The prolific TV creator and Netflix unveil a revisionist take on the golden age of movies, showing how much (and how little) has shifted in entertainment and beyond: "Hollywood can change the world."
On an abnormally cold January evening, on the steps of Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium, history was being rewritten.
Two actors, one playing Rock Hudson, the other Hudson's African American screenwriter boyfriend, Archie, were tucked inside a teal blue Packard Club Sedan, awaiting their cue. Outside, it was Oscar night, 1948, and despite warnings of grave backlash, the pair was prepared to step out as a couple for the first time.
Archie exited first, his eyes wide with trepidation, then Rock. In matching white tuxedos, they grabbed for each other's hands and shuffled nervously down the red carpet.
The press box erupted in hisses, then boos.
"Are we doing the right thing?" Archie whispered.
"Absolutely we are," Rock replied.
The two exchanged smiles, exhaled and made their way into the theater. Then they stopped and did it again. And again.
Ryan Murphy, the scene's chief architect, was a few miles east, buried in one of his dozen other projects, but his fingerprints could be detected everywhere. The reimagining — part of his new Netflix miniseries, Hollywood — offers a world in which Hudson (played by Jake Picking) walked openly as a gay man, as opposed to the real-life heartthrob who remained closeted until his death from AIDS in the mid-1980s. Elsewhere in Murphy's revision of history, an African American actress, played by Laura Harrier, is cast as the star of a major studio picture, written by Hudson's black boyfriend (Jeremy Pope), helmed by a half-Asian director (Darren Criss) and greenlit by a female studio chief (Patti LuPone) and her gay head of production (Joe Mantello).
If Pose was Murphy's effort to champion the marginalized, Hollywood's his shot at imagining such marginalization was undone decades ago. The series, his first without his longtime collaborators at 20th Century Fox Television, drops in its entirety May 1, with a sprawling ensemble of real and fictional characters. It was supposed to feel timely, its period backdrop a reminder of how much and how little has changed in 70-plus years; now, landing in a world grappling with a global pandemic, its 1940s setting could be the escape so many are seeking.
"I've always been interested in this kind of buried history, and I wanted to create a universe where these icons got the endings that they deserved," says Murphy, 55, who's been waiting out the virus at his home in Los Angeles, with his husband and two young sons, who now require homeschooling. "It's this beautiful fantasy, and in these times, it could be a sort of balm in some way."
The Netflix executives who shelled out roughly $300 million for Murphy's services in 2018 can only hope so. Already, they've had to cancel influencer screenings, scrap subway ads and punt on potential plans for a premiere benefit for the now hard-hit Motion Picture Television Fund, which houses several stars of the era in its L.A. retirement facility. As for the show itself, it's certainly not the broad-sweeping, four-quadrant fare that Netflix is widely thought to prefer. The pilot episode alone features six sex scenes — a mix of gay and straight — and nearly all involve some sort of financial transaction. By episode three, which the show's writers have nicknamed "night of a thousand dicks," the characters have found their way to one of director George Cukor's infamous pool parties.
Still, Netflix head of originals Cindy Holland says that Hollywood is exactly the kind of elevated, inclusive and ultimately hopeful programming that the company wants from Murphy, and the seven-episode limited series was fast-tracked as a result. "What I love," she says, "is that Ryan is creating a world that he wants to will into existence."
Murphy's first inkling for Hollywood came over a celebratory dinner with Criss following their fruitful awards run for the Versace installment of American Crime Story. With rosé flowing, the two began discussing a next possible collaboration. Murphy wanted to do something young and hopeful; Criss proposed 1940s Hollywood. The 33-year-old actor had been fascinated by the lore surrounding characters like Scotty Bowers, the L.A. hustler who operated out of a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard, along with golden age stars like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, and he was eager to explore the era with Murphy.
"There's a blinking red light on it that says, 'Ryan Murphy, Ryan Murphy,'" says Criss, "because it's sexy, it's fun, it's glamorous, it's dangerous and it has resonance now."
Murphy didn't disagree. As a student of Hollywood history, he'd already gone down the road with his FX series Feud, which centered its first season on Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. This would simply allow him to dig deeper on figures who'd long captured his attention, from Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star, who was effectively run out of Hollywood, to Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar and not be allowed to sit with her cast in the theater. "I'm always moved by these characters who weren't fully seen or didn't get their moment," says Murphy in an interview on the Paramount lot earlier this year, where he was directing Meryl Streep in The Prom, another Netflix production. At one point, he'd even toyed with the idea of doing a Biography-style anthology series with an episode devoted to each.
Not long after that dinner, Criss was at a bachelor party when his phone rang. It was Murphy. "He says, 'Do you mind if I just do my thing on this?'" says Criss. "And I'm like, 'You're Ryan fucking Murphy. Do whatever you want!'"
So, Murphy picked a collaborator, Ian Brennan, with whom he'd worked on Glee, Scream Queens and The Politician, and the two began quietly tossing around ideas. With the help of a few researchers, they landed on a story that revolved around a Bowers-esque service station, with a staff full of actors and directors looking to be stars. "It was super fun and sexy and salacious," says Brennan, "but it was also about the #MeToo underbelly of 1940s Hollywood, which felt very, very contemporary."
The men found it exhilarating to depict sex so explicitly and in every possible combination. "To be able to describe exactly what is happening is really, really cool," says Brennan. And despite the appetite for such racy content varying dramatically around the globe, Netflix brass was passionate about its inclusion — a marked difference from his and Murphy's experience on previous shows, where they fought tooth and nail over the mere mention of sexual terms. "I hope this isn't speaking out of school," he adds, "but the one thing [Netflix's vp original series] Brian Wright said to me, was, like, 'Thumbs-up on the sex. If anything, dial that up.'"
From the Pose writers room, producer Janet Mock would see Murphy and Brennan huddled in a nearby room and wonder what the latest "secret Ryan Murphy project" was all about. At one point, Mock found herself pumping intel out of a writers' assistant, who told her, "It's a thing called Hollywood, it's about this gas station." Having seen the 2017 documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, she figured, "OK, there's no place for me in that. I'll continue with Pose."
But that would soon change, beginning with an eye-opening discussion in the writers room about which of the ensemble's contract players would be picked to star in the film at the center of Hollywood. The role was that of real-life actress Peg Entwistle, a blond Brit who jumped to her death from the famed Hollywood sign. "At first, we were like, 'Well, it can't be the black girl [Harrier's Camille], they wouldn't have done it. …' And then it was like, 'Well, wait a second, what if it actually was? What if Peg becomes Meg,'" says Brennan. One what-if led to another and then another, and before long they'd decided to go back in and start revising history — this time, with Mock as a credited writer.
Now, rather than use the series to, say, showcase the powerlessness of a studio head's aging housewife, in this case LuPone's Avis, they tweaked the story so that suddenly it explores what would happen if Avis gained control of her husband's studio. It was the same for several others, including Rock Hudson, says Murphy's co-creator. Instead of telling the tragic tale of a person forced to hide, they allowed themselves to explore what would happen if he refused to do so. "Once we began asking 'What if?,' it became a different show," says Brennan, with Mantello adding: "It became a fable of what could have been."
With Netflix execs eager to get the series up on the service, Murphy began loading the cast with his usual mix of familiar names — from Jim Parsons, as Hudson's real-life closeted agent Henry Willson, to Rob Reiner, as the head of the fictional Ace Studios — and newer discoveries, like Samara Weaving (Ready or Not) as Reiner's daughter, or Picking as Hudson and Pope as his fictional boyfriend. As with other recent ensembles, he listed all of them not in order of importance or seniority but rather alphabetically on the call sheet. The message was clear: "The star of the show is the show," says Murphy. Still, initial hires Criss and David Corenswet, who'd made his debut on The Politician, were given executive producer credits, along with backend points on the series. (There's already talk of a season two, which would pick up in the late 1960s, with many of the same actors in entirely new roles.)
At some point in the production process, Murphy found himself scaling back the graphic nature of the series, too — a byproduct of his own personal recalibration, he says, having spent so much of his pre-Netflix life fighting to show so much as a woman's nipple. "When you're finally free, you have this tendency to go full-tilt boogie, but ultimately I became much more interested in the emotion of the characters, and, frankly, I became protective of them," he explains, suggesting every episode had an X-rated version, an R-rated version and a PG version, and, to the delight of participants like Corenswet, who plays an actor cum sex worker, Murphy would almost always select the R one.
"I think Ryan realized as we were shooting that the best part of the sex was the romance — and that's always great to hear as an actor, especially when it applies to your five-page sex scene with Patti LuPone," says the 26-year-old Corenswet. LuPone, for her part, was just thrilled she was still asked to do a sex scene at age 71. "Finally!" she bellows, praising Murphy for having both the vision and the courage to take the risks he does. "Ryan's fearless," says the Tony winner, who also popped up in Pose, "and I'm so happy to be in his world."
Click the graphic below to see the (familiar) cast of Murphy's Hollywood.
Long before Murphy was a household name, with a big fat Netflix deal to ostensibly take all the risks he wants, he was a frustrated former journalist fighting to change a system that wasn't built for him. His own secret had been revealed at just 15, when his mother found a drawer full of love letters from his then-22-year-old boyfriend at their home in Indiana. Horrified, she and Murphy's father threw their son into counseling, hoping he could be "fixed."
A decade or two later, after his first career as an entertainment writer, Murphy carved out a place for himself in television, where he could exist comfortably as a gay man — so long as he didn't try to write anyone like himself into scripts. "There were lots of words that they'd use to discriminate against you," he says, "too flamboyant, too camp, too theatrical, and they were all code."
By the mid-1990s, he'd joined forces with 10 or so other out or soon-to-be-out creatives, a group that included Nina Jacobson, Greg Berlanti and A Beautiful Mind's Bruce Cohen. Giving themselves the name "Out There," they'd meet in courtyards and living rooms to swap horror stories and try to plot a path forward. "We were young and didn't have much money, but we had a lot of energy and a need to connect with and support each other as gay people working in a straight environment," says Jacobson, who'd later collaborate with Murphy on American Crime Story and Pose. "And for a lot of us, it was, for the first time, that feeling of community."
In time, Murphy, like the others, found a way to "monetize [his] pain." His first creation, Popular, debuted in 1999, and other opportunities followed. Popular begat Nip/Tuck, Nip/Tuck begat Glee, and before he knew it, Murphy had moved from TV's fringes to its red-hot center. As The New Yorker once wrote, "He changed; the industry changed; he changed the industry." In early 2018, he signaled that power by signing a nine-figure deal, among the most lucrative in the medium's history.
So it is perhaps fitting that Murphy's first project wholly for and from the service includes a scene that trumpets what he calls "the thesis statement" of his career. It begins with Criss' character, Raymond, being regaled by the story of Anna May Wong's awe-inspiring screen test for the lead role in the 1937 adaptation of The Good Earth, a part that ultimately went to a far less deserving Caucasian actress. Suggesting it was one of the saddest stories Raymond had ever heard, a film executive played by Mantello responds:
"What's so sad about it? The picture was a hit. [They] were right. You can't open a picture with a Chinese lead or a colored one, a number of theaters won't run it."
Raymond: "But you said she deserved the part?"
Exec: "Yes, but the hard fact is, had she gotten it, the picture is not a hit."
Raymond: "How do you know that? You never made the movie, so how do you know it's not a hit?"
Criss' character continues with a monologue that is so perfectly Murphy you can almost close your eyes and picture him saying it.
"Sometimes I think folks in this town don't really understand the power they have. Movies don't just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be. If we change the way that movies are made — you take a chance and you make a different kind of story, I think you can change the world."
Criss himself would argue that Murphy already has. "His dial is always in extremes. So, if he's doing Glee or Scream Queens or this, it's at an 11, almost as a middle finger to reality," says the actor. "It's like he turned the dial over to say, 'This is how I'd like to see the world in my wildest dreams. Ain't it fun?'"
In the past two years, since he moved his creative hub from 20th Century Fox TV, where he still maintains a considerable roster, Murphy has been responsible for producing roughly 200 LGBTQ characters, many featured as leads. At least a third of his Hollywood cast is older than 70 ("Seventy is the new 40," he teases), and nearly every project he launches is fronted by a woman — and that's just in front of the camera. "If you see it, you can be it," Murphy says often.
It's a worldview that appeals to Netflix's Holland, for whom he's already prepped two films (Prom, The Boys in the Band), two docuseries (Circus of Books, Secret Love) and five seasons of inclusive television, including a Halston miniseries that, along with his 20th programs Pose, American Horror Story and American Crime Story, shut down in March care of COVID-19. In the weeks since, when he isn't toggling between Tiger King and MSNBC, Murphy has kept busy writing two new decidedly hopeful series, each with the express purpose of providing viewers and himself an escape. "Ryan's the rare creator who speaks to many audiences," says Holland. "It's not just gay people or straight people or older people or younger people, it's really all people who are interested in the human condition."
To date, Murphy claims he has yet to hear the word "no" from his Netflix bosses, though he's definitely been nudged in certain directions. "They don't want me to do small, niche things," he says, acknowledging that not too long ago a project like Hollywood would have been deemed just that. "But they know how to market this," he explains, noting that Netflix will push his latest series on viewers who also like love stories, young adult series and LGBTQ fare.
And for those who worried the ultracompetitive producer would chafe in a system that doesn't provide a public report card (aka ratings), he argues that that's been liberating. Brennan backs him up, revealing how they received initial numbers for The Politician a week or two after it premiered late last summer and then another trove of data a month or so later; and though the latter could effectively game out how many people would watch the series over time, Brennan says, "We were sort of like, 'I don't think that's helpful.'"
Murphy takes it a step further, insisting he's no longer interested in the old metrics, like how many people are watching or how many awards a series has generated. "All the things that people tell you will make you feel successful … I have those things — they don't," he says. What matters to him now is being able to tell stories that he wishes he or others could have seen. To that end, he can't help but wonder what his own life would have been like had he witnessed Rock Hudson walking the Oscars red carpet as an openly gay man — and though it's too late to change his own experience, he would like to be able to improve the experience of others. So, he took a chance and made a different kind of story. "Hollywood," says Murphy, "can change the world."