(Warning: This post contains spoilers for Netflix’s “Hollywood” through the finale.)
“And they all lived happily ever after” is a pretty fair assessment of the conclusion to Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix limited series “Hollywood.” And that includes the fictional versions of real-life Tinseltown residents like heartthrob movie star Rock Hudson and Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, who were depicted in the seven-part show. These made-up happy endings, which include the famously closeted Hudson’s decision to come out and openly date another man, and Wong’s Oscar win, shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that “Hollywood” was heavily promoted as Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan’s rewrite of 1940s Hollywood.
And yet those joyful moments do surprise us, because the level of revisionist history within the show’s finale brings us to fairytale conclusions that are hard to accept — not just for viewers, but for the people who wrote them.
“We were breaking that episode in the writers’ room and we kept choosing the happy choice, the right choice,” Murphy told TheWrap of the finale, titled “A Hollywood Ending.” That episode saw the fictional film”Meg” not only actually make it to the screen, but become a box office success, and sweep the 1948 Academy Awards, garnering the Best Picture honor and Oscars for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay, which were all given to minorities (and one to a member of the LGBT community), who very much deserved them.
“And we kept saying, well, shouldn’t something bad happen now? And you know what? We keep asking ourselves that because we have been indoctrinated to that kind of storytelling, where if something good happens for a gay person, a black person, a woman, we expect the boot to come down and [for] them to be given their comeuppance and have that good thing taken away,” the “American Horror Story” mastermind continued. “There’s so many decades of storytelling that fit that mold. So we just become desensitized to anything other than that. We would have that conversation in the writers’ room ourselves and say, ‘OK, well, this is where the bad thing should happen.’ And I would say ‘No, nothing bad should happen. They should win everything. They should have a happy ending. They should get everything that’s coming to them.’ And we would say, ‘Well, can we tell that story?’ And I was, like, ‘Yeah, I have final cut. We’re doing this.’ So it was a process.”
Brennan remembers this process all too well, describing it as “the actual turning point of the show.”
“In my experience, it’s really rare to start out writing one show and suddenly you stumble onto something very different that you prefer and it’s much better,” Brennan said. “But we really started out thinking it was going to skew a little closer to what would have happened. And our focus was a little bit different. It was a little bit less inspirational and less positive, really, because we wanted to really highlight the power inequality of that era, which is still around in our era. And the bad behavior, the sort of #MeToo of it all, that was happening then and is just now coming to light 60 years later. And the characters were all still there, it was all the same premise. But we reached that point where it was, ‘OK, the movie is going to get made, but they’re going to find out Archie is black, he’s going to get thrown off the movie, his name is going to be taken away from it, he’ll be given a $500 fee and his work will be stolen. And they’ll slap some white contract player’s name on it. And a black girl is going to be able to audition, but she’s not going to get the part, she’s going to get the part of the maid.’ We knew that’s what we were starting on. And those were one of the reasons we even wanted to write about it was to tell those stories.”
But one day, midway through shooting Murphy just “smelled it,” Brennan said.
“We finished the third episode, the big party, and he just posed the question, ‘Are we missing a trick here? Do we have a chance to do a much more interesting show? What if the movie does get made? What if the black girl does get the part?’ And as soon as he posed that question, the answer was revealed. The answer was, of course we should do that. It was suddenly, like, the show we didn’t know we were writing just sort of came and smacked us on the ass. And all of a sudden we just made that choice and it was like the sky opened up and it felt like the show had a higher purpose. No, this is the story we should be telling. And what kind of felt very downtrodden because we were hitting walls of inequality and exclusion and exploitation, we just flipped it and said, why do we have to do it? Why does that have to happen? Why can’t something else happen? And then it just came flying out from then on.”
And this change included giving happy endings to not just “Hollywood’s” fictional creations, like Raymond (Darren Criss), Archie (Jeremy Pope) and Camille (Laura Harrier), but also its fictional takes on Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) and Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec).
“With Rock, to me it was just the sadness of being as big a star as ever existed and asked to live a total lie the whole time,” Brennan said. “To be known around the world and for nobody to know the first thing about you. To me that seemed quite lonely and with all those secrets and the subterfuge and image-making, that seemed like something we wanted to redeem. And the same thing with Anna May Wong. A spectacular, spectacular actress who by all rights should be a household name, who should have been as well-known as Vivien Leigh or Greta Garbo and wasn’t and just the talent that was wasted, it just seemed you wanted to give the happy ending to redeem her. And that’s why those two stories stood out to us. And, again, I don’t know if Anna May Wong looked back on her life and saw what that was, I suspect she really did. She ended up, I think she was managing apartment buildings, she was like a super at an apartment building she invested in, smartly, but that was the end of her Hollywood story. That seemed so tragic to me. And we wanted a happy ending for her.”
For Krusiec, Wong’s Oscar win in the series was a personal win for the Taiwanese-American actress as well.
“It felt right to me,” Krusiec told TheWrap. “It felt like they were rewriting history in a way that felt meaningful. And quite honestly, I thought to myself, this might be the only time I ever get an Oscar. So when I took that scene, I really went for it because it really is a Hollywood dream for most people, but then you layer on all the challenges that people of color and women and now, being over 40, that I am constantly facing, the idea of it paying off in the end and all your dreams coming true, that feels so far away now. In my 20s, I just thought, ‘Yeah, of course, it’s possible. Anything’s possible.’ But as you become older and hipper to systemic racism and you see exactly what the system truly looks like, you realize that there might be a place for you, but most likely there isn’t. You have to find your pot of gold. When the writing team wrote that, this is the one shot where Anna May does get to have her visibility. And that seemed like it needed to happen. If it hadn’t happened in the show, I think we would’ve really missed an opportunity to right that particular wrong.”
Despite the happy endings for Rock Hudson, who gets to openly date a man, his (fictional) love Archie, and Anna May Wong, who gets her rightful credit for an actress of her caliber, one wrong that does not get righted is the story of Hattie McDaniel (played by Queen Latifah), who was the first person of color to win an Oscar when she grabbed a Best Supporting Actress win for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” But her real-life victory wasn’t the glamorous moment that we get to see fellow African Americans Camille and Archie have when they take the Oscars stage in “Hollywood,” as McDaniel wasn’t even allowed to sit in the room on the night she won. However, its McDaniel’s encouragement that prompts Camille to stand her ground and demand to be allowed into the ceremony to take her rightful place among the other nominees.
“We found this interesting combination with telling this aspirational, affirming story without necessarily diminishing the high stakes and the trauma and the struggles that these people had to go through at that time,” said Janet Mock, who was a writer, director and executive producer on the series. “So it’s very much a period piece about the time and the struggle during that time, but at the same time, we try to infuse it with these little ‘what if?’ moments. These little moments of luck, these little moments of advocacy that allow these characters in their lives to flourish and their dreams to actually come true.”
Of course, dreams are fulfilled in many different ways and happy endings come in all shapes and sizes. So when it came to the conclusions of Jack (David Corenswet) and Claire’s (Samara Weaving) story, their fairytale conclusion wasn’t about winning an award or their careers at all, it was about each other.
“I think it’s one of my favorite parts of the character’s arc,” Corenswet told us. “I think it’s so right that he doesn’t win [Best Supporting Actor] and that he takes it in stride. A great character, I think, always starts wanting one thing and then at the end they don’t change what they want, they just realize that what they wanted wasn’t actually what they wanted. And in a comedy — as opposed to a tragedy — which this definitely is, the character realizes that all along what they were really looking for was this other thing. And that other thing is usually simpler and more about other people. And so in Jack’s case, he says at the beginning, ‘I wanna do something that matters.’ And to him what matters are these big things on the big screens that he saw in his small town, that make him feel like life has meaning. So that’s what he wants to go and do, he wants to be one of those actors. And along that journey, he takes a lot of sharp left turns where he realizes that getting to his idea of success is gonna take so much out of him and necessitate so many moral compromises he sort of loses sight of why he wanted to get there in the first place.”
“So when he loses the Oscar, it’s the final moment of realization… what he realizes is that those people up on screen who matter so much to him, they don’t know that they’re mattering to him,” he continued. “The people they know that they matter to are their family and their co-stars, their collaborators — the people who are counting on them day to day. And so, while it’s really important that Jeremy’s character and Laura’s character and Anna May Wong, Michelle’s character, in those moments, it really matters that they win so that those people watching at home, listening at home, feel represented and feel like their stories are important, for Jack, it’s really most important that he realizes that what he was looking for all along, he already has now, which is a family and people who rely on him and trust him and who he can take care of in a sense. And the first realization of that comes in Archie and Raymond and Claire and Avis [Patti LuPone], all of these people who have become his second family in Los Angeles. And then in the final moment of realizing what he really wants to do is have a family and commit to a family and that’s why he proposes to Claire, because she’s the one who he sees himself being able to have a family with.”
Claire, the spoiled daughter of Avis and Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner) thinks she wants to be the star, but ends up taking a backseat in the least selfish of ways and is rewarded with genuine love from Jack and her newfound friends — and most importantly, really, her mother.
“At the beginning her moral compass is definitely aimed at herself, and she has a sort of tunnel vision of complete ambition to prove herself as a worthy actress. She really wants to be a star,” Weaving told us. “And I think she’s so overly confident, which I think stems from a little bit of neglect from her parents. Even though they are the head of he studio and her mother is a silent film actress, they don’t want her around the business or have anything to do with the business. They just want her to get married and settle down. And they sort of ignore her and call her quite nasty things, and she calls them names right back. Over the course of the show, I think that the relationship with her mother and her relationship– she’s very intimidated by Camille, and I think their relationship, even though their sort of like frenemies, she does learn a lot about herself and perhaps how naive and selfish she has been. And her priorities start to shift and her heart comes out and you realize she is a vulnerable young woman.”
If you’re still finding it hard to swallow the happy endings “Hollywood” offers up to those of us living in this cruel and often unfair world, Pope has an explanation that might help you come to terms with (almost) everyone getting what they wanted in Murphy’s universe.
“It’s always, or can feel like, an uphill climb when you are reaching those moments of success and breaking barriers,” he said. “Going back to the Hattie McDaniel story, she could be the first black woman to have the Oscar, but then I do the research and all of these little bad things had to happen for it to come to pass. And I think you’re waiting for that impact where you’re like, how long is this going to be a hopeful and inspiring ride before reality sets in and they shut down everything and no one wins? But in our story we don’t do that. And I just think that’s what drew me to the story and I’m so fortunate to be a part of it.
“We’re talking about the Golden Age era, this lovable time when things were glamorous and it was just very specific how they were making movies. But we weren’t seeing women in power and queer people and black people at the helm of these things. So to revise that and give them their things, give them their awards, give them their moment, give them the opportunity, you don’t realize how impactful that would have been. We’re talking about the ‘what if’ — but what if they had greenlit just one movie where the lead actress was a black woman and what that would have done for the world and the industry itself? And I love that we go through that exploration. We show you all of the great, beautiful moments that could have happened with that.”