Ryan Murphy on "Hollywood": "I wanted to give a happy ending to so many people who didn't have it"

Salon spoke to the series creator and EP Janet Mock about the utopian showbiz history in which the marginalized win

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published May 1, 2020 7:09PM (EDT)

Laura Harrier and Darren Criss in "Hollywood" (Netflix)
Laura Harrier and Darren Criss in "Hollywood" (Netflix)

Ryan Murphy's earliest introduction to Hollywood came by way of his grandmother, Myrtle, a devoted movie buff who immersed him in the Golden Age of cinema, its films and its behind-the-scenes history. "I would get movie star books or studio books for my birthday and Christmas, because she knew that I liked it," he told Salon in a recent phone interview.

Memories of his earliest encounters with Hollywood executives, however, are anything but nostalgic. "When I started to make things in 1998," Murphy recalled, "every position of power in this town was filled by the exact same person: They were all white guys in their early 50s who wanted to make things for white guys in their early 50s. So I always felt like I was an alien."

Back then, whenever Murphy proposed making marginalized people the center of the story, he faced massive push back. "That was always the story of my career when I started, even with my first show, 'Popular,'" he recalled. "I got the same note over and over and over again, which was, 'You can't, you can't.' 'You're giving too much time to the women.' 'You can't have a cheerleader wear a fur coat because it seems too gay.' Or, 'You can have a gay character, but they have to have cancer. They have to be punished.' Like, I can remember those things actually being discussed in meetings."

The insults spilled over from the business lane into the personal, too. Murphy remembers studio executives belittling the way he spoke, or what he was wearing, or making homophobic remarks about him. "And I can remember just having to f**king sit there and take it," he said.  "So the story of my career is that I'm interested in doing what I was told I could not do, which is make gay people and women and people of color the center of their own stories, and make them be the heroes."

This may lend some context to understanding his approach with "Hollywood," Murphy's latest collaboration with his "Glee" creative partner Ian Brennan. "Hollywood" is very much a Ryan Murphy-style fantasy, which is to say that it is grand, glittery and glamorous, everything you'd want in a fairy tale dedicated to illustrating – with utter sincerity – what could have been.

But it's also a post-war alternate history, the difference being that Murphy's post-World War II America has the potential to leap directly from its role as liberators from fascism to its obligation to embrace equality for all of its citizens. To Murphy, the seven-episode "Hollywood" demonstrates his faith in the power of movies and TV to move society forward, a loving postcard to Hollywood's Golden Age that doubles as speculative fiction. 

Murphy and Brennan co-wrote five of episodes, and were joined by Janet Mock on the season's fourth, and Mock, Brennan and Reilly Smith collaborating on the sixth episode. In the writers' room, he recalled, "Janet Mock and I had many conversations privately just about how would our life be different if we had seen somebody like us win."

Murphy cited Halle Berry's historic Best Actress Oscar win in 2002 for her work in "Monsters Ball" as an example. Berry became the first (and as of 2020, still the only) African American woman in history to earn that honor.

But what if that barrier had been shattered? What, he asked Mock, would it have meant for her to witness that event as a young woman?  "And what would my life have been like if I was in Indiana, and Rock Hudson was out of the closet and walking down the red carpet with his boyfriend? I think it would have had a big effect."

Mock gently offered a contrasting opinion during a separate phone conversation,"I definitely was more of a pessimist in the room, which you need when you have a room of three or four people talking and talking about story." Yet even in her realism, she signed on to Murphy's vision because of her belief in the industry's power as well.

Mock, who also directed two episodes of "Hollywood," offered this in response to my initial reaction to the series, which fascinated me as much as it provoked my inner cynic. I also admitted to Murphy that "Hollywood" made me scoff at such moments for their lack of realism, for failing to acknowledge that America would never allow society's underdogs to win, let alone live and love openly – and definitely not in the pre-Civil Rights era.

At the same time if the premise is an obvious fantasy, what's wrong with its heroes coming out on top? Why couldn't an interracial couple be sought after by the paparazzi on the red carpet, or a woman who is a studio executive make a historic change in cinema – at the encouragement of Eleanor Roosevelt, no less?

"We got the similar criticisms with 'Pose,' or maybe not criticisms but . . . [expressed] feeling that it's not realistic," Mock said. "And the difference between 'Pose' and 'Hollywood,' of course, is that with 'Hollywood' we actually are saying, what are the many interventions that we could have made that could have possibly taken us onto a different road?"

Murphy's work can be polarizing that way; as ardently as his fans embrace him, his detractors passionately dismiss his bigger swings. But as swings go, "Hollywood" is a relatively modest one and genuinely felt; its actors pay homage to the era but stop short of parodying it. The soundtrack swings, but the dialogue is light on the snark that tends to be a calling card of Murphy's scripts.

It's even stranger to consider that much of today's audience may find a world where the Nazis won the Second World War more plausible than this one, in which a 1940s-era Hollywood studio elevates a black actress to top billing, and the public applauds as she holds hands with her half-Asian director boyfriend on the red carpet.

In reply to this, Mock quoted a piece of wisdom Viola Davis offered in her 2015 Emmy acceptance speech: "The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. "And so what if we do give a black girl in the 1940s a true opportunity to be fully realized as the center of the story? How would that change everything? That's why the end is really the beginning, right?"

The title of that final episode, "A Hollywood Ending," is the series' statement of purpose, hinting at an outcome that would never, ever happen in the world we're living in.

By that point in the story, we're already far down the road in the production of "Meg," a creative gamble for the film's Ace studios. Behind the camera Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) has gone to bat to ensure his friend Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), a gay black man, gets his due after years of being rejected out of hand.

They only get in the door by the combined grace of veteran studio executives Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello) and Ellen Kincaid (Holland Taylor) who persuade Ace studio head Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone, playing a role modeled after Irene Selznick) to take a chance on "Meg" and most specifically, to cast the best actress for the job – who happens to Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), after she slays her screen test.

Each Ace executive has his or her own reasons to push "Meg" across the multiple obstacles in their way, foremost among them being the presumption that white moviegoers would reject a movie featuring a black actress playing a part usually reserved for a white woman, and being romanced by a white male lead played by Army veteran Jack Costello (David Corenswet).

Even the seedier side of "Hollywood" has buoyancy to it. Before they get their big breaks Jack and Archie turn tricks at the Golden Tip, a local gas station whose attendants make their real money as gigolos corralled by Ernest "Ernie" West (Dylan McDermott), the world's merriest and most generous pimp.

McDermott's character, unbelievable though he may be, happens to be modeled on a real-life figure named Scotty Bowers, whose 2012 memoir "Full Service" alleges encounters with such icons as Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Like everyone else, Ernie holds fast to his dream of what the place represents, even as he witnesses firsthand the toll of living in secret takes on his clientele.

This is partly where "Hollywood" finds its darkness, even though such controversial characters as beefcake-obsessed and aggressively exploitative talent agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons, channeling pure evil in a performance that sheds his "Big Bang" persona) eventually earn some version of a comeuppance.

And the script does acknowledge the violent racism that dominated the era, although the writers purposefully devised their alternate history to stand apart from the grim post-World War II dystopias that gained attention in wake of the 2016 election like "The Man in the High Castle" or "The Plot Against America."

"They're all, for the most part, incredibly bleak, incredibly dark," Murphy observed. "They make you feel bad, and they make you worry even more. I was interested in doing the opposite of that which was, I didn't want to make a dystopian piece. I wanted to make a utopian piece because that's kind of world where I want to in some weird way live, particularly now."

Hence Murphy's and Brennan's manifestation of a 1940s town where their fictional protagonists exist alongside real-life legends such as Vivien Leigh, Tallulah Bankhead, gossip maven Hedda Hopper, and director George Cukor. Where a young Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), newly arrived from the Midwest, can find a solid relationship with another man instead of remaining in the closet almost until his death.

And where legends who should have been bigger stars in their time, including Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah), receive their due whether directly or vicariously.

"Three childhood obsessions of mine were Rock Hudson, Anna May Wong, and Hattie McDaniel," Murphy said. "And I was so struck that in a lot of writers rooms when I would talk about what happened to Anna May Wong, and what happened to Rock Hudson with that horrible manager Henry Willson, and what happened to Hattie McDaniel, people just don't know."

Wong and McDaniel left a legacy of being extraordinary talent. But Wong was relegated to playing Asian stereotypes, and was famously denied the Chinese character lead in 1937's "The Good Earth." Instead the role went to Luise Rainier, a European-American performer who went on to win a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal.

McDaniel managed to make history with her Supporting Actress Oscar Win for her work in "Gone With the Wind" but wasn't allowed to sit in the same seating section as the main nominees and defied the Academy by making her own acceptance speech even though one had been written for her.

Murphy referred to these stories as the "buried history" of the place, admitting that's a bit of misnomer "because you know, it's there, but you have to hunt for it."

That made the production very personal Murphy, he said, much in the way he feels about "Feud: Bette and Joan," his other major Golden Age-set series. "I wanted Rock Hudson to have a happy ending, you know, and I'm mad that he didn't. I wanted Anna May Wong to win an Academy Award because she was not allowed to get that part on 'The Good Earth' and she should have gotten it. and I wanted Hattie McDaniel to be able to walk into that room."

Murphy goes on to cite a line his idealized Eleanor Roosevelt says to Ace's executives in reaction to hearing that they'd considered Camille for the lead in "Meg" but planned to go with someone else. "I used to believe that good government could change the world," the First Lady says. "Well, I don't know that I believe that anymore. However, what you do – the three of you – can change the world."

"Her speech is what I believe," he said, later explaining, "I believe that Hollywood is a big teacher. It taught me how to walk and talk, it taught me, as a kid, how to be romantic. All of those things. So I just believe in it, and I also see its failings."

"Ultimately," he added, "I think I was really drawn to it because I wanted to give a happy ending to so many people who didn't have it, who deserved it."

All seven episodes of "Hollywood" are currently streaming on Netflix.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Hollywood Interview Janet Mock Netflix Ryan Murphy Tv