline Station, but are in reality prostitutes, hired by the aforementioned Ernie to service the older men and women who pull up and announce their intentions by uttering the code phrase: “I want to go to Dreamland.”
One such regular customer is Patti LuPone’s Avis Amberg, the neglected wife of bombastic studio chief Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner). Before you can say “Tinseltown” three times fast, Avis is teaming up with director Raymond, screenwriter Archie and lead actors Jack and Camille to make a movie called “Meg,” which is sure to cause controversy given it’s an interracial love story. (Like many a movie-within-a-movie, “Meg” looks awful based on the snippets of scenes we see.) All the while, “Hollywood” constantly explores the theme of individuals trapped in the heartbreakingly unfair social mores of the time. Avis is taken seriously as a businesswoman only when her husband is literally in a coma; Rock can’t go public with his romance because it would destroy his career; Archie learns his name is going to be taken off the script because the studio doesn’t want the public to know the movie has been written by a black man; the greatly gifted actress Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) has resigned herself to never getting the roles she deserves because she’s Chinese-American.
Jim Parsons turns in a darkly funny performance as powerful agent Henry Wilson, who isn’t above turning to the mob for help in quashing a scandalous tabloid story. (The real-life Henry Wilson, who repped the likes of Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue as well as one Roy Scherer, whose name he changed to Rock Hudson, wound up traveling a very different life path than what’s depicted in the series.) Samara Weaving sparkles as Claire, the spoiled-rotten daughter of Ace and Avis Amberg, who wants to be an actress, much to their dismay. Mira Sorvino is wonderful as an actress of a certain age who is given a dream role just when she thought her career had hit a brick wall.
Heck, everyone’s terrific, from the opening curtain to the closing credits. We find ourselves rooting for the band of up-and-comers as they begin to realize their dreams in almost ridiculously rapid fashion. But “Hollywood” makes some curious choices, e.g., depicting Ernie the gas station pimp as an avuncular figure, loved by one and all, even though this guy is raking in cash by turning out impressionable, financially strapped young men. Plausibility is further stretched by three major characters experiencing radical changes in personality, as if a magic wand had appeared and suddenly made all three infinitely more likable human beings. “Hollywood” winds up being a project that just falls short of living up to the pitch.