Monday, May 25, 2020

Finishing Murphy's HOLLYWOOD

"A colored screenwriter!" bellows Ace Studios head, Ace Amberg. Ace, played with just the right amount of likeable vulgarity by Rob Reiner, had no idea that a new film on his production roster has a screenplay written by a young Black man. If you read my previous posts on Ryan Murphy's HOLLYWOOD, a miniseries on Netflix, you know that the young man is Archie, one of the male hookers who works out of the Ernie West full service gas station in Hollywood. Yes, you can get a fill-up at the gas station. You can also get a lube job in more ways than one. Ace Amberg's wife has been a satisfied customer. Her pump boy is an aspiring actor who wants to screen test for the movie that fellow pump boy, Archie, wrote. Let me repeat what I wrote in my first post on HOLLYWOOD. I adored the art direction and costume design. They gorgeously reflect the post-World War 2 Hollywood that's teetering on the brink of the 1950s. The soundtrack with the retro music cuts by Peggy Lee, Artie Shaw, Judy Garland with Johnny Mercer, The Ink Spots, Perry Como, Lee Wiley and others -- I want it! Oh, how I miss the days of being able to buy a CD soundtrack. The direction has been lively and sharp -- especially the episodes directed by Janet Mock (Ep. #4, Screen Tests and Ep. #6, Meg). New show biz faces play the young Hollywood hopefuls. However, HOLLYWOOD is ultimately and undeniably stolen by the veteran actors. Real life young hopeful actors need to watch Holland Taylor, Dylan McDermott, Joe Mantello, Mira Sorvino, Rob Reiner  and especially Patti LuPone to see how it's done.
Ryan Murphy took Hollywood history -- facts about stars, productions and the discrimination within the industry itself -- and gives it his own Murphy twist. What if people of color -- like actress Anna May Wong -- had equal opportunities? What if gay and bisexual Hollywood figures did not have to be closeted and live in fear of losing their jobs because of their sexual orientation? The intent is interesting but he does not cut deeper into the meat if his intent is to make a statement on diversity and inclusion in today's Hollywood workplace. Some business in his script just doesn't make sense. Archie Coleman, Black screenwriter, gets a green light on his script. It's based on the tragic true story of defeated Hollywood blonde, Peg Entwhistle. She couldn't get a break. She killed herself by jumping off the top of the Hollywoodland sign. Handsome and 20-something Archie, played by Broadway multi-talent Jeremy Pope, sells his script. He's meeting with studio production people. But he's still turning tricks out of the gas station. Really, Ryan Murphy? Archie has fallen in love with Rock Hudson and Rock has fallen in love with Archie. They're just about living together in Archie's place. Archie's living room is twice the size of the one our family had in our modest one-level South Central L.A. house Dad got after WW2 with help from a G.I. loan. There's an upstairs in Archie's place. He sold one screenplay and he's still turning tricks out a gas station. William Holden's out-of-work screenwriter in Billy Wilder's SUNSET BLVD has sold more scripts and lives in a dinky little Hollywood apartment when first we see him. He can't keep up his car payments.

Actress Anna May Wong was a big star in silent films. When the sound era came in, Hollywood pretty much treated her like a second class citizen. The Chinese-American actress was denied the opportunity to audition for the female lead in Pearl Buck's THE GOOD EARTH (1937). MGM gave the role of the peasant Chinese wife to the white European import, Luise Rainer. She won the Best Actress Oscar for it. In 1942, the powerful Hollywood studio would have a hit with WHITE CARGO, a steamy drama set in Africa. The role of beautiful Congo temptress went to ... Austrian-born actress, Hedy Lamarr covered all over in "exotic" make-up.

If you watch HOLLYWOOD, when the decision to change Archie's screenplay from PEG, the story of a disillusioned Hollywood blonde, to MEG, the story of a young Black actress trying to beat the odds, the extra info may give the HOLLYWOOD storyline of Archie and Camille (the actress) a bit more weight. Hollywood had a history of  whitewashing, if you will.
Ace, the studio head, has a mistress. She's an ageing actress fully aware that she's getting older. She's under contract to Ace's studio and she is terrifically played by Mira Sorvino. While banging her in Palm Springs, Ace suffers a heart attack. His wife, played by Patti LuPone, unexpectedly becomes head of the studio and things really change. In one office scene, Avis (LuPone) proclaims her hatred for Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH. Others agree. Avis called it "a racist piece of shit" with happy, singing slaves.  Avis now has power and must search her conscience. Her daughter, whom she can't stand, wants to be a star. But she can't act. Avis sees Camille Washington's screen test and realizes that the young "colored" girl does indeed have acting chops. In another screen test, she sees that her gas station boy toy also has acting chops. Will she green light an opportunity for Camille? Avis will get advice from...Eleanor Roosevelt. Camille will get a chance. Avis and Camille have to deal with the KKK. Camille will get a congratulatory phone call from Hattie McDaniel -- as played by Queen Latifah. Hattie, a groundbreaker, was the first Black person nominated for an Oscar and the first to win. She won Best Supporting Actress for 1939's GONE WITH THE WIND. Co-star Oliva de Havilland was nominated in the same category. McDaniel was highly charismatic, an actress who could sing, handle comedy and break your heart dramatically -- as she did in GONE WITH THE WIND. Her best role after her Oscar victory came in 1942's IN THIS OUR LIFE. Again, she co-starred opposite Olivia de Havilland and plays a domestic worker in a modern-day story. She's a single working mother whose hard-working, scholarly son is putting himself through law school. But racism rears its ugly head. A white woman (played by Bette Davis) commits a crime. A child is killed. She blames the crime on the maid's son and he is immediately jailed. McDaniel's, in a scene with de Havilland, anguished and giving proof of her son's innocence, makes you feel the yoke of racism she's lived under. John Huston directed the film and that's one of the best scenes in it. All of Hattie's roles after her Oscar win were supporting roles. Some roles, like in another 1942 starring Olivia de Havilland, THE MALE ANIMAL, were beneath Hattie's talents -- especially considering that she's the only star in that comedy who'd won an Oscar. The film also starred Henry Fonda, Jack Carson and Joan Leslie.

Hattie had a supporting role and a musical number in Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH. There's Hattie, her screen charisma undimmed, playing a plantation maid. She sings a song with Uncle Remus. That Disney musical/fantasy was the top grossing film of 1946. Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS was second. Wyler's THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES was third. Coming in at #8 was a charming comedy about a teen girl in the 1920s. It was called MARGIE and starred Jeanne Crain. In what is basically a bit role as the maid who answers the door, we see Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel.

Even today, Hollywood seems to pat itself on the back by telling you that Hattie McDaniel was a trailblazing, groundbreaking actress who was the first Black person to win an Oscar. However, it does not go into how it continued to restrict and limit her as an actress and, at times, treat her like a bit player when she was the only one in the cast who'd won an Oscar. Ryan Murphy's script didn't tell us that Hattie was an Oscar winner before we saw her in the form of Queen Latifah. There was no mention that she starred in Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH. We see her as a bisexual star having an affair with Tallulah Bankhead. Her congratulatory call to Camille sounds like dialogue Latifah would've had in SET IT OFF: "You show them muthafukkas!" I love Queen Latifah but she seemed miscast initally as Hattie and her first appearance was a brief role, awkwardly written.

Then came the final episode, Episode 7. The last chapter made up for the bits of dissatisfaction I felt in middle episodes. In fact, I did not expect to sit through the finale with tears streaming down my face. We are now in 1948. We know this because Oscar nominations are soon to be announced and Rosalind Russell is favored for win Best Actress for 1947's MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA. Ryan Murphy repeats the same mistake he made in his Bette Davis versus Joan Crawford miniseries in that he had a Hollywood player up at dawn to hear the Oscar nominations. In those days, nominations came out in mid afternoon. The crack o' dawn Hollywood practice started several decades later. That aside, most of the final episode takes place at the Academy Awards. Murphy's alternative history gives us an episode ripe with gratitude and redemption. Hattie McDaniel reappears to give support and advice to MEG star, Camille Washington. Queen Latifah is in fine form dramatically as Hattie telling Camille about her Academy Awards night experience, the behind the scenes hotel discrimination and her disappointment with the work Hollywood offered her afterwards. Hattie stresses to Camille that the most important thing "is being in the room."
When the camera cuts to a young Black fellow, listening to the awards telecast on radio, and wondering if he will hear any people of color make an acceptance speech, my tears started. I saw myself in that character. I remember being a little boy and my parents gleefully shouting "He did it!" when Sidney Poitier won Best Actor for LILIES OF THE FIELD, the first Black man to win the award. When one character risked Hollywood hatred and banishment for holding his boyfriend's hand, I cried again. He decided to no longer be afraid. I thought of myself in 1992, at the height of the AIDS crisis, when I was afraid to hold my partner's hand in public for fear of losing my TV job -- an on-air job that put me in the same income area as friends of mine who were high school teachers. You couldn't be Black, gay and employed in show biz it seemed.  I could afford my modest studio apartment, I'd take of my partner when he got diagnosed with AIDS and I was also paying my mom's biggest bill. She moved to a new house in 1984. I assumed the mortgage on it when I got to New York in 1985 because she had not been paying her monthly house note. I saved her house from foreclosure by assuming her mortgage. I paid it off in 2000. In 2005, I went to visit her for Christmas but she said, "I don't want you in this house if you're still gay." In the years to come, our relationship did heal. When one winner at the Oscars says "Your story's important," I thought of the time in my profession when producers and agents made me feel otherwise. I got just about all my network and local TV jobs because TV agents said "I wouldn't know what to do with you." At times, I felt that maybe I'd dreamed I had my own talk show on VH1 in the late 80s. CBS Sunday producers would never consider me to be an entertainment contributor. In 2000, I fought to get an ABC News audition to be a weekly movie reviewer and film historian on a new live national show. The producers said they were aware of my work but asked if I knew anything about movies. I got the audition. I got the job. I was doing something on national TV viewers rarely, if ever, saw Black people do. My take home pay was $330 a week but I loved the job. In 2004, I applied to be an entertainment reporter for CNN. The producer asked if I'd ever covered entertainment. What I learned later was all those white producers had never bothered to glance at my resume or my demo reel before asking those questions. I had to fight to get "in the room" just for an audition.

That last chapter really landed on my heart.

I loved the HOLLYWOOD episodes in which the Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor characters are the top power players at the studio. Oh! There's an episode in which $25,000 is needed for the production of the film to star the young African American actress. Where can the money be raised? The guys call in a favor to Ernie at the gas station. He comes through by bringing in some extra help for assignments. Two luscious babes are sent over to the Hollywood home of a woman who closely resembles -- in physical and wardrobe appearance -- Hollywood's groundbreaking 1930s and 40s movie director, Dorothy Arzner.

The final scene of the MEG episode, Episode 6, caused me to let out a very audible gasp. It worked my nerves. The beginning of Episode 7 is a doozy. The underdogs have their day in Murphy's revised history.

The finale of Ryan Murphy's HOLLYWOOD made me feel that Hattie McDaniel, Dorothy Dandridge and Anna May Wong would look down on it from Heaven and smile, smile, smile with celestial joy.

For those new to my posts, here's a sample of my VH1 talk show work.

Here's a sample of my post-VH1 TV work.

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