Hollywood, the new Netflix limited series from writer/producer Ryan Murphy, is an alternate history story about challenging the barriers against equal representation during the Golden Age of cinema. The show follows a diverse group of hopeful young creatives who come together to make Meg, a movie about a struggling Black actress loosely based on the real-life story of Peg Enwistle, an actress who famously committed suicide by jumping off of the Hollywoodland sign in 1932. Midway through the series, director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss) decides to change Archie’s (Jeremy Pope) original script about Entwistle into a fictional story about an actress named Meg Ennis, to be played by Camille Washington (Laura Harrier). Eventually, the ending is also changed to make the story more hopeful, with Meg deciding to climb down off of the sign rather than jumping to her death. Despite protests from conservative (read: racist) groups around the country objecting to the casting of a Black lead actress opposite a white love interest, Meg becomes a box office smash and scores a number of Oscar nominations. The climax of the series is the 1948 Academy Awards ceremony, with Meg winning a number of awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay for Archie, Best Actress for Camille, and Best Supporting Actress for Anna May Wong (played by Michelle Krusiec).
Now, if for some reason you happen to remember the 1948 Academy Awards, you probably noticed that Murphy changed some things. (And if you’re confused by the whole “alternate history” hook, I’ve got some wild news for you about the ending of Inglorious Basterds.) The actual Best Picture winner that year was Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement (with Kazan also winning Best Director). Edmund Gwenn did win Best Supporting Actor for Miracle on 34th Street, so Jack Castello’s (David Corenswet) loss is technically historically accurate. But it was important to end the series with the cast and crew of Meg earning widespread cultural acceptance as well the acceptance of their peers in the film industry, because even though it sadly didn’t happen back in 1948, it’s a powerful message for viewers in 2020. And according to a recent conversation Murphy had with Collider, the 1948 Oscars ceremony was the endpoint he’d envisioned all along. He also knew from the start that he wanted to correct the way Wong and Hattie McDaniel (played by Queen Latifah) had been treated by Hollywood, and to have Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) stand up to Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons) and come out as a homosexual.
“…I always knew that the 1948 Oscars was the end. And the thing that I was always the most interested in the piece was… When I was growing up, I didn’t have anybody to look at in terms of somebody who was like me. Where I could be like, ‘Oh, well, that person is successful.’ I remember very early on my grandmother telling me that Rock Hudson was [gay]. And I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ I was obsessed with that idea… And I thought, ‘Oh, there is somebody else like me.’…I always knew that Rock Hudson would be able to be free of Henry Wilson and be out and proud and himself. And I always knew that I wanted Anna May Wong to finally win an Academy Award that I think she deserved. And I always knew that I wanted Hattie McDaniel to be able to be in that room and not have to wait in the lobby. I was writing towards that idea.
And then we got to the idea, well, what if somebody had been brave enough to make this movie in the late 40s and it won all these Oscars, and all of these people who before were marginalized were suddenly the heroes and heroines of their story. Would that have changed, not just my life in what I had seen growing up but everybody else’s? And I came to the conclusion, it probably would have because we would have been 50 years ahead of the curve in terms of women’s rights and gay rights and a black woman winning an Oscar. I think it would have had a profound effect.”
Surprisingly, Murphy didn’t originally intend for Camille to get the lead role in Meg, nor was it his initial plan to have Raymond change the film from being a direct biopic about Peg Entwistle. The idea to change the movie and put Camille in the lead role came about organically as the show was being written.
“It was a very interesting experience writing the piece because I always was always very interested in the Peg Entwistle story… And I think halfway through the writing of the first couple of episodes, it dawned on [us]… “Well, fuck this, the African American girl should get this part.” But we’ve all been indoctrinated to think, “Oh no, it’s the white blonde who should always play the romantic lead.” Once we came upon that idea that Laura Harrier should be, all we have to do is make it Meg instead of Peg. That was sort of a very interesting sort of meta idea where we were kind of grappling with what Hollywood always grapples with, which is casting and who gets to tell what story and who’s the lead and who’s the sidekick.”
Hollywood’s alternate history storyline and genuinely heartwarming positivity made it a surprising series (especially coming from Murphy, who is primarily known for darker material like American Horror Story and American Crime Story). But it was an extremely refreshing surprise, particularly considering the state of the world at the time of this writing. If you haven’t seen it (and if that’s the case, why on earth did you just spoil the ending for yourself?), all 7 episodes are currently streaming on Netflix. For more on the show, you can check out my review and read Collider’s in-depth interview with Murphy about the series.