Most people come to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune.
In Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series of the same name, they come for a trip to “Dreamland.”
“Dreamland” is a password uttered by customers at the filling station run by Ernie West (Dylan McDermott), a middle-aged failed actor who found a more lucrative way of making a living in LA. He runs a male prostitution ring staffed by clean-cut aspiring actors who service real-life figures like Cole Porter and fictitious characters such as Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), the neglected wife of bilious studio head Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner), as a way to make ends meet.
Inspired by the real-life exploits of Scotty Bowers, whose memoir “Full Service” shone a lubricious light on so many Hollywood legends — it was a good thing most of them were dead when the book was published in 2012 — “Hollywood” starts out as a tale where everyone and everything is for sale, and evolves into something more much humane. True stories of power plays and demoralization blend with episodes of unabashed magical thinking as Murphy, 54, rewrites Hollywood history, including the 1948 Oscar ceremony, erasing everything from racial discrimination to sexual shame.
“I wanted to do a show about buried history,” Murphy tells The Post. “I wanted to give some people who were dealt a terrible hand by Hollywood a happy ending. And I wanted to ask a big, revisionist history question, which was: If these people who were allowed to be who they were in the late 1940s and get that image up on the screen, would it change the trajectory of Hollywood and would it trickle down and change my life as a gay kid growing up in the 1970s who felt that I had no role models?”
Among the injured parties in “Hollywood” are Rock Hudson (Jay Picking), Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah), the first African-American actor to win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress for “Gone With the Wind” in 1940.)
“She was not allowed in the room when she won an Academy Award,” Murphy fumes. “They kept her in the [hotel] lobby because they had a segregation policy. Only when they found out that she won did they let her slip in a side entrance and she got to go on stage. And they kicked her right back out. And she never, for the rest of her life, got in the room again.”
In Murphy’s blending of the real and the fictitious, McDaniel becomes a mentor to aspiring black actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier), whose relationship with first-time director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) fast-tracks her career. She goes from playing maids to landing her first starring role in major studio picture written by a black man (Jeremy Pope). For his part, Ainsley wants to revive the career of Wong, the Chinese-American star who was famously passed over for the starring role of the Chinese peasant O-Lan in the 1937 film version of Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth.”
By the late 1940s, Murphy says Wong, who died in 1961, “couldn’t get good parts and hit the bottle very heavily.” It makes his blood boil. “Anna Way Wong’s screen test supposedly made grown men weep in the room it was so good. And they still wouldn’t give her the part,” he says. “They gave the part to [German actress] Luise Rainer, who just won an Oscar [for ‘The Great Ziegfeld’], and Scotch-taped up her eyes and put her in yellow face and she won an Academy Award for that movie. That is a true story and one of the great tragedies.”
One of the customers at Ernie’s filling station is a very young Hudson, whose path to stardom puts him in the crosshairs of real-life agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), a renowned predator who won’t sign the closeted actor unless he submits to Willson’s sexual desires. (Hudson briefly married Willson’s secretary, Phyllis Gates, to maintain the facade that he was straight.) Knowing how Hudson’s life ended, with his death from AIDS in 1985, makes his origin story all the more poignant and powerful.
“I always had a soft spot for Rock Hudson,” Murphy says. “I thought he was a great actor. Imagine if he was allowed to be gay and he was the first [gay movie star]. Not only would he have been happier, but imagine all of the people who would have had a role model.”