Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Ryan Murphy does Quentin Tarantino. Only instead of bloody and gory violence, Murphy injects a whole lot of queerness and male nudity. Tarantino’s recent feature films have tackled real-life, historical subjects and characters, but Tarantino hasn’t depicted those historical subjects as they actually happened. Tarantino has done a lot of revisionism.
Whether it’s been slavery in the United States or it’s been the outcome of World War II, Tarantino has done films where he’s altered things in order to favor social justice and ending racism or antisemitism. His most recent effort in this regard was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), which re-imagines the fate of Hollywood actress Sharon Tate who was murdered in August 1969. Tarantino changes her fate to a better one. It’s as if Murphy saw that Tarantino flick and decided that he would do the same thing. Yet, instead of changing the fate of one Hollywood actress, Murphy would change the fate of several Hollywood actors, actors who were either gay, or of some ethnic minority, to make things better for them and as a result better for gay people and ethnic minorities at large.
There are several, real-life people who are in this narrative, but there seems to be three historical figures in Hollywood that Murphy’s series uses as the basis for his rewriting of history. The first is Scotty Bowers, a Marine who served in World War II, but after the war, Bowers became an unpaid pimp who provided sex workers to people out of a gas station in Los Angeles. A majority of his clients were gay and lesbian people who couldn’t express their sexuality in public. Many of those clients were people who were connected to Hollywood films and the movie industry. A memoir about Bowers was published in 2012 and a documentary about him released in 2018.
The second, historical figure is Henry Willson, a talent agent who mostly represented young, handsome men, referred to as beefcakes. He also was instrumental in covering up stories about his clients’ homosexuality in the press. A popular book about him called The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson (2005) details all of the leading man’s exploits. Finally, the third, historical person is Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star who was always frustrated with her career due to the stereotypical roles she constantly got. Murphy and his writing team build a narrative around all three of these people and uses that narrative to right the wrongs that occurred with each of them or at least give them the recognition that he thinks they deserved.
Darren Criss (American Crime Story and Glee) stars as Raymond Ainsley, an aspiring director in Hollywood in 1947. He’s half Filipino, but, by looking at him, you couldn’t tell that he was Asian. He has predominantly European facial qualities. Yet, his Asian heritage is very important to him and he specifically wants to direct a film that stars Anna May Wong because he too is frustrated with how her career consisted mostly of stereotypes that reflected Asians negatively.
He’s currently on contract at Ace Studios, which is most likely the proxy for Paramount Pictures. When Raymond can’t get his own film off the ground, we follow as he’s assigned a film and uses that film to incorporate as much diversity as he possibly can. He pushes for diversity both behind the camera and in front of it. He gets a lot of push-back, which reveals the racism, sexism and homophobia in Hollywood and the country at large. What’s also revealed is the level of sexual harassment that was occurring in Hollywood. The casting couch was very much real, except in this series, it mostly was happening to young, attractive men.
Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory and The Normal Heart) co-stars as Henry Willson, the agent that helps to cast the movie that Raymond is making. He also rises to become a producer on the film, through some strong arm tactics. However, when it comes to the casting couch, he’s the king of sexual harassment. He was basically the gay Harvey Weinstein of the 40’s and 50’s. He was fierce and unapologetic. He was also quite vicious. His insults that he constantly threw at people were very sharp and biting. He was certainly a force of nature.
At first and probably for the majority of the series, Willson can be seen as a kind of villain or bad person, but it wasn’t that simple. On one hand, he’s probably the most homophobic person in all of this. Yet, at the same time, he’s also the biggest champion of gay people. He simply can’t see beyond the rules of the game. Arguably, he’s in the closet and he works to keep others in the closet. However, as a result of his tactics, plenty of gay men got chances to be actors in major motion pictures that they otherwise might not have, if the public knew of their homosexuality. He at once was afraid of the backlash but also could wield it as a weapon. What Murphy’s series presupposes is that what if that fear of the backlash wasn’t real or wouldn’t manifest if it were actually put to the test.
Tony Award winner Patti LuPone also stars as Avis Amberg, the wife of the man who runs Ace Studios. When her husband has a medical condition, she takes over and becomes the first woman to run a movie studio. She’s a person who is very much aware of the backlash that could come from allowing minorities like black people and gay people to take the spotlight or be given positions that make their identities known to the public. The struggle for her is if she’s going to succumb to those prejudices and bigotries or if she’s going to go a different way. Her role here is probably my favorite and LuPone’s performance is probably my favorite with her getting probably my favorite line of the whole series. Even though Parsons gets some delicious lines, in Episode 4, Avis angrily espouses, “You don’t keep Eleanor Roosevelt waiting.”
All the performances here are pretty incredible and pretty memorable in their own ways. I can’t go through them all. However, one of special note is that of Rob Reiner, who plays Ace Amberg, the husband to Avis and the head of Ace Studios. Those who know Reiner know that he was one of the cast of All in the Family (1971). He played opposite Carroll O’Connor as the iconic Archie Bunker. In several ways, Reiner’s character is very much akin to Archie Bunker if Archie Bunker ran a movie studio and it just seemed that Reiner was perhaps doing an homage to O’Connor in some of his early scenes.
Finally, one performance that most people might talk about is that of Jake Picking (Only the Brave and Patriots Day). Picking plays Rock Hudson, who is probably the most famous or most name-recognizable person depicted here on the male side. The most famous female character is probably Vivien Leigh, played by Katie McGuinness. However, it’s most likely anyone watching this series will walk away with an impression of Rock Hudson that will likely generate the most conversation, particularly in regard to his scenes opposite Parsons and Jeremy Pope, the young Broadway star from Choir Boy and Ain’t Too Proud. Hudson is a bit of the Sharon Tate equivalent here, and like Tarantino, Murphy seems most interested in making things right for Hudson, even if it’s within the confines of this series. It’s not only revisionist history. It’s a bit of a fairy tale, but, given the setting is La La Land, the place where fairy tales are made real, at least on screen, it only makes sense.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 7 eps.
Available on Netflix.