HOLLYWOOD Reimagines a More Inclusive Industry
With the recent release of Ryan Murphy’s fantastical new miniseries HOLLYWOOD, audiences have been treated to a revisionist look at what the film industry would have been like if it had it become more equitable in the ’40s.
The show revolves around the fictional production of MEG, a twist on the tragic tale of 24-year-old actress Peg Entwistle who climbed to the top of the Hollywood sign and jumped to her death. The series imagines what it would have been like had a Hollywood Studio – in this case Ace Pictures led by Ace (Rob Reiner) and Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone), retooled the story commissioned by Archie Coleman – an ambitious gay African American screenwriter (Jeremy Pope) – and cast Camille Washington, a black actress (Laura Harrier) in the lead.
While the series is fictional, it also features real-life actors, directors and power brokers from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Below AFI explores five movie stars featured in the series and separates the fantasy from history in HOLLYWOOD.
Portrayed by Michelle Krusiec (AFI Directing Workshop for Women Class of 2021)
Anna May Wong – Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star – rose to prominence, landing her first lead role by age 17. While Ryan Murphy’s series delivers a glimpse of her back story, it’s important to understand the historical context. Wong’s career was stunted, particularly because of the Hollywood Hay’s Code, which instated miscegenation laws, that forbade relationships between black and white races onscreen. Consequently, if Wong was to be cast in a lead role, she would need an Asian leading man opposite her – and there were few and far between in Hollywood at the time. For Irving Thalberg’s THE GOOD EARTH, all the major roles were played by white actors in yellowface, including the white actress Luise Rainer playing the role of O-Lan. While HOLLYWOOD depicts Wong screen testing for O-Lan, she actually tested for the Chinese villain, Lotus, in keeping with the stereotypical roles she was offered as an Asian American trying to make it in Hollywood. Sadly, Wong’s late career renaissance portrayed in the series and culminating in an Oscar® win, never happened in real life.
Portrayed by Queen Latifah
Hattie McDaniel made history, becoming the first person of color to win an Academy Award® for the role of Mammy in Victor Fleming’s GONE WITH THE WIND. Similar to events depicted in HOLLYWOOD, McDaniel was discriminated against at the ceremony hosted at The Ambassador Hotel. In real life, she was forced to sit at a segregated table with her date and her agent at the back of the room. Murphy’s revisionist history imagines the pride McDaniel would have felt witnessing an African American actress take the lead in a major Hollywood motion picture, and offering her support as a mentor who’d experienced the same trials and tribulations.
Portrayed by Jake Picking
The real-life Rock Hudson moved to Hollywood in 1946, but wouldn’t become a star until 1954’s MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION. His agent was indeed the lascivious Henry Wilson, who often sought sexual favors in return for signing up-and-coming actors. While the screen-test Hudson botches in HOLLYWOOD is fictional, the actor definitely didn’t have the easiest transition to leading man. In real life for his first role in FIGHTER SQUADRON, Hudson took 38 takes to successfully deliver the line, “We’re gonna need a bigger blackboard” (he kept saying “backboard”). However, while the fictional Rock Hudson came out at a premiere by holding the hand of his boyfriend, his real-life counterpart remained publicly closeted until the ’80s when he sadly succumbed to AIDS.
Portrayed by Paget Brewster
Similar to her portrayal in HOLLYWOOD, actress Tallulah Bankhead led a raucous life style, complete with rumored sexual escapades with both men and women. While she’s first depicted attending one of director George Cukor’s Hollywood parties in the series, the real life Bankhead did run in the same circles as the filmmaker and starred in Cukor’s 1931 film TARNISHED LADY. She also rubbed shoulders with Vivien Leigh as shown in the series, and, in fact, almost landed the part of Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND before Leigh won the role. As in the series, Bankhead was rumored to have had an affair with Hattie McDaniel in real life.
Portrayed by Katie McGuiness
Although Vivien Leigh was British, she is most famous for playing two Southern belles – Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND and Blanche Dubois in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. She won Academy Awards® for both roles. The series alludes to the mental health struggles that Leigh would contend with her entire life. Her bipolar disorder would lead many in the industry to label her as “difficult” to work with at a time before any diagnosis of the sort was available. Leigh’s mental illness is often traced to a traumatic miscarriage she suffered on the set of CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA. While Leigh is only a supporting player in Murphy’s narrative, he included her in the series because she’s one of his idols. He told Vanity Fair, “My favorite old-school Hollywood actress of all time is Vivien Leigh. At one time Nicole Kidman and I were talking about making a movie about Vivien Leigh, which we still might do.”
Read more about Classical Hollywood film in the AFI Catalog.