Artillery Row

Hollywood or Hollywoke?

Can drama successfully rewrite history to satisfy modern sensitivities?

Like millions of others, I recently watched the big-budget Netflix series Hollywood, co-created by the impresario Ryan Murphy, the so-called “most powerful man in modern television.” Murphy is a strange cove. On the one hand, he was responsible for producing one of the best things I’ve seen on television in recent years, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, a pitch-perfect and psychologically impeccable account of Andrew Cunanan’s murder of the fashion mogul and the subsequent manhunt. On the other, he has been responsible for some very bad films, not least the Julia Roberts disaster Eat, Pray, Love, and his public utterances on the themes of diversity, inclusivity and representation, while of course commendable, do have to be taken in the context of being said by a man who has been paid a reported $300 million by Netflix to make television for them.

Hollywood is the latest and quite possibly strangest of these programmes. Over its seven episodes, the storyline follows a disparate group of characters, all of whom are trying to make a success of their artistic careers. These include a mixture of real-life figures such as the actors Rock Hudson and Anna May Wong and the talent agent Henry Willson, fictionalised versions of well-known Californians such as the Hollywood pimp Scotty Bowers and archetypal stereotypes such as the square-jawed all-American beefcake who wants to be a movie star, the cynical but paternal studio executive and the aspirant film director who earnestly believes that he can make a difference.

This milieu has been portrayed many times before, and Robert Altman’s Nineties satire, The Player, is perhaps the definitive account of La-La land’s various iniquities and hypocrisies. Yet Hollywood begins in a lively and irreverent fashion, thanks to knowing performances from Dylan McDermott as the Bowers character Ernie Wise, who pimps handsome young men for sex from a gas station he owns, and Jim Parsons as Willson, a flamboyant type with a penchant for lachrymose speeches about integrity and trust, interspersed with demands that his clients should engage in all-male threesomes in front of him. And then things go downhill.

This is partly due to its presentation of the likes of Cole Porter and Noel Coward as nothing more than camp queens, but it is mainly because of Murphy’s entirely revisionist account of Fifties Hollywood, which bears precisely no relation to any kind of historical reality. In this alternate universe, interracial relationships, homosexual and heterosexual alike, are publicly flaunted, women run major Hollywood studios, black actresses refuse to sit in segregation at awards ceremonies which they then win Oscars at, and closeted executives find happiness and fulfilment with younger men. On and on this parade of liberal 21st century values, anachronistically transplanted to a time sixty years previously, goes. Even the villainous talent agent is partially redeemed by the end, as he tearfully talks of “therapy” and giving up the martinis so copiously taken at lunchtime.

On an artistic level, the programme is a disappointment, and gives the impression that an earlier, less starry-eyed, script was hijacked and rewritten somewhere along the line in a more explicitly celebratory vein (the lengthy, tiresome depiction of the Oscars in the final episode, in which virtually all the characters are rewarded, is a particular nadir). But as a depiction of a historical period, it is little less than shameful. After paying the most token lip service to the sexual, social and racial tensions of the age, Murphy and his co-creators ignore them altogether and instead create a fantasia of harmony and woke goodness. The unreconstructed villains, naturally, are all sweaty white heterosexual men.

The obvious rejoinder is that it is not worth being worked up about a piece of disposable entertainment, and that Hollywood will soon be forgotten when the next major Netflix show appears (I sincerely hope that the largely dismissive reviews mean that it will not be given a second series, as I honestly cannot imagine which contemporary preoccupation will take centre stage if it does). Yet its existence is curiously revealing. Just as contemporary theatre, while it still existed, took pains to use diverse casting, which I remain in favour of, to illuminate its issues, so film and television now seek to illuminate the stories of the past through the prism of the present.

This is a deeply foolish and artistically bankrupt idea, but shows little sign of ceasing. Predominantly white, male and heterosexual production executives seem to be frightened of offending contemporary audiences who might be appalled by accurate depictions of the past, especially if it dares to use racial or sexual slurs. For all of the money and care that is spent on employing historical experts to advise on a particular shade of colour on a costume, or the right location for a setting, the scripts of many recent dramas seem to have been written hurriedly and furtively, without recourse to any kind of authoritative information.

To name and shame a few especially egregious high-profile offenders, the liberal employers in Downton Abbey take a kindly, pastoral interest in the personal lives of their servants in a fashion that precisely no Twenties aristocrat was ever reported to have done; the staff of the Fifties-set drama The Hour, about the BBC, are fully attuned to issues of racism, sexism and discrimination, and are not afraid to call it out at every opportunity; and, although Winston Churchill did not decide to continue his struggle against the Nazis because he took a ride on the London Underground and swapped lines by Lord Macaulay with a black Londoner, that is exactly the impression that you would have if you watched Gary Oldman as Churchill in Darkest Hour. On and on it has gone over the past few years, to the extent that even Mark Lawson in that well-known bastion of right-wing thought The Guardian was driven to complain “it can feel as if history has been hacked by an admonitory Twitter feed from our age.”

The irony is that, for every anachronistic or substandard programme or film that gets made, another, better one often makes many of the same points in a far more successful way. Two films released a couple of years apart, John Hillcoat’s The Proposition and Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, both revolve around the historical treatment of racism and power in Australia, one in the late 19th century and the other in the pre-WWII era.

Winston Churchill did not decide to continue his struggle against the Nazis because he took a ride on the London Underground and swapped lines by Lord Macaulay with a black Londoner

Hillcoat’s film, scripted by Nick Cave and starring Guy Pearce and John Hurt, is a harsh, unsentimental account of violence and revenge, which went to inordinate pains to recreate indigenous culture accurately and was much praised for it. The Aboriginal characters are not sentimentalised, but presented as uncomprehending and hostile to the white culture that seeks to supplant them, as would have been historically accurate.

Luhrmann’s film, meanwhile, is not. It revolves around a soap-opera level romance between Nicole Kidman’s icy English aristocrat and Hugh Jackman’s man-of-the-people cattle drover, and portrays its Aboriginal figures as examples of the Hollywood magical negro trope that has been so scorned by commentators for decades. The wise tribal elder has, quite literally, magical powers. For all its impeccably liberal intentions in telling a story about the so-called “stolen generations”, the overall impression is that Luhrmann wished to diversify his white, heterosexual love story with some borrowed exoticism, and that Australia’s anachronistic view of the past ends up being inadvertently patronising at best, and straightforwardly racist at worst.

The largely white perspective adopted by most writers and directors can often be a patronising and ignorant one, which makes something like Amma Assante’s film Belle, which recounted the life of the mixed-race eighteenth century aristocrat Dido Belle, refreshing. Although Assante is no less guilty than many of her peers of anachronism and historical inaccuracy, with Belle being much given to decidedly 21st-century explanations of individual thought, she at least attempts a presentation of a historically accurate and little-known story in an engaging and original fashion, rather than telling a well-known one in a cack-handed manner.

An especially egregious example of this came a few years ago in the Johnny Depp film The Libertine, a biopic of the licentious poet the Earl of Rochester. The picture concludes with a stirring scene in which Rochester, by then close to the end of his life, drags himself to court and delivers a brilliant speech on the question of inheritance rights. As an aficionado of Rochester, I was surprised to see it, and assumed it was a piece of writerly invention to give the film a big finale, as well as giving the apparently self-involved poet a hitherto unsuspected social conscience. In fact, as I discovered during research for a subsequent biography of Rochester I wrote, the speech was indeed delivered – but by an entirely different Earl of Rochester years later. Artistic licence is one thing, but wholescale transposition of events from another’s life seems indefensible.

Big-budget films and television series have, of course, been riddled with inaccuracies since the invention of the moving picture. One thinks of wrist watches worn by extras in Ben-Hur, of John Wayne as a truly unlikely Roman centurion in the Christ film The Greatest Story Ever Told or the impeccably white teeth and tans that the rebel army boast in Spartacus. The latter film could also be justifiably accused of being a proto-liberal endeavour itself, although the excellence of its artistic execution and its social accomplishment more than justified its existence. But recently, poorly scripted and indifferently directed dramas have been the order of the day, meaning that the anachronistic and liberal perspectives that they adopt are not justified by compelling stories or memorable characters. The average audience, uninterested in being preached at, will soon lose interest in them. This means that historical stories will either have to be told better and more authentically, or producers should no longer bother.

As I write this, I happen upon an advertisement, which proved my point succinctly. The much-hyped, largely unsuccessful Apple TV platform has as one of its key dramas a “darkly comedic” biopic of a straight-talking, foul-mouthed and adventurous poet, and the rapper Wiz Khalifa has been cast as the character of Death. Intrigued, I look to see which figure has been thus portrayed. Anne Sexton, perhaps, or Sylvia Plath? No, it is the famously reclusive and emotionally isolated Emily Dickinson, not a figure largely known for rib-tickling humour, dark or otherwise. As I chalk this one up to another example of historical television for dummies, I can only wish that it were not so. But unfortunately, this new strain of idiocy shows few signs of disappearing, as long as the likes of Ryan Murphy are being paid hundreds of millions of dollars by Netflix to propagate its existence.

One can only hope that, in the future, the whole foolish saga is portrayed in an appropriately scathing fashion in a scrupulously accurate drama. If I’m still around, I will be happy to offer my – impeccably sourced – services as its script consultant.

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