There’s something magical to me about the way Quentin Tarantino ends “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” as his story about the dark turns of the late 1960s detours into a fairy tale of sorts. It’s a healing gesture by Tarantino, even as it puts him in the position of a god picking and choosing from among human destinies. At this point, we expect no less from him.
With “Hollywood,” co-creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan apply a similarly god-like revisionist twist to the history of Tinseltown in a big — and, ultimately, awkward — way. At first, their seven-part Netflix limited series gives us a portrait of the post-World War II movie biz, ridden with racism, sexism, and the abuses of power that have fueled the #MeToo movement. There are a few real-life characters, including Rock Hudson, and there are a lot of fictional characters, including piggy studio head Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner), who’s misusing a vulnerable actress (played, in a bit of meta-casting, by Harvey Weinstein victim Mira Sorvino). I thought I was in for an anti-nostalgia story like Murphy’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” which questioned the myth of Old Hollywood as it reframed the fraught rapport between Davis and Crawford with a present-day understanding of studio exploitation.
Instead, the limited series, which is available on Friday, swerves hard to the left. It becomes a cozy fable about a group of idealists — led by Patti LuPone’s Avis, Ace’s free-thinking wife — who are miraculously many decades ahead of their time. They decide, in the face of bad odds, to make and sell a movie written by a gay Black man named Archie (Jeremy Pope), starring a Black woman named Camille (Laura Harrier), and directed by a part-Filipino director named Raymond (Darren Criss), who is Camille’s boyfriend. Systemic bigotry is tamed in this progressive fantasia, as our noble band of good guys pursue their dream of equality no matter what, often using today’s lexicon of inclusivity. Even Anna May Wong (played by Michelle Krusiec), the famously wronged Chinese-American actress who was typecast throughout her Hollywood career, has her day when it’s all said and done.
Rather than look back in anger, as Murphy did brilliantly in his “American Crime Story” seasons on O.J. Simpson and on Andrew Cunanan, he chooses to use “Hollywood” to deliver a sense of denial. Even the real-life Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), Hudson’s humiliating and snakelike gay agent who was famous for creating beefcake actors after abusing them, winds up with a human heart. Ultimately, it’s not healing so much as disturbing.
A fictional guy named Jack Castello, played by David Corenswet (he was River on Murphy’s “The Politician”), provides our entrée to the story. He served in the military, and now he hopes to become a leading man and earn enough to support his pregnant wife. First though, he works at a gas station, modeled after the real-life station owned by Scotty Bowers, which is run by a guy named Ernie, played by Dylan McDermott. Ernie is, essentially, a pimp, and he hires handsome young men as attendants for his male and female clients, who pull into the station, utter the code word, and drive off for sex. That’s where Jack meets Avis, who is a regular customer. Of course, it’s sad to see Jack and the other station men — including Archie — prostituting themselves in order to get inside Hollywood, but in “Hollywood,” with its insistence on ideality, all we see are the opportunities that prostitution brings them. Ernie is their lovable mascot.
Meanwhile, Archie falls in love with Rock Hudson, who is played by Jake Picking as a lovable doofus who can’t act. It’s hard to watch Picking and see much of anything of Hudson there, but it’s harder to watch the other real-life characters and not cringe at the way they come off as caricatures, including Katie McGuinness as Vivien Leigh. Even though their characters are poorly written, a few of the performers do manage to help matters with their energy and command. LuPone is never not fun to watch, Joe Mantello is beautifully restrained as a gay producer, and Holland Taylor is moving as a lonely casting director.
Fan service? Virtue signaling? It’s all here, off-putting but, thanks to the cast, bearable.
Starring: David Corenswet, Jeremy Pope, Patti LuPone, Queen Latifah, Darren Criss, Joe Mantello, Jim Parsons, Jake Picking, Holland Taylor, Mira Sorvino, Maude Apatow, Rob Reiner, Samara Weaving, Michelle Krusiec
On: Netflix. Available Friday