This article contains major Hollywood spoilers. You can find our spoiler-free review here.
It certainly is a Hollywood ending. On the corner of Hollywood Boulevard, a gas station that should be consigned to obscurity and whispered reveries is now going to be immortalized as the opening scene of a big Hollywood movie. In the year 1948, nearly 60 years before Brokeback Mountain, most of the cast and crew behind Ace Pictures’ Meg are reunited for the first glossy romance about two gay men. And in it, Rock Hudson (Jack Piercing) wears a spiffy white uniform while promising to take a skittish John (David Corenswet playing actor Jack Castello) to Dreamland. Together they drive off to a better future.
Thus the title card that ends the series is “The Beginning” instead of “the end.”
An unmistakable declaration of intent, creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan do not view this as the end of Hollywood’s story but the start of a new world that was coming into being almost a century before our current reality. It’s meant to be a hopeful fairy tale conclusion that, like the ending of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, asks viewers to wonder how the world would change based on the events in this series.
But before we reached that closing scene, Netflix’s Hollywood already spelled out this alternate history. At the funeral for Richard (Joe Mantello), Kincaid (Holland Taylor) says that “without Dick Samuels you just don’t have Meg. And since Meg, we have seen the face of Hollywood change. Many of the films in production will star women and people of color. Without Dick Samuels, this just doesn’t happen. There’s been a sea change, hasn’t there?” (Presumably she means women in non-romantic or fatale roles, as there were a lot of female-led pictures in the ‘40s.)
By creating an ideal where a plucky, diverse cast of young actors and filmmakers pool their talent, Hollywood’s fantasy both asks you to consider how that vision could’ve changed 1947, and how perhaps our own 2020 could change for the better. Sitting in the audience at Dick’s funeral, the main characters of Hollywood are indicative of how the town has changed and an invitation to demand that kind of equality today.
Admittedly, they look more like millennials at a costume party than the generation that went through World War II and the Great Depression, but also unlike that generation, these faces aren’t segregated, divided, or hidden in a closet. Rock Hudson holds the hand of his black boyfriend Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope); and Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), the first woman of color to win a leading Best Actress Oscar a good half-century before Halle Berry actually did, has an arm around her biracial boyfriend and director, Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss).
How much better is this world than the actual “Golden Age” for people of color and members of the LGBTQ community? Obviously a lot. It’s telling that the concept for Hollywood sprung out of a conversation Murphy and Criss had about Scotty Bowers’ memoir, Full Service. You might not know Bowers’ name because he waited until he was 90 years old in 2012 to speak out about all the alleged trysts he had while working at a real gas station at the corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Van Ness. But whether or not you believe he had all the celebrity conquests he claims in the book, he was providing a service at a time when the gay community of Hollywood and everywhere else in American life hid in fear.
As the show points out, for every William Haines—the real life gay movie star from the ‘20s and ‘30s who quit acting rather than disown his life partner—there are many more stories like the real Rock Hudson, who never lived with another man and hid his sexual orientation until a few months before his death was caused by AIDS complications. In the 1940s, Bowers’ service was the best many gay men could hope for, probably including great artists like Cole Porter and George Cukor.
Hollywood romanticizes this to mythic proportions, turning the idea of Bowers’ prostitution ring into a literal “Dreamland” service provided by Dylan McDermott at his most debonair and a slew of hunky young guys working the pumps. But it’s a service bending to the will of the hegemonic culture of the day, enforced by vice squads. Whether or not Hudson ever truly visited (and supposedly worked for) Bowers, that culture left him ashamed and alone when he died of AIDS, and it pushed Henry Willson to similar despair. Unlike the Jim Parsons version of the character, the real Willson never atoned for his casting couch ways or became a producer. He was instead a pariah after it became public knowledge he was gay, and he also gave into drinking and drug addiction, dying in destitution.
On Hollywood though, Willson is the bridge between that funeral and the Dreamland movie they’re filming in the final scene. He first goes to Rock to apologize for #MeToo-ing him before that was a verb—a fact a show so conscious of 21st century Wokeness surprisingly soft-pedals—and reveals he’s no longer drinking. He also has a steady lover now, which the real Willson probably didn’t have after friend and client Junior Durkin died in a car crash in 1935.
This fictional and redeemed Willson was inspired by Rock Hudson coming out as gay with Archie on his arm at the 20th Annual Academy Awards. And as he relays to McDermott’s Ernie on the Dreamland set, many members of the gay community are now pursuing meaningful relationships instead of proverbial back alley one night stands… which is what the Scotty Bowers/Ernie’s business model really was when you wipe away the nostalgia and whitewashed sheen Hollywood gives it. That’s why it’s so important that something like this Dreamland movie is occurring.
If you step back from just the gay community, Hollywood attempts to apply that literal Hollywood revisionism across multiple intersections. By defying the censors, Meg put an interracial relationship right there on the screen, and more opportunities for artists and performers beyond a pale complexion. So if the comparable cultural gains made in the ‘90s or 2000s—with Halle Berry becoming the first black woman to win the Leading Actress Oscar, and Brokeback Mountain (and perhaps Murphy’s Glee?) putting gay love stories in the mainstream—had been made in the ‘40s, think how much better off the world would be today?
It’s a nice sentiment, although one I personally find too simplistic. While I agree with the series and Raymond Ainsley’s assessment that movies (or today you might just say pop culture) can influence the mainstream and “show us how the world can be,” the actual gains made aren’t just because of fictional fantasies.
Before Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win the Best Actor Oscar in 1964, the winds of change had to blow heavily in Little Rock and D.C. That movie, Lilies in the Field, came out the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” was heard from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and one year before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed thanks in large part due to the activism of King and others in Selma and Birmingham, and just as President Lyndon B. Johnson got the political capital to bypass the racists in his own party after the death of JFK. And even then, after we lived in a country where Poitier could win an Oscar, much less star in a tone-deaf film about an interracial relationship in 1967, there was still a long, long road that we’re still only beginning to travel along.
And before Ellen DeGeneres could come out of the closet on network TV, or Murphy could get Glee greenlit, we needed to move 30 or 40 years past the Stonewall riots. Along the way the culture continued to grapple with love being love, hence the shock at Rock Hudson having AIDS in 1985, or how “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” could be considered a liberal victory for the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
So imagining modern cultural values simply existing in a world with one foot still in the 19th century because they’re right is a fantasy bordering on delusion, and certainly self-indulgence. But it’s a sweet one where Rock Hudson doesn’t have to die in the closet, Henry Willson doesn’t have to wallow in the slime for life, and Lena Horne (who Camille Washington is very loosely based on) could lead more than all-black musicals.
And imagining such a fantasy really does give Golden Age Hollywood that Hollywood gloss. For those who buy into the fantasy it can be delightful, for everyone else it’s at best a trifle.