A Historical Perspective on Individuals Excluded During the Golden Age through Netflix’s Hollywood Series
Ryan Murphy’s 7-episode series, “Hollywood,” offers a glimpse into the secretive corners of what is often considered the golden age of cinema in America. It is a poignant and moving series that seeks to rewrite history and provide an alternate ending. Set in 1947-48, the show introduces fictional characters alongside real-life ones from the era, creating a sort of “what if” alternate universe. If you’ve seen Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” you’ll be familiar with this concept of alternate storytelling featuring added characters.
Netflix, with its unyielding focus on promoting ostracised groups that mainstream society, struggles to accept, seeks to normalize them in our lives. While this is an admirable goal, sometimes they miss the mark. As long as these characters’ appearances, beliefs, and stances align with the narrative, the audience won’t care. However, Hollywood has a history of manipulating characters and events for the wrong reasons. This show aims to rectify that.
Rather than merely interpreting the events in the series, I will delve into the characters’ basics, their stories, and the reality of what happened during that time period. I will also discuss the significance of the names referenced or implied throughout the show. Finally, I will attempt to distinguish how much of the series is rooted in truth versus fiction, divided into four themes that the show explores.
Let us delve briefly into the subject matter at hand. It is the late 1940s, or perhaps early 1948, and Hollywood is in its prime. The streets of Los Angeles are overflowing with aspiring actors and actresses who are struggling to make a name for themselves. Jack Castello is among them, spending each day eagerly awaiting outside the doors of Ace Pictures for a chance to become an extra. However, when his aspirations fail to come to fruition, he reluctantly accepts a job as a gas station attendant under Ernie, who had hired him without prior knowledge of Jack. As Jack embarks on his new job, he discovers that his place of work is more than just a gas station, and being in dire need of income, he finds himself becoming a gigolo for cash. Despite feeling ashamed of his job, Jack’s network begins to expand, and he inadvertently finds himself crossing paths with the crew of a movie that would change the course of Hollywood’s history, one by one.
“Hollywood,” as a show, may not be readily embraced by everyone, especially not in the country I currently reside in, and its derivatives. Even in 2023, the majority of its content may still be unsettling. However, I hold the utmost respect for those who do not resort to hurling insults or protesting with banners, or worse still, throwing Molotov cocktails at people’s homes, much like the events depicted in the show. You are not obligated to like anyone, but it is crucial that you do not inflict harm upon them or launch any attacks. So with that said, let us begin exploring the foundation of Hollywood and the dirt that lies beneath it.
Being a Woman in Hollywood
Hollywood’s golden era spanned from 1915 to 1960, with the period commencing with the release of “The Birth of a Nation,” directed by D.W. Griffith in 1915, and progressing steadily every year thereafter. Many movies that are now considered cult classics were produced during this time frame. Moreover, this period marked the development of women’s representation in cinema. In fact, women have played a significant role in the movie industry since its nascent stage. Women such as Alice-Guy Blache and Lois Weber held top positions in critical film companies, either directing or acting. Actresses were the primary attraction for moviegoers.
To the extent that in the early days of cinema, players’ names were not even featured on movie posters. This practice, however, was altered for D.W. Griffith’s frequent leading lady, Lillian Gish. As the viewers wondered who the woman on the screen was, the actresses’ names were gradually added to the films, and ads were created featuring them. For example, “Biography girl Lillian Gish!” Similarly, Florence Lawrence is considered the first movie star in cinema history, while Asta Nielsen is regarded as the first European star.
As the movie industry relocated from New York to Los Angeles and became more of a factory, women’s significance began to decrease. It would be optimistic to claim that it was not an intentional reduction. At the outset, Hollywood had numerous female screenwriters, with women winning the screenplay awards at the first few Academy Awards ceremonies. Frances Marion won the award for Best Writing in the third and fourth Academy Awards. However, during the growth of studios, women were relegated to the background. As depicted in the series, women were restricted to the role of homemakers, regardless of whose wives they were.
Nevertheless, women who were relegated to the kitchen were still the primary reason why viewers came to the cinema, but their viewership and earnings were never equivalent. This problem persists to this day. As men’s influence grew in the industry, they began to leverage it. Cecil B. DeMille made an explicit offer to aspiring actresses or writers who visited his office:
“If you make love to me on a bearskin in front of my fireplace, we’ll see your future.”(This is a fact-based impersonation)
The United States experienced its most dynamic years during wartime, as no foreign conflict ever touched American soil. Although the nation was remarkably industrious, claiming it was entirely free would be inaccurate. In 1934, the Hays Code was established, ushering in official censorship of films in America. This led to the enforcement of certain stereotypes, restrictions on the depiction of specific values, and a ban on unhappy endings. Between 1915 and 1945, women’s lives on screen and in real life were often interchangeable. Women were expected to constantly trail behind men, both in their daily lives and in films. This deeply ingrained understanding was so pervasive that even Avis, a mother who advocates for freedom, views her daughter as an object who should remain at home or get married. It takes her a while to realize how talented her daughter is and how much she cares about her family.
The studio portrayed in the series as Ace Pictures is believed to be Paramount, as the studio’s entrance and interior design shown in the series bear a striking resemblance to Paramount’s studios. Additionally, frames of Paramount’s contract actors, such as Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and Betty Grable, can be seen in the background. The series portrays Avis Amberg inheriting the company after Ace Amberg is hospitalized due to some misfortune. Naturally, when a company or any job is handed over to women, they tend to make bold decisions, as depicted in the series. Women holding high positions was uncommon at the time but not unheard of.
Mary Pickford was one of the most significant actresses of the pre-second-war era, and her salary was even higher than some men’s. She even co-founded the United Artists film company with three major names: Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith. However, exceptions like Pickford did not break the rule. Avis Amberg represents a beautiful dream that remained a rarity in reality. In fact, it took until 1980 for a woman to become the director of a major film company. Sherry Lansing was the first to earn this title as the director of 20th Century Fox, 32 years after the fictional Avis Amberg took over Ace Pictures. Interestingly enough, Sherry Lansing also came from an acting background.
While the series portrays Peg Entwistle, the movie’s main character they are struggling to shoot, as infamous for jumping down from the Hollywood sign, a closer examination of her story reveals a much deeper complexity. Peg was no ordinary individual; she had appeared in over 200 plays on Broadway and was renowned for her exceptional talent, so much so that Bette Davis aspired to be like her. In 1976, at the age of 17, Davis saw Peg perform on stage and was captivated by her performance.
Peg found herself caught in the middle of the famous Great Depression, and after losing hope in returning to Broadway, she set her sights on the silver screen. Unfortunately, the only film in which she appeared, Thirteen Women, was only released posthumously. The director of the film, David O. Selznick, who is mentioned in the series, decides to quit directing during the course of the show.
Peg’s depression was not solely the result of her failed career but also her personal life struggles. These issues were, unsurprisingly, related to a man. She had been deceived by a man and committed suicide at a young age, thinking that her aspirations would never come to fruition. In the note that she left before taking her own life, she wrote,
“I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.”
Being Black in Hollywood
The series asserts that a Black actor can’t succeed in Hollywood except conforming to specific stereotypes. Moreover, the series reveals that Black directors and producers are effectively excluded from the industry altogether. Despite the studios’ attempts to invoke the Hays Code as justification for their discriminatory practices, they were, in fact, rife with racism. After all, the roots of Hollywood are steeped in racism, as evidenced by “The Birth of a Nation”, a film that demonized Black people and marked the beginning of Hollywood’s golden age.
However, this does not mean that Black people are absent from the cinema or incapable of making films. In the pre-Hollywood era, a film company called Lincoln produced films featuring all-Black casts. Although the company managed to produce five films, only one has survived to this day. Unfortunately, due to racism and discriminatory laws, these films could only be screened in certain cinemas and institutions. The company was founded in 1916 by Noble Johnson but lasted only until 1921. Its existence proved that there was a demand for Black films, but as depicted in the series, it was exceedingly difficult to create them due to societal barriers.
Archie Coleman is a character who is acutely aware of the limitations imposed on him by his identity. Like many Black actors of the time, he had to endure a great deal of suffering. If they dared to exceed the boundaries imposed upon them, their homes would be attacked, and they would receive death threats over the phone. In the series, Archie defies societal norms by owning his script and openly acknowledging his homosexuality, and he even confronts society with his boyfriend. This is a tremendous feat for that period. Notably, Hattie McDaniel, the Oscar-winning actress whom we saw kissing Tallulah Bankhead in the series, may not have been gay in reality, as the show suggests. Perhaps, unlike the series, Hattie did not wish to endure the challenges of being both Black and gay.
“Follow your conscience and do what is right, for you will face criticism regardless.”Eleanor Roosevelt
This quote by Eleanor Roosevelt highlights the reality that individuals will be scrutinized regardless of their actions, emphasizing the importance of following one’s own moral compass. Similarly, the depiction of Hattie McDaniel’s experience at the Oscar ceremony in the show is incomplete. While she had stated that the officials did not allow her to attend the ceremony due to her race, the show overlooks the fact that Clark Gable, her co-star in the movie, stood up for her and threatened to make a scene if she was not allowed to attend. The show also uses this incident as a plot point for Camille, a character who encounters a similar situation and vows to follow in Clark Gable’s footsteps. However, unlike Camille, Hattie’s career did not flourish after her Oscar win, and she continued to receive minor roles except for a television show where she played the lead role from 1950 to 1952 before passing away.
One of the primary themes explored in the show is the constraint faced by individuals to conform to societal norms and expectations. Despite the support of many in the industry, black individuals still faced significant challenges due to economic and moral considerations. Some black individuals also internalized this constraint, exemplified by Archie’s character, who struggles to confront societal norms. However, Archie’s story resembles Oscar Devereaux Micheaux, the first black director in Hollywood who directed for Lincoln and made 44 films that highlighted the issue of racism. Oscar also authored seven novels, including one released in 1913 titled “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer,” which sold 1000 copies anonymously. The novel addressed America’s potential and the differences in lifestyle between urban and black individuals, with the protagonist’s name being Oscar Devereaux. In order for the book to gain readership, Oscar had to assume the identity of a white author. The topics that Oscar highlighted in his work, like Archie’s story in the show, are poignant and thought-provoking.
Through the assistance of Avis Amber and her team of supporters, “Meg” comes to fruition. In this world, the first-ever black screenwriter is nominated and awarded an Oscar, while Camille claims her rightful place as the first black leading actress in history. It is not a far-fetched dream that their film becomes a box office success. As mentioned earlier, there was significant interest in films featuring black actors during the Lincoln era, and a large audience eagerly awaited these movies.
However, no one was willing to take responsibility for them. The harsh truth is that Halle Berry was the first black woman to win the Best Actress award in 2002, while Jordan Peele was the first black person to win the Best Original Screenplay award in 2018. This is no laughing matter. In 1949, 20th Century Fox attempted to produce a film called “Pinky,” which revolved around the love story between a black nurse and a white man. Yet, due to external pressure, the lead role was given to the milky white Jeanne Crain, and the only black woman in the film was still a maid – a cruel irony indeed.
Being a Foreigner in Hollywood
At that time, Hollywood’s hypocrisy knows no bounds, and it’s particularly galling considering that immigrants built the foundation of America’s cinema culture. Despite this fact, many Hollywood insiders have been known to ignore their own identities and exclude Jews, Chinese, and other immigrants, catering instead to what they perceive as the most “American-feeling” audience. In reality, it was the Spaniards who laid the foundations of Hollywood, but it was the Jews who built the system and created the superheroes that have since become box-office sensations and symbols of nationalism. However, only recently have people begun to appreciate the values of these pioneers.
As the show highlights, being a foreigner in Hollywood was an uphill battle. Even mega-star Greta Garbo was excluded because she couldn’t speak proper English. For foreigners, finding roles beyond certain stereotypes was extremely difficult. Chinese actors, for example, were limited to coquettish female roles and were rarely cast as leads. Black actors were similarly restricted, with many only being offered roles as maids or fools. Anna May Wong was a prime example of this.
Despite being born in Los Angeles, she was treated as an outcast by later arrivals, and by the time we met her in the show, she had not acted in movies for nearly seven years. Her conversation with Dick and Archie highlights the truth behind the industry’s bias. For example, producer Irving Thalberg cast Luise Rainer in the lead role of “The Good Earth” because of Hays’ laws, which prohibited a Chinese woman from playing opposite a white man. Even when Anna May Wong was offered a role in the film, she refused to play the sultry woman because she couldn’t stomach her pride. As the show illustrates, simply appearing on screen and delivering even a single line was a significant accomplishment at the time. While Miyoshi Umeki became the first Chinese actress to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1957, no Chinese actress had yet won the award for Best Actress.
The recurring question “Where are you from?” in the series highlights the significant importance placed on one’s origins, as it was difficult to advance in Hollywood without powerful connections. Actors and actresses were often forced to alter their names and personalities to fit the Hollywood mold.
Being Gay in Hollywood
Identity has been a long-standing issue in Hollywood, and watching “Hollywood” may prompt the question, “Is everyone gay?” The answer is yes, most, if not all, were gay. The erasure of LGBTQ individuals from history is an unfortunate reality, but it does not negate the fact that Hollywood has always been a place filled with same-sex love and famous individuals dressing in drag at private parties. The series may seem like an exaggeration to some, but the majority of the characters and events are factual and accurate. For instance, Henry Willson was indeed gay and quite wishy-washy. Similarly, Rock Hudson was gay and had a boyfriend. Furthermore, the gas station featured in the series was an actual establishment!
The gas station scene is based on a real story detailed in Scotty Bowers’ 2012 book, “Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars.” Surprisingly, the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and King Edward VII were among the clients. Bowers, like Jack Castello in the series, moved to Los Angeles with dreams of making it big, only to end up working at a gas station. After a client propositioned him for sex in exchange for money, the gas station evolved into the underground sex club depicted in the show. Bowers claimed that approximately 90% of his clients were gay, and he wrote the book because everyone he mentions in it had already passed away and could no longer be offended.
Let us delve into George Cukor, one of the prominent directors of the renowned film, Gone With the Wind. The portrayal of the parties in the series is not a mere work of fiction; they did take place in reality. Although rumors circulated that Cukor was gay, there was no concrete evidence to prove such claims, just as they could not establish Dick Samuels’s sexual orientation on the show. Cukor would host extravagant parties during the day with women in attendance, and in the evenings, it would be the men’s turn. While some people assert that the parties were not as wild as depicted in the series, some sources affirm that they were indeed as raucous.
One of the guests at Cukor’s party was Tallulah Bankhead, an eccentric personality recognized for her extravagant lifestyle and open-minded approach to relationships, irrespective of gender. Despite her extraordinary vocal prowess, she tarnished her career due to her constant partying, addiction to alcohol, and other vices. As previously mentioned, it would not be surprising if she had a romantic affair with Hattie McDaniel, who also frequented Cukor’s parties, as did Vivien Leigh. The latter, she had known Cukor since 1931, when they worked together. Interestingly, Tallulah almost secured the role of Scarlet O’Hara, which ultimately went to Vivien Leigh.
Now, turning our attention to Henry Willson, according to Rock Hudson, he was a psychopathic talent agent who sadistically exploited his actors’ repressed sexual desires. Henry was, in fact, gay, and his partner, Junior, really died in a fatal car accident. He then took out his frustrations on his actors. Although he was a successful talent scout, and some of the actors he brought to Hollywood were gay, his most significant contribution was Rock Hudson.
If you found Jake Picking’s portrayal of him in the series wanting, that means he made astonishing acting. Henry transformed a physically weak man into a perfect man for the time. As depicted in the series, Rock Hudson was gay, but he never revealed his sexual orientation publicly. It was only when he was terminally ill with HIV that his sexuality became public knowledge. For years, the actor kept his homosexuality a secret for fear of harming his career. Rock, who could not escape Henry’s clutches until 1960, referred to him as someone who treated his actors like toys to fulfill his sexual desires. Ironically, nobody wanted to work with Henry after discovering he was gay. However, it was not because of his sexuality; instead, they did not want to be objectified. Henry also succumbed to alcohol and drug abuse, which ultimately contributed to his death.
Let us delve deeper into the life of Rock Hudson, whose career commenced in 1948. During the testing phase for his first movie, “Fighter Squadron,” he had to repeat the shoot 38 times, just as depicted in the series. Despite the persistent burden of his repressed sexual identity, Hudson steadily progressed toward success over time without ever relinquishing his true self. To remove any possibility of his identity becoming public knowledge, Willson arranged a marriage between Hudson and his secretary, Phyllis Gates, although it did not last long. Hudson had a male partner in the 1960s and possibly even in the 1940s, and he attended the Oscars with him. However, they were not able to walk hand in hand, as portrayed in the series. Hudson even confessed his love for this person in his self-written biography.
Returning to the fundamental question at hand, are all individuals gay? Although there have always been same-sex relationships throughout history, as previously mentioned, they have had to remain concealed for the most part, except for certain instances. While there have been some bold exceptions, they do not negate the rule. For instance, in 1895, Dickson, one of Edison’s operators, produced a movie called “The Gay Brothers” before the Lumiere brothers premiered their films. During that period, men were not recognized as queer; instead, they were generally referred to as effeminate. There was not even an adjective for women. Nonetheless, the people who viewed this movie, as it stands, were astounded!
Similar to pre-Hollywood black individuals, gays could appear in films and were frequently portrayed as comical characters. The first lesbian movie, “A Florida Enchantment,” is an example of this. The phrase “sissy,” uttered by Henry Willson in the series, was coined during this period. Subsequently, during the Great Depression, when the number of films dwindled, some producers attempted to include homosexuals in their movies to shock the audience. However, this ploy had a detrimental effect. Up until that point, gay characters, like black people, who were able to find a place on the screen, were erased through Hays laws. Although there was no direct stance against homosexuality in the Hays laws, some individuals exploited the law as a tool, transformed gay characters into foes, likewise black people, and introduced new labels, such as sick, sadistic, anti-social, and psychopath.
Let us return to our central inquiry once more: Is everyone homosexual? The character of Joel Cairo in the acclaimed film-noir, “The Maltese Falcon” was homosexual. However, his sexuality was not explicitly portrayed in the movie. In William Wyler’s stage adaptation of “The Children’s Hour,” the story centers around a heterosexual relationship. Yet, in the original play, two women are accused of having a romantic affair. Film critics have praised the removal of the lesbian storyline from the adaptation, arguing that the revised version was more successful. Now, do you understand why many people assume that LGBTQ individuals are a new phenomenon? This is because, like all marginalized communities, their stories have been silenced.
A Happier Way
“Hollywood” is a much more intricate and multifaceted world than we see on the silver screen. It is analogous to the inner world of an individual. There are more stories behind the sets than what meets the eye on the screen – those who compromise their integrity to achieve success, those who chase opportunities, those who hold others back, and those who must conceal their identity and thoughts. Nowadays, there are more opportunities to be open and truthful. However, still, numerous individuals think only of their wealth and strive for power. But in the past, it was nearly impossible for individuals to express their opinions. Their desires and ideas could only be explored in seclusion, among a select few, or on obscure backstreets. Ryan Murphy created a series exploring what would happen if the Pandora’s Box of Sexuality found the courage to emerge. The result is a path that is aesthetically and emotionally pleasing. It is difficult not to be moved by the conclusion.
The central focus of this discourse is the persistent nature of social problems that require active efforts to be resolved. The proposition that viewers would not watch movies featuring black actors is invalid, as thousands would watch such films, and through continuous exposure, viewers will become accustomed to it and return to cinemas. Despite objections, Netflix has continued to feature LGBTQ characters in its productions, and while critics may complain, they still consume its originals.
Therefore, the idea that things would have been different if they had been done rather than excusing inaction is a compelling notion. Although obstacles will always exist, progress can be made by working together. The concept of supply and demand is frequently misconstrued, as producers control the industry, not the consumers. While thousands of people may say they do not want to see LGBTQ characters on screen, they still watch Netflix’s programming because they consume what producers offer.
“Hollywood” is a heartwarming series, and as previously stated, it presents a fictitious alternate universe. All individuals have the right to be respected, even if they are not well-liked. No one should be excluded from appearing on the big screen simply because of their race or ethnicity. Personal prejudices must not impede others’ dreams.
In conclusion, let us embrace love and respect for all.
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