As festivals continue to cancel and studios retreat on release dates, the movie industry is resolutely pursuing what it acknowledges to be a perilous scenario. “Even Hollywood needs love now and then,” Samuel Goldwyn once proclaimed, but instead it faces stubborn exhibitors like AMC and Cineworld, who hammer studios for breaking the 90-day window. It also confronts streamers led by Netflix churning out content at a rate that would make Louis B. Mayer cower. And it faces binge-bonded TV audiences who may never again leave their couches, even if it means surrendering to cinematic malfeasance like Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood (more on that later).
Instead of love, the one certitude filmmakers can rely on this year is a new set of Academy rules permitting eligibility for films that debut on a streaming service or an on-demand platform. To be sure, flickers of optimism always reside with those films that no one has yet seen: Mank from David Fincher or Tenet from Christopher Nolan or Dune from Denis Villeneuve or even Steven Spielberg’s unlikely remake of West Side Story. These films together might detonate the sort of exuberance that greeted Midnight Cowboy and The Graduate at the end of the 1960s, when everyone decided to pay homage to their neglected cinemas (today the only ones doing business are drive-ins).
If you are disposed to trust Netflix’s over-caffeinated new limited series Hollywood, the zenith of the filmmaking experience actually occurred not in the ’60s but in 1947 in the form of a hit film titled Meg. It was not only brilliantly shot but was also a miracle of diversity starring a black actress, written by a black writer and distributed by a studio run by a woman.
None of these miracles actually happened, of course, nor was there a trace of reality in anything else depicted in Murphy’s Hollywood, a community dominated by gay predators, Mafia enforcers and financial hoodlums, and also, Murphy assures us, by a few zealous idealists. In Murphy’s version, the town’s talent was managed by a perverted megalomaniac whose star “discoveries” all turned out to be gay, and by a pimp who ran a Hollywood gas station. Both of these characters are absurd exaggerations of real people — fringe players even then unknown to the mainstream.
It was also perverse of Murphy to set his action in 1947, a year in which Hollywood was actually experiencing a moment of relative civility. An excellent film titled The Best Years of Our Lives won the Oscar over The Yearling and Razor’s Edge. Classy stars like Fredric March and Olivia De Havilland dominated the awards along with regal directors like David Lean and Frank Capra.
By contrast, the Hollywood on Netflix presents cartoon cameos depicting George Cukor, Vivien Leigh, Tallulah Bankhead and other luminaries of the period, all of whom are either drunk or drugged out. Rock Hudson is also depicted as a doofus who can’t carry a line (he received an Oscar nomination for Giant).
Murphy’s admirers (he also created Pose and Glee) argue that he set out to make a B-picture send-up of Hollywood to underscore its historic underperformance on diversity and gay rights, but, if he did so, he chose a difficult moment. Movies today could use an infusion of loyalty and support, especially from Netflix, which continues to benefit richly from its resources in talent and intellectual property. Netflix, as The Economist puts it, “represents a continuation of television’s century-long siphoning off of content from the cinema.”
Indeed, some of us find ourselves becoming downright sentimental about cinema. As Anthony Lane in the New Yorker reminisces: “Details are scarce and memories are hazy, but I seem to recall a time when we sat in a blacked out room, in rows, and frequently in discomfort, and paid for the privilege, even though screenings began at an appointed hour and the content had been determined in advance on our behalf.”
But as Lane reminds us, “These were in the olden days when people used to do the strangest things.”