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6 May 2020

There are many things wrong with Netflix’s smug series Hollywood – but the sex scenes really stand out

The acting is hammy, the writing is clichéd, and someone’s always humping someone.

By Rachel Cooke

There’s been quite a lot of talk lately about intimacy coordinators, a discussion provoked both by the BBC’s adaptation of Normal People, which deployed one, and by the fact that thanks to Covid-19, even pretend sexual shenanigans are a highly challenging proposition from hereon in. But I remain somewhat baffled by the concept. How does one train for this vocation? What qualifications are required? It’s hard to believe, for instance, that an intimacy coordinator did indeed work on Hollywood, the egregious new Netflix series brought to us by Ryan Murphy, TV auteur extraordinaire (Glee, The Assassination of Gianni Versace). Looking on, open-mouthed, I wondered whether the talented professional in question had ever actually had sex themselves. 

There are lots of things wrong with Murphy’s smug, flabby attempt to rewrite the history of postwar Tinseltown: the acting is so hammy you could grill it and serve it with an egg-white omelette; the writing is a conveyor belt of cliché at least as long as Mulholland Drive. But it’s the sex that really (no sniggering) stands out. OK, so there’s plenty of it. Someone’s always humping someone. All the same, I don’t believe in a million years that – to take one example – a rich, sophisticated, middle-aged woman, having paid her local pump attendant handsomely for a little extra fuel on the side, wants nothing more than to be taken roughly over the bannister of her Beverly Hills mansion, her clothes all the while still firmly attached to her body. I mean, come on! Let a girl loosen her waistband, at least. 

The woman in question is Avis Amberg, the neglected wife of a Hollywood studio boss; she’s played by Patti LuPone, the Broadway star. Having once interviewed LuPone, I’m surprised she didn’t point all this out to her director; she can be terrifyingly direct. But perhaps by this stage, she’d already given up. Surrounded as she is by charisma-free zones like David Corenswet, who plays her gigolo Jack Castello, and Jake Picking, whose turn as Rock Hudson has all the animation of a lump of sealing wax, LuPone must know she’s the best thing in Hollywood by a mile, however rubbish her lines.

Murphy has a taste for high camp, gossip and scandal. He has visited old Hollywood before, in the form of Feud, a series about the bitter rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davies that gave me more pleasure than it should have (it won two Emmys: one for hair, the other for non-prosthetic make-up). But while Hollywood draws on the true story of Scotty Bowers (now called Ernie and played by Dylan McDermott), the noted LA pimp and one-time gas station attendant, here the naughtiness ends, replaced by a creepy preachiness. In this version of Hollywood’s Golden Age, all the old prejudices are in play: racism, anti-Semitism, ageism, homophobia. Such things, however, will definitely not hold back our young heroes and heroines. When they get together – among their number a Filipino director, and a black, gay screenwriter – nothing can stop them: with their movie about Peg Entwistle, the silent star who jumped off the Hollywood sign, they will not only make their dreams come true, they will recalibrate the entire movie business.

Abracadabra! A wand has been waved, sprinkles everywhere. Murphy and his co-creator Ian Brennan have indulged in a fantasy that (more or less) does away with darkness. In doing so, they’ve mislaid something else: any sense of jeopardy. We don’t worry about their characters because we know early on that all will be well. Nothing is going on beneath the surface here; everyone is exactly what they appear to be. At one point, Archie (Jeremy Pope), a screenwriter, helps his boyfriend, an aspiring actor who’ll shortly change his name from Roy to Rock, to rehearse a line. As he talks earnestly of subtext, you wonder that it didn’t occur to Murphy that his own script wants for any sign of such a thing. He may have magicked up a shiny, new, alternative Hollywood. But at some point, something went badly wrong. Murphy might well be big – his deal at Netflix is said to be worth $300m – but the pictures were never this small. 

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This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain