Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Beyond <i>Hollywood</i>: What to watch for the backstory on Tinseltown’s golden age

Beyond Hollywood: What to watch for the backstory on Tinseltown’s golden age

Critics are divided on Netflix’s Hollywood, the latest journey into the golden age of movie-making by Ryan Murphy (and co-creator Ian Brennan), this time viewed through a rose-colored lens. Hollywood paints a picture of an American movie industry in which Rock Hudson didn’t have to be in the closet, and a Black woman wouldn’t have had to wait until the 21st century to win a Best Actress Oscar. Some appreciate the show’s spirited and picturesque image of a better destiny for marginalized populations. Others find the show’s sunny but cloying idealistic take self-congratulatory. Nevertheless, as The A.V. Club’s review put it, “The episodes zip by and the story is exciting, even if you’re not an insider. If you are a fan… expect plenty of history and rumor.”

Maybe you’d like some assistance differentiating between the history from the rumors. Or perhaps Hollywood has sparked your interest in some of the actors it discusses and the era it represents. The A.V. Club has compiled a short list of Hollywood background material: movies featuring some of its featured players, TV series and films that take on similar material, and documentaries that show what gay people and people of color were up against in the so-called golden age of Hollywood. All are available via streaming services unless otherwise indicated. (If you’re concerned about Hollywood spoilers, though, you may want to watch the whole series before reading.)

Shanghai Express (1932)

One of Hollywood’s many character arcs features Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), the first Chinese American actor to achieve fame in Hollywood, losing the lead in 1937’s The Good Earth to white actress Luise Rainer, who won the Oscar for her performance. Hollywood’s version of Wong eventually finds mainstream success, but in actuality the actress was mostly limited to stereotypical roles, as in 1931’s Daughter Of The Dragon. Wong’s drinking problem, alluded to in Hollywood, wound up taking a toll on her health; she already had cirrhosis when she died of a heart attack in 1961 at the age of 56. Despite a system firmly stacked against her, Wong still managed a few bright spots in her career, like the 1922 silent color film The Toll Of The Sea, a transcendent version of Madame Butterfly. Shanghai Express was Wong’s biggest Hollywood success, starring Marlene Dietrich as courtesan Shanghai Lily, who befriends Wong’s Hui Fei on a three-day train trip through war-torn China. The movie unfortunately is not streaming, but is available via the Criterion Collection.

The Bad And The Beautiful (1952)

Hollywood is only the latest in a long line of productions that prove that the film industry’s favorite subject is itself. If you’re intrigued by the series’ behind-the-scenes look at the studio system, check out this 1952 Vincente Minnelli film. The Bad And The Beautiful offers a similarly melodramatic meta look at filmmaking around the same period. Using the multiple-narrator structure so popular at the time (in everything from Citizen Kane to A Letter To Three Wives), The Bad And The Beautiful tracks the rise and fall of Jonathan Shields, a Selznick/Welles-type boy wonder producer (Kirk Douglas), through the stories of a director (Barry Sullivan), writer (Dick Powell), and star (Lana Turner, the Beautiful part of the title) who have all sworn never to work with him again. It’s a fun peek behind the curtain, with myriad views of sound stages and backlots to provide perspective of the movie industry from the inside out.

Carmen Jones (1954)

Another plot thread in the series follows a fictional character named Camille (Laura Harrier), a talented Black actress who aspires to break out of playing only servant roles. She receives career advice from Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah), who was the only Black actress to win an Oscar (for her role in 1939’s Gone With The Wind) until Whoopi Goldberg’s 1990 Supporting Actress win for Ghost. Dorothy Dandridge received the very first Best Actress Oscar nomination for a Black woman for her performance in 1952’s Carmen Jones, an all-Black adaptation of the opera Carmen directed by Otto Preminger. As the effervescent Carmen, Dandridge gleefully explodes onto the screen, easily enticing Joe (Harry Belafonte) away from his straitlaced fiancée and elevating herself from bit player to outright movie star. But the movie turned out to be the peak of Dandridge’s too-brief career.

Rock Hudson/Douglas Sirk movies (1950s)

As depicted in Hollywood, Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) was indeed a bit bricklike in the earliest days of his acting career. He blossomed under the tutelage of Douglas Sirk, one of the first directors to have unshaken faith in Hudson’s acting ability. Sirk captured Hudson’s looks as well as his strong yet compassionate presence in a successful string of melodramatic films during the ’50s. In Magnificent Obsession (1954), Hudson is a careless playboy who improbably becomes a surgeon who restores the sight of the woman he’s in love with (Jane Wyman). The two of them reunite in All That Heaven Allows (1955): He plays a hunky tree surgeon/younger man who Wyman falls for, to the shock of her family and friends. In Written On The Wind (1956), the standout of the Sirk/Hudson collaboration, Hudson plays a man in love with the wife (Lauren Bacall) of his oil scion best friend (Robert Stack), while fending off the advances of his best friend’s sister (Dorothy Malone). The film is a pressure-cooker of emotion that results in a number of deliciously over-the-top scenes. While Sirk also directed Hudson in films like The Tarnished Angels and Never Say Goodbye, these three represent their peak together: Sirk uses Technicolor to craft a rich pastel palette, giving these breathtakingly soapy love stories an idealized backdrop to frame Hudson’s commanding performances. These films are also not streaming, but are available through Criterion.

The Celluloid Closet (1995)

As the series follows a variety of closeted people in Hollywood (both fictional and real), this documentary traces how gay themes been depicted in film since the industry’s earliest days, from a string of “sissy” characters in early comedies to queer villains that show up in later films like Cruising and Basic Instinct. Homosexuality was played for laughs in movies like Pillow Talk, in which gay actor Rock Hudson played a straight man trying to seduce a woman by pretending to be gay. Narrated by Lily Tomlin, and based on the book by her close friend Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet features interviews with people like Armistead Maupin, Harvey Fierstein, Shirley MacLaine, Gore Vidal, Susan Sarandon, and Tony Curtis to discuss the various depictions of queerness across decades in film, showing how Hollywood’s happy ending of a mainstream gay film was still just a pipe dream in the postwar era.

Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood (2017)

Dylan McDermott’s Hollywood character, Eddie, runs a gas station unsubtly named the Golden Tip, where luminaries like Cole Porter stop by for quick sexual gratification from the garage’s stable of handsome men. Eddie is not-so-loosely based on Scotty Bowers, who ran a similar gas station that offered such favors for $20 apiece. Like Eddie, Bowers was an unapologetic social luminary, whose life is explored in the 2017 documentary Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood. Based on his own tell-all, the much more cleverly titled Full Service, Bowers regales his interviewers with stories of attending the George Cukor parties depicted in Hollywood, procuring sexual companions for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and having a three-way with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, a tale that wound up in Confidential magazine. As Bowers reminisces, “It’s hard to believe, unless you were there, how fun that gas station was.” He died last year at the age of 96.

Feud (2017)

For a Ryan Murphy project that hews closer to the facts of Hollywood’s golden era, take a look at his 2017 production Feud. The FX miniseries explores the longtime rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, which came to a head in their 1962 film Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? Feud is just as steeped in old-school Hollywood as Hollywood is, but with some real-life legends to explore. Both Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon are exemplary in their roles as Crawford and Davis, respectively, and there’s also Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland hanging out in her palatial country home, Kathy Bates happily gossiping as Joan Blondell, and Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich, the director forced to deal with the battling screen queens. It’s as gorgeous and period-perfect as Hollywood, with the added bonus of being a somewhat true story.