Television uber-producer Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story,” “9-1-1”) made a truly great series about old Hollywood. But that was 2017’s “Feud” — about the rivalry between legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford — not “Hollywood,” which starts streaming Friday on Netflix.
“Hollywood” is a big, sprawling, gorgeous mess. The costumes, sets and 1940s feel are amazing. But while “Feud” was based on real events, “Hollywood” is an odd mishmash of fact and fantasy, and the fantasy elements end up crushing the narrative.
“The movies hawk an image of wholesome American virtue, right?” one character says in the second of seven episodes. “The folks making those movies — rotten to the core.”
Oooh, that sounds interesting, right? But what begins with some promise collapses under its own weight.
The cast is huge, but the focus is on several newcomers trying to climb the ladder to fame and fortune. If you have any trouble figuring that out, they’re literally climbing ladders in the opening credits.
Jack (David Corenswet) is a gorgeous, talentless hunk who wants to be a star. He’s got a pregnant wife he doesn’t love, and he’s staying afloat financially and trying to get ahead by prostituting himself. And one of his clients is Avis (Patti LuPone), the wife of the head of a big studio.
(Yes, “Hollywood” is full of nudity, sex scenes and a whole lot of crude language.)
Archie (Jeremy Pope) is a gay, black screenwriter who’s also going the gigolo route. He gets involved with another hunky, untalented wannabe star, Roy (Jake Picking), who soon has his name changed to Rock Hudson. Raymond (Darren Criss) is a half-Filipino director who loves Archie’s script — and Raymond wants to cast his black girlfriend, Camille (Laura Harrier), in the lead.
It’s the 1940s, however, and Hollywood is wildly racist and forces gays deep into the closet. And “Hollywood” includes fact-based pathos. The story of how Asian American actress Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) lost the lead in “The Good Earth” to white actress Luise Rainer — who won an Oscar for playing a Chinese woman — is real.
One of the things that made “Feud” great was its focus on how women were treated by the movie industry. But just when you think “Hollywood” might do the same with women, minorities and gays, it takes off on a flight of fantasy in which the oppressed start winning.
That, of course, didn’t happen in 1940s Hollywood. And I shudder to think that younger generations who aren’t familiar with names like Rock Hudson, Anna May Wong, Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel, Irving Thalberg, Henry Wilson, Hedda Hopper and Eleanor Roosevelt — real people portrayed in “Hollywood” — will think it did.
“Hollywood” is part of Murphy’s massive five-year deal with Netflix — estimated at up to $300 million. He pretty much gets to produce whatever he wants.
The drawbacks to that are obvious in “Hollywood.”
“Upload” (Amazon Prime, starts streaming Friday) • This comedy comes to us from Greg Daniels (“Parks and Recreation,” “The Office,” “King of the Hill”), but don’t get your hopes up. It’s not in the same league as any of those shows.
It’s set in the near future when people who haven’t got long to live can have their consciousness uploaded into the virtual afterlife of their choice. “Upload” revolves around Nathan (Robbie Amell), who died in a self-driving car accident — or was he murdered?
It’s not bad, but it’s pretty forgettable.
“Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” (HBO, Tuesday, 7 p.m.) • Natalie Wood made her first Hollywood movie at the age of 4; her movies included “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Splendour in the Grass” and “West Side Story”; and she drowned at the age of 43 under circumstances that remain controversial.
Almost four decades later, her death overshadows her amazing life and career, and this 99-minute documentary — which premiered at Sundance back in January — tries to remedy that. Documentarian Laurent Bouzereau works with Wood’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, who speaks with an amazing array of Hollywood legends and family members, including Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Dyan Cannon, Elliott Gould, George Segal, Jill St. John, George Hamilton and both of Wood’s husbands, Robert Wagner and Richard Gregson.
It doesn’t ignore Wood’s death — Gregson Wagner interviews her stepfather, Robert Wagner, about what happened the night her mother disappeared from a yacht anchored off Catalina and drowned.
But “What Remains Behind” reminds us of why Wood was a star, and why her death was so shocking.