Sex, Nudity Permeate Netflix’s ‘Hollywood,’ Overwhelm Its Equality Messaging

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To many, the word Hollywood evokes glamour and dreams of stardom. Perhaps no time in history was that more true than the late 1940s. But the city that birthed silent movies and talkies also had a seedy underbelly. Prostitution rings. Abusive agents, casting directors and motion picture moguls. Mob rackets.

Netflix’s new original, Hollywood, which debuted last Friday takes the dirtiest secrets, debauchery and gossip of the era and makes it more than the backdrop in a revisionist history. In many ways, it becomes a primary driver of the storyline in a vulgar, sex-saturated rewrite of industry’s treatment of gender, race and sexual orientation.

Gratuitous nudity and sex is everywhere in Hollywood. The first episode, which centers on Ernie West’s gas station prostitution ring, contained seven sex scenes (heterosexual and homosexual), six of which were prostitution, in addition to other implied sexual encounters and frequent innuendo.

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The third episode centers around a party at George Cukor’s house, where male prostitutes are invited to keep guests happy late at night at what amounts to an orgy. The episode includes full frontal nudity as undressed men stroll the backyard or jump in the pool to the delight of Cukor’s famous guests.

The show makes Ernie West (played by Dylan McDermott) a likeable pimp, a character reminiscent of real life gas station prostitution ring manager Scotty Bowers, and by the end of the series Ernie is both a hero and an actor. Visually, Golden Tip Gas station is clean as a whistle and gleaming white, despite it being a high-end brothel where gigolos get picked up to provide sex to Hollywood elite of both sexes.

The gigolos are all good looking, clean cut men, handpicked by Ernie to have a “wholesome” look about them and include wannabe actor Jack Castello (David Corenswet) and gay, African-American screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope).

Hollywood portrays this as more than a valid way to make money, it makes Jack’s Hollywood success possible, providing him connections at Ace Studios. His long list of liasons includes a casting director who picks him for a walk-on role and Avis (Patti LuPone), the wife of the studio owner who promises to help him in the pictures if he “keeps momma happy.”

Director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) also reinforces this when he runs into Archie at Cukor’s party and learns he is one of the gas station sex workers. “You gotta do what you gotta do to follow your dreams. I admire that,” Ray tells him.

By refusing to draw any moral lines, it sends a far stronger message that you should do whatever it takes to succeed — even if that includes prostitution — than its other messages that courage is contagious or making room for people in Hollywood of all ages, races and sexual orientations is the right thing to do.

It also fails to adequately indict the casting couch culture, despite being made in the era of #MeToo. Rock Hudson’s real-life predatory talent agent Henry Willson (played by Jim Parsons) who extorts sexual acts from his clients, blackmails the famous and has Mickey Cohen’s thugs beat a journalist nearly to death to prevent publication of a story is the only obvious villain of the entire series.

And even he gets a sudden and unconvincing redemption in the final episode when he begs Rock’s forgiveness and offers to make it up to him by giving him the lead in a gay love story movie he’s trying to produce.

Creator Ryan Murphy told reporters, “I wanted to ask a big, revisionist history question, which was: If these people who were allowed to be who they were in the late Forties and get that image up on the screen, would it change the trajectory of Hollywood and would it trickle down and change my life as a gay kid growing up in the Seventies who felt that I had no role models?”

He tells this through the characters in an early conversation between soon-to-be director Ray and Archie. Ray says he’s going to change the way pictures are made in this town for “people like us,” meaning non-whites, and tells Archie he’s half Asian.

Archie says he’s glad to be working with Ray because his own dream is to “take the story of Hollywood and give it a rewrite. So maybe someday soon you ain’t a half Asian director who feels he has to hide it. You’ll just be a director. I won’t be a black writer, writing about some white lady, I’ll just be a writer. Wouldn’t that be something.”

 

 

But Murphy’s anti-sexism, anti-racism, and pro-LGBTQ messages are overwhelmed by the sex romps of the early episodes, then diluted by the rapid, unconvincing path to “happily ever after” carried out in final few.

The path is primarily triggered after producer Richard Samuels rejects Rock Hudson’s offer to trade sex for a role in the movie Meg. Richard refuses to be that kind of person. Shortly thereafter he gets “fed up” with being a “company man,” starts being honest about his homosexuality, fights to produce Meg with a black female lead, and magically most people around him start to stand up and fight, too. Everyone involved believes they’re not just making a movie, “they’re making history.”

Unbelievably, within months they have produced Meg and distributed it to enormous success: it shatters box office records, sweeps Oscars nominations and brings home Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for minority women along with two other Oscars. The success of the movie even emboldens Archie and Rock Hudson to live together as boyfriends, attend the 1948 Oscars hand in hand and kiss in front of the cameras.

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