Ryan Murphy’s ‘Hollywood’ Review: A Riotous, Reflective, and Risqué Revision

Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood transports viewers back to a post-World War II Tinseltown and all the trumpets, trombones, and cigarette smoke-infested lounges that went with it. But, don’t forget the racism, homophobia, and misogyny directing the production. 

Hollywood sign
Hollywood sign | Alan Band/Keystone/Getty Images

Hollywood is a revisionist show: a period piece that reimagines the golden age of cinema with a black screenwriter, a female studio head, and an out and proud Rock Hudson. And they’re all trying to make a movie in a town unwilling to sacrifice its status quo led by businessmen focused on fiscal sense, not a social revolution. It’s art versus money — a sea change amid stagnation. The show reminds us that the marginalization of all those who do not fit within white, heteronormative shackles still exists, but begs to ask what if? What if art — responsible for shaping life as much as life shapes it — took a stand ages ago? 

What if Hollywood, with all its glamour and influence, removed the rose-tinted glasses that lead to fake names and faker origin stories, and revealed the truth — that those pushed to the fringes have always had a story worth telling. 

The cinematography and dialogue echo the filmic transition occurring at the time

The dialogue is a bit too witty — a bit beyond realism. The combative nature inherent to an intense conversation is matched with a camera that comes in for the close-up, just as it did when Norma Desmond descended her staircase in Sunset Boulevard. There’s Dylan McDermott’s Ernie— a sly and seductive smooth-talker — who knows how to sell himself, and others on a dream. He is an idea of a man, a caricature: a man we all believe exists because of Hollywood.

There’s a subtle air of exaggeration defining the production as if echoing the show’s setting. It’s the end of the silent movie era (and all its grand gestures) and the beginning of “naturalism,” an acting technique Holland Taylor’s Ellen Kincaid must teach. The show, like the period itself, is situated between both artistic approaches, bringing yesteryear front and center via narrative and cinematics. In this approach, Murphy captures the glamour without glamorizing. He captures the misfortune without melodramatizing. 

Murphy captures Hollywood — when cheating was a fact of life, not a faux pas — in a way that feels real despite the unbelievable premise. The show is an exhibition, and such remains true in the moments that are supposed to be our most natural: the sex scene. 

Murphy is a master of the sex scene 

Murphy’s sex scenes — whether between man and woman, woman and woman, or man and man — are arousing on both the mental and physical fronts. His sex scenes retain a tinge of performance: an air of perfection and compatibility not always existent, yet always desired. The sex is slightly too romantic. It’s slightly too arousing. And like everything else in Hollywood back then, it’s not entirely real. 

The words chosen in each sex scene — expressing love, understanding, or even fear  — are not “heat of the moment” words, but carefully picked expressions. 

Like the rest of the show, even the sex carries an air of drama, turning us on, but reminding us that even the most intimate moment between two people is still an act — just a great one at that. 

The characters in ‘Hollywood’ fight one battle, as the actors stealing the spotlight fight another 

Though taking a swing at the revisionist tale Tarantino is known for, Murphy’s Hollywood remains ever-relevant, as the idea of passing comes to the surface for a white and Asian director (who looks fully white). The show highlights the limited roles for black women and minority groups in Hollywood, which remains an issue today. And, as the characters fight these battles, Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor are fighting another…and winning. 

Holland Taylor and Patti LuPone shine in Hollywood. When they enter the scene, they seize it. LuPone carries an air of dignity and sophistication suited to her character Avis, who is aiming to break the bounds of her housebound existence and claim her right to the studio she can lead better than her husband. Taylor plays an older woman looking for (and deserving of) love who still knows how to spot and shape talent. She is a woman with an opinion that others deeply value.

Murphy — as he did with Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates in American Horror Story — places older women in positions of power. In saucy and seductive scenes. In commanding moments. Just because they are over 50 does not mean they have nothing to give. And, it does not mean they have ceased to live — and live with all the facets of life that Hollywood — once upon a foregone time — decided the young own the rights to. Well, Murphy has had it with such a standard, so as the show’s narrative reminds viewers that art shapes life, Murphy is aiming to prove it — behind and in front of the camera. 

Hollywood works on multiple levels. Depicting history while commenting on the present, the show is about the golden age. And, while all that glitters isn’t gold — a fact that consistently comes to the surface —all that could have been would have made the beautiful fantasy an even better reality.