Ryan Murphy's Hollywood Babylon
In Cheryl Dunye’s New Queer Cinema touchstone The Watermelon Woman, documentary filmmaker/video store clerk “Cheryl Dunye” finds herself bouncing back and forth between an increasingly tumultuous love affair with a white woman and various film and queer archives, looking to fill out the history of Fae Richards, an actress in the 1930s who, while forced to play “mammy” roles, garnered the moniker “The Watermelon Woman”, being only credited with that derogatory title and not her name. At the Lesbian Herstory Archives, she rifles through photos of Richards, the camera catching the thrill in her eyes and the pounding pulse in her neck: she is finding a story and a life of Hollywood, of blackness, of lesbianness, of cinema that few were interested in. It is, in no uncertain terms, a revelation.
Only, it’s not real. Fae Richards isn’t real, nor were the films she “starred” in. Dunye’s film, sidestepping wish fulfillment, instead asks the audience about how we engage with our past, especially when the histories of marginalized people have been erased or suppressed systematically and institutionally. It’s not just fun fantasy, but a question of who tells those stories, what their ultimate meaning is, and how they can force us to confront the uncomfortable truths of the past and their lingering consequences.
And that could have been what Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee, American Horror Story, et al., and Ian Brennan tried to do: ask probing questions about how institutional power operates, what the meaning of screen representation is within a larger political context, what politics means in its knottiness in an industry that exists under capitalism. But, instead, in Hollywood, Murphy’s second venture for Netflix after The Politician, he spoon feeds us a fantasy so single-minded and one-dimensional, the tinsel of tinseltown has more depth.
As much shit as I talk about TV queenpin Ryan Murphy, I still retain enough interest in his work to want to watch it. I mean, his badness is the thing about him — about queer art, about queerness, about culture — which fascinates me; he is a barometer of what queerness in the 21st century is or might look like (or is supposed to look like) unto himself. Is it unfair to designate him with such a role? Rather, from Glee to Pose, it’s a mantle he’s actively sought, to be corporate woke king and catty white gay man, should the two ever meet.
The conveniently tiny world of Hollywood allows all of its stars — aspiring actor and part time hustler Jack (David Corenswet), aspiring half-Filipino director Raymond (Darren Criss), aspiring Black and white ingenues Camille (Laura Harrier) and Claire (Samar Weaving), wife to the studio head Avis (Patti LuPone, who is fine), soon to be Rock Hudson (Jake Picking), Black gay screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope), studio execs Dick (Joe Mantello) and Ellen (Holland Taylor), Scotty Bowers-esque pimp Ernie (Dylan McDermott), and lecherous agent Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons) — to align so easily, you’d think someone dragging it up as Walter Mercado had forecasted it. Ace Studios, as a factory within a sort-of real industry in the late 1940s, soon becomes an epicenter for the series’ trajectory to shift from “adjacent history” to “revisionist history”. Archie’s penned a Peg Entwistle biopic, on her inability to penetrate a star machine and her subsequent suicide jumping off the H in the Hollywoodland sign, a script whose veracity becomes rewritten so rapidly that not even the Tumblr fanfic from which this was adapted can load fast enough.
As executive decisions are made to get the film on track, the momentum of the show frequently comes to a screeching halt with exposition about the time period or name drops that function less as texture to the world and more like cocktail party brags. The real issues of racism, homophobia, misogyny, and Anti-Semitism take a backseat to wish fulfillment that is ludicrous, not because of its aspirations to “give people a happy ending” (people like Anna May Wong [Michelle Krusiec], Rock Hudson, etc), but because of the condescension with which it is presented. Fantasy and fairy tale aren’t bad things in their own right, but the way in which these ideas are contextualized and articulated matters; as opposed to thoughtful interrogations of the roots of these various forms of bigotry, personal and systematic, Murphy makes the ideological battle more of a light scuffle. There’s no activism in this world, no Communism, no unions, no labor disputes, no real and tough engagement with the scars of exclusion or marginalization that Hollywood as a system was complicit in. Sex work is scandalous and regrettable, a vapid performance for pleasure, not a more complicated intersection of body, sex, labor, agency, and illusion. Ace Studios doesn’t really have a history, and its placement in the industry is amorphous and rootless. There is barely any texture to this world, just a glossy shot of perseverance, or something. There’s no humans either. Just, like, mostly nice people deciding to do the right thing.
The show’s ideology and ethos is definitively not intricate, nor are its characters. They’re all good people who rarely have to make hard decisions, and if they do, they’re swept away breezily. The characters of color on the show are good people too, or you have Anna May Wong who walks around as a resident martyr of Orientalism, and does effectively nothing else. These aren’t so much people as they are paper dolls for the fantasy, devoid of much interiority or humanity or depth. It’s like cosplaying Old Hollywood in third grade with your diverse theater class. Even as far as fantasies go, it’s more PSA than movie (well, miniseries) magic, and just as hokily assembled.
Hollywood isn’t really interested in much else but itself. It’s wildly incurious about the secret histories of Tinseltown, however inconvenient or strange or nuanced they may be. It is also apparently uninterested in the hard work that progressivism and its results take — Murphy’s not even interested in the complex politics that surround his characters or the political landscape they inhabit. But Hollywood does operate interestingly in one way: Next to his best work The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, it might be his most autobiographical work (so far). It’s his own hagiography, a self-congratulatory show about self-congratulatory people making a self-congratulatory film about self-congratulatory people. It is about its own mythmaking. In this Escher-esque maze of ego, the show imagines that screen representation is the be-all, end-all of praxis, of politics itself. And it’s only possible with people like “him.” There to anoint new stars and talent, even bestow a redemption narrative on a sexual predator (because the car crash that killed his lover made Jim Parsons a lecherous monster). And how progressive can you really be if one’s values have so little depth beyond “Hollywood is bad, but what if it wasn’t” fabulism?
This, of course, excludes art on the margins, outside of larger systems and industries, that are made by communities that want to challenge conventional and hegemonic notions of taste, style, authorship, and form. What would become of that art in this world? Would it cease to have value, or cease to exist altogether, as Hollywood basically purveys an assimilation for all framework, thereby still fundamentally misunderstanding the problems of white supremacy, patriarchy, and other forms of systemic oppression. Outsider identity becomes a quest to become an insider. And it doesn’t even understand or question that or consider its implications.
It pains me to sarcastically describe the show as “woke” in such a dismissive manner, because I truly believe the stories of people of color, queer people, and other marginalized folks, are worth telling; but for Murphy, they feel like half-written decorations on a show that still pays more focus to its white and white passing characters. Its heart, wherever it is, is “in the right place”, but it’s not enough. It conflates “standing up to bullies” with deep rooted bigotry and oppression that are entrenched in the history of the United States, only to then do little to ensure its characters are detailed enough to make us truly believe they’re living, breathing beings. For a seven-episode, six hour series, how is it that, in spite of dialogue that allows no subtlety or gradation in character, instead having each word land like an anvil, the lives of Archie, Camille, and Anna still feel so threadbare?
What I resent most of all is being treated like an idiot throughout the show. Yeah, yeah, any press is good press, anything that encourages someone young to seek out Shanghai Express is awesome, or whatever, and one shouldn’t need to have seen All That Heaven Allows to get the show; but do I need Holland Taylor explaining a Mid-Atlantic Accent to me? Or Rob Reiner the Hays Code? Literally explaining it. It’s a show that wants to embody and imbue in its audience a politics of rainbow happiness and how movies can change the world, but has so little faith in its own audience’s ability to cultivate a perspective and political consciousness, a point of view about history and fame and art, of their own. Hollywood is a show that wears its wokeness irredeemably and unimaginatively, like pageantry, dismissive of nuances of progressive politics, instead seeing it as a vehicle for flat message pictures concocted for awards. Unlike Dunye’s work, or the cinema of a melange of outsiders, Hollywood is as flat as the big screen it claims to love, its righteousness as impermanent and illusory as the light that shines on it.