A couple of weeks ago, HBO aired the final episode of The Plot Against America, David Simon and Ed Burns’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel in which Charles Lindbergh runs against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 on an “America First” platform—and wins. Writing about the miniseries in the New York Times,A. O. Scott noted that “there is a lot of what-if in the air these days, as the notion of multiple timelines migrates from science fiction into more conventionally realistic narratives.” Quentin Tarantino, Scott argued, “got there first.” In 2009, Inglourious Basterds had Hitler machine-gunned down in the summer of 1944, and ten years later, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood saw an actor and a stuntman put a stop to Charles Manson’s spaced-out surrogates before they could murder Sharon Tate. “Tarantino,” wrote Scott, “in spite of his taste for nihilistic violence, has become a leading purveyor of happy endings and lucky breaks, a master of upbeat what-iffery.”
Once Upon a Time is name-checked in more than a few reviews of Hollywood, the new Netflix miniseries cocreated by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, the team behind Glee (2009) and The Politician (2019). This latest exercise in “upbeat what-iffery” imagines a dream factory in the late 1940s called Ace Studios, which, as Alexis Soloski puts it in the NYT, “looks like Paramount Pictures, walks like MGM, and green-lights pictures more progressive than any the Golden Age birthed.” The project at the heart of Hollywood is Meg, a movie based on the true story of Peg Entwistle, an actress who leapt to her death from the fifty-foot-tall letter H in the Hollywoodland sign in 1932. But in Meg, written by a black and gay screenwriter, directed by an aspiring half-Filipino filmmaker, and starring an up-and-coming black actress, there’s a happy ending. “The bid to make [this] movie starts as a glitzy, funny, gimlet-eyed dissection of bigotry and power,” writes the NYT’s James Poniewozik. “Then it lurches, halfway through, into a pep talk about what some kids can accomplish if they gather up their moxie and put on a show.”
Most Hollywood reviewers have enjoyed the evocation of a glamorous era—the costumes in particular are repeatedly singled out—and at the A.V. Club, Jacob Oller grants that the series is “engrossing throughout and its optimism is undeniably winning.” But he also wouldn’t disagree with the Ringer’s Alison Herman, who finds that there’s “an unearned triumphalism to presenting 2020 values as the solution to the ills of the 1940s.” For Slate’s Sam Adams, what “rankles about Hollywood’s faux-progressive past isn’t the vision of a more equitable, more just society, but the ease with which it’s achieved . . . It’s an inadvertent but stinging rebuke to the trailblazers who struggled and sacrificed to win partial victories against almost impossible odds, even if the compromises they reached might now seem unacceptable.” In the New Republic,Philippa Snow simply finds Hollywood “too toothless, too airily bloodless, and too nice to leave much of an impression.”
Beyond the reviews, the miniseries has prompted several critics to put together a cluster of guides that fall into two categories. First, there are the primers on the real-life players portrayed as either slightly, or as in the case of Rock Hudson, radically fictionalized versions of themselves. Turn to Kristin Hunt at Vulture and to Cady Lang and Anna Purna Kambhampaty in Time to read about what Hudson, his agent Henry Willson, Anna May Wong, Hattie McDaniel, George Cukor, Tallulah Bankhead, Noël Coward, and others were actually up to during the Hollywood years.
In the second category, we have suggestions for further viewing. Gwen Ihnat at the A.V. Club and Adam Nayman at the Ringer have drawn up annotated lists that include documentaries such as Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein’s The Celluloid Closet (1995) and fictional features anchored in deeper and danker waters than Hollywood: Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), for example, or Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). The Big Knife (1955) “features slumped, alcoholic movie stars, scabrous gossip columnists, and reptilian tycoons, all of whom pop off the screen under Robert Aldrich’s expertly energetic direction,” offers Nayman.
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