On August 6, 1969, the actress Sharon Tate was found dead in her home on Cielo Drive, Los Angeles, eight months pregnant and so bloodied that her patterned underwear appeared red to the investigating officers. She’d been stabbed 16 times. In 2019, at the bidding of the writer, director, and foot-fetishist Quentin Tarantino, history rewound itself and replayed the scene differently, the bloody full stop at the end of Hollywood’s decade of free love reworked into a more promising ellipsis. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, arguably his magnum opus and potentially his second-to-last feature film, sees Tate escape her brutal murder, her would-be attackers slashed and burned by two heroic doofuses: one an actor, one a stuntman. Whether or not you agree with Tarantino’s readjustment of the narrative, the central metaphor is clear: Old Hollywood, with its magic and its misogyny, its razzamatazz and racism, has triumphed over the encroaching psychic darkness of the 1970s. The dinosaurs have dodged the meteor.
Hollywood, the latest in a continuing string of Netflix shows by Ryan Murphy, tries the same trick from a very different angle: It imagines a fantasy-science-fiction version of the Golden Age in which Hollywood becomes less exclusionary, less discriminatory, and less the sole terrain of great white men. Its primary cast of characters includes a gay black screenwriter named Archie (Jeremy Pope); a young black actress with a contract at a major studio, Camille (Laura Harrier); a half-Filipino director, Raymond (Darren Criss); and a number of real figures from the era, including Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) and Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec). Together, they begin work on what they hope will be a film capable of changing Hollywood forever: one whose screenplay is initially about Peg Entwistle, the actress who committed suicide by leaping from the Hollywood sign in September 1932. Eventually, the film they’re making metamorphoses into a different project, an examination of the cruelty of the system, with—somewhat incongruously—a happy ending.
In spite of the show purportedly being about the need to foreground the perspectives of minorities, our way into Hollywood’s story is a straight, white, blue-eyed man with a standard-issue jawline: Jack Castello (David Corenswet), who is first seen gazing wide-eyed at a cinema screen as if he’s delighted to be puzzling out a very, very tricky piece of algebra. Unable to find acting work, he is making ends meet as a full-time sex worker at a garage frequented by the lonely wives and closeted gay men of Hollywood. (The password for its clientele? “Take me to Dreamland.”) He decides to enlist Archie, the screenwriter, as a way of fending off eager male clients, and Archie ends up being hired by a pre-stardom Rock Hudson, who later becomes his boyfriend. Archie, who wrote the script for the film about Peg Entwistle, is also working with the up-and-coming Raymond, who is married to Camille. Most of the action, once Jack gives up sex work, plays out at Ace, a fictionalized studio meant to stand in for Paramount or MGM. The studio head, Ace Amberg (Robert Reiner), is married to Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), who once hired Jack for sex when he still worked at the garage. Structurally, at least, the show resembles Hollywood the industry: incestuous, byzantine, powered by lucky breaks and manufactured, wholly unbelievable coincidences.
Ryan Murphy’s soapiness—by which I mean his love of melodrama that is too straight-faced to work as kitsch but too inelegant to be legitimately moving—is in some ways his Achilles’ heel, a stumbling block that can prevent him from creating his best work. Almost always, he is better with material that allows characters to bitch, to be waspishly funny, or to further a vendetta. (“If you can’t walk into that shed and lend a helping hand to national treasure Cole Porter,” a furious pimp tells Jake, delivering the show’s best line, “you better find me someone who can!” When Jake returns home and his wife spurns his advances, she tells him that his dinner’s on the table: “a cold wiener.”) Here, when characters face romantic or professional rejection, a score that resembles something from Twin Peaks swells in the background, as if daring them to cry like Donna Hayward. They react to infidelity by having spontaneous near-miscarriages, and they experience sudden heart attacks merely in order to advance the plot. Older white people with power turn out, nine times out of 10, to be good liberals with a yen for elevating those who face discrimination, a development that might seem less tonally jarring if the events of the series did not also play out in a world still inhabited by the Klan.
Hollywood is, in other words, too toothless, too airily bloodless, and too nice to leave much of an impression. It is difficult to write a full critique when the one plot development that proves definitively that the show is too pat, not to mention too indelicate in its approach to social change, is the one held under embargo. It seems fair to say that certain problems are too large to be solved with the magic of the silver screen and that suggesting that to do so might be possible appears, to me, to be a little patronizing to those still experiencing all the same systemic discrimination circa 2020. The show’s underlying notion that unity might have been within reach if we’d only tried a little harder—if the general public had seen more black and brown faces on the screen or more men holding hands on Hollywood red carpets—might seem less deplorably ham-fisted if the series were more elegantly written, making it a more plausible exercise in wish fulfillment.
The show is fond of stating plainly, as if characters were reading from the screenplay for an awful Lifetime movie, its intentions. “Sometimes I think folks in this town don’t understand the power they have,” Criss’s director tells a studio head, breathlessly. “Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world should be—and if we change the way that movies are made, and you take a chance, and you make a different kind of story, I think you can change the world.” “We’re not just making a movie,” one character tells another, practically throwing a wink toward the camera. “We’re all making history!”
Very few performers would be capable of making material like Hollywood’s most obvious, dunderheaded lines into a captivating spectacle. Some succeed—it is thrilling to see Queen Latifah, back on screen for the first time since 2017, in the role of Hattie McDaniel. As the bitchy, bleach-blonde ingénue Claire Woods, Samara Weaving continues her streak of being an edgier, icier, more catlike doppelganger for her fellow countrywoman Margot Robbie. Patti LuPone, playing a sexy aging diva who takes absolutely no shit, remains utterly herself, and Michelle Krusiec brings a quiet melancholy to the lonely, alcoholic Anna May Wong.
There are actors in the show who have delivered good performances elsewhere—Laura Harrier, for instance, who brought fiery charisma to her role in 2018’s BlacKkKlansman—who nevertheless fall flat here, shunning naturalism in favor of what is presumably meant to be a period-appropriate primness. The unfortunate result is that audition scenes in which the audience is meant to recognize which of the actors is most talented become inscrutable, an interchangeable parade of stilted dialogue and mugging faces. “There’s a whole new movement coming,” a studio acting coach informs Rock Hudson, “a new style coming out of New York. The old leftover acting from the silent pictures, the posturing, the obvious indicating, will soon be a thing of the past. Act with your eyes.” To quote another, better story about Old Hollywood lore: Would that t’were so simple!
The show’s ultimate depiction of Rock Hudson as a dumb-as-a-rock, barely sentient beefcake is one of its strangest choices; its decision to portray Vivien Leigh as a shrill maniac with a demented voice is yet another. When the two meet at a party, Hudson, who claims to have seen Gone With the Wind, is unable to recognize her, a joke about his supposed stupidity that actually functions as an unintended callback to a brilliant, minor scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Sharon Tate, played with ethereal cheer by Margot Robbie, is about to watch a movie she appears in, 1968’s The Wrecking Crew. “I’m in the movie,” she says brightly to the teller. “I’m Sharon Tate. That’s me.” That the salesgirl does not recognize her (“Really?” she says, squinting. “Isn’t she the girl from Valley of the Dolls?”) serves to remind us of the truth—that she is Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate, a simulacrum of a girl already only familiar to us through the medium of cinema. Letting the joins show is a way of clueing in the audience to the fact they are in a fantasy, and that the woman we are looking at is not even a ghost, but the illusion of a ghost.
Even Tarantino, with his ego and his sentimental love of Hollywood, does not bother to pretend movies can erase the brutality of real history. Ryan Murphy, if he disagrees, is living in a Dreamland.