When it comes to societal shifts toward equality, the idea of “progress” can get a little muddy.
Sure, there are laws in place now that technically ban forms of prejudice. But, as we’re more than aware, issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia (among others) have an insidious way of mutating into other vehicles of oppression or settling into psyches as “that’s just how it is.”
Just look at Hollywood.
While ridiculous mandates like the Hays Code, which, among many things, barred onscreen miscegenation, are a thing of the past, it took until 2015 and the #OscarsSoWhite firestorm for the Academy to have serious discussions around inclusion and create the mechanisms for it to actually happen. A change eventually does comes. It’s always just a matter of when.
But what if in Hollywood’s Golden Age, there was an example of what that change could look like?
What if there was just one movie that had the kind of representation onscreen and off that we’re seeing today?
If that happened, how much further along would we be now?
So goes the logic surrounding Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s new limited series Hollywood.
Hollywood follows a group of young hopefuls chasing their dreams in Tinseltown. Despite a crooked system, rampant sexual exploitation, and obvious biases across race, sexuality, and gender, the squad of aspiring actors and filmmakers manage to persevere in ways no one in their positions back in post-World War II Hollywood would’ve been able to do.
“I’ve always been a sucker for Hollywood,” says Brennan, who, with Murphy also created Glee, Scream Queens, and The Politician. “I live in the Hollywood Hills and if I walk out my door, I can look up and see that stupid sign, which I just love. There’s just something really magical about Hollywood—the real place, Hollywood, the imaginary place, and the Hollywood that’s sort of in everyone’s mind that’s in between those two places.”
And, between Brennan and Murphy’s minds, there’s Hollywood—but it wasn’t always the revisionist fantasy that it is now.
The take-two we deserve
Hollywood initially played it closer to reality. However, in building out the show, when Brennan and Murphy got to the point where the black and gay screenwriter got rejected even though he wrote a brilliant script, or the young black starlet had the best screen test but was relegated to nothing but maid roles, Murphy paused.
“We took a beat and Ryan was like, ‘Are we missing a trick here? What if she did get the part? What if this movie does get made?'” Brennan says. “As soon as that question was posed, there was no going back. Suddenly the whole show opened up, and that was the story we were telling.”
“Instead of a show about power dynamics and bad behavior in the industry and exploitation and lack of opportunity, it got flipped on its head,” he continues. “It was about optimism and a world that could have been and a reflection of the world that we should live in now.”
Part of rewriting history means dealing with historical figures.
In memoriam . . . Rock Hudson and Anna May Wong
The majority of characters in Hollywood are composites of what minority groups during that time most likely went through. But sprinkled in the mix are a few characters who actually existed, namely actors Rock Hudson and Anna May Wong.
Brennan mentions that in the original version of Hollywood, there were portrayals of even more real celebrities, like Spencer Tracy and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
“But once we landed on the notion that this was gonna be about the underdogs, as it became more about a fantasy of the Hollywood that we wish had existed, a lot of that stuff dripped away,” Brennan says. “It seemed a little bit extraneous to have them just show up.”
Both Hudson and Wong made the cut because they both underscored principle themes in the show that characters are working around, such as homophobia and racism.
“Both of them seem very tragic for different reasons,” Brennan says. “Anna May Wong was this colossal talent whose name should be uttered in the same breath as Audrey Hepburn and Greta Garbo but is largely forgotten. She never got the opportunity, because of the color of her skin.”
“On the other side of the coin is Rock Hudson who became about as famous as anybody could possibly be, and yet his whole life was a lie,” Brennan continues. “It was all about this fiction of who he was. Those two real-life characters were most deserving of a redemptive ending.”
“It might be my favorite creative endeavor of my whole life”
To Brennan, Hollywood is more than a surface-level game of “what if.”
When he and Murphy first pivoted in this new direction, they weren’t just asking themselves what would Hollywood look like now if things were different then. They posited what America as a whole would’ve looked like.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Ellen DeGeneres comes out on national television, or there’s a show like Will & Grace and [17 years] later there’s marriage equality. It’s not that simple, and there were a lot of fights in between, but it really primed the pump for a lot of social change,” Brennan says. “That’s where I keep going back to, trying to picture what America would look like had just this tiny little thing happened—just a movie made in a different way, showing a different kind of story, with different kinds of people and putting those people up on screen. How different would it be?”
It’s that question that makes Hollywood Brennan’s favorite project that he’s worked on in his celebrated career in TV, especially considering where the show started.
“The show would have still been fun and salacious and sexy, but we stumbled upon this theme about inclusion and power and optimism and ambition in a way that I haven’t seen before,” Brennan says. “I’ve never been involved with something that asked that profound of a question at its core. It might be my favorite creative endeavor of my whole life.”