Breaking down the real-life inspirations behind the star-studded ensemble series about the Golden Age of Tinseltown.
Ryan Murphy’s limited series Hollywood follows a group of aspiring actors and filmmakers -- Jack Castello (David Corenswet), Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) and Claire Wood (Samara Weaving) -- trying to make it during post-World War II era of Tinseltown.
The stories of these fictional characters unfold alongside the real-life events and personalities that helped define the Golden Age of Hollywood: leading man Rock Hudson (portrayed here by Jake Picking), actors of color Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah), notorious agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), as well as Peg Entwistle’s suicide, George Cukor’s lavish dinner parties and Scotty Bowers’ sexual dalliances.
But since this is Murphy’s take on the past, Hollywood gets a rewrite -- and he freely admits to taking creative license with which parts he wanted to include. “It really just started with my own interests,” he tells ET of his desire to feature the likes of Hudson, McDaniel and Wong in the series, whereas someone like Bowers is referenced but not explicitly depicted on screen.
With Hollywood now streaming on Netflix, ET breaks down the real-life inspirations behind Murphy’s take on Tinseltown. (Warning: Minor spoilers below.)
Anna May Wong and The Good Earth
Anna May Wong was considered Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star, appearing in early sound-era films like Daughter of the Dragon, Daughter of Shanghai and Shanghai Express opposite Marlene Dietrich. Despite her growing popularity and international fame, she was often relegated to supporting roles that played on Asian stereotypes.
The worst aggrievance Wong faced was in 1935, when MGM Studios refused to consider her for the lead role -- a Chinese character named O-Lan -- in the film adaptation of The Good Earth. Instead, the part went to Luise Rainer, who later won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. The offense sent Wong on a yearlong tour of China, where she reconnected with her family and ancestral culture.
By the time Wong appears on the series, she is somewhat of a recluse, a heavy drinker and still resentful over what happened to her. “She was so elegant, even when she was being hypersexualized,” Krusiec says, explaining that Wong always maintained her composure. But when Raymond talks to her about working again it catches her off guard, “You're catching her in a moment where the mask is off,” she adds.
Hattie McDaniel and the 1940 Oscars
An actress, singer and comedian, Hattie McDaniel is best known for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, which earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first person of color to win an Oscar.
Despite being a well-known star and one of the nominees for the 12th Annual Academy Awards, McDaniel was forced to segregate from the white audience in attendance at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where the ceremony took place. At the time, the hotel had a strict policy that didn’t permit black people from entering the premises. However, according to The Hollywood Reporter, she and her escort were allowed to sit at a “small table set against a far wall,” as a favor to producer David O. Selznick.
On the series, McDaniel serves as something of a mentor to Washington, who finds herself dealing with the racism that comes along with fame.
Scotty Bowers and Sex at the Richfield Oil Gas Station
A former Marine, Scotty Bowers gained notoriety as a Hollywood pimp, first while working as an attendant at the local Richfield Oil gas station, before later becoming a party bartender. Over time, his sexual exploits became legend -- but were also the subject of scrutiny, because many of the people he discussed in his book, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, and later in the documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, were dead or unable to respond.
While he’s not a character in the series (“I was interested more in the gas station,” Murphy says), Bowers’ story is loosely interpreted by Ernie (Dylan McDermott), the well-endowed actor turned owner of a local gas station that services vehicles as well as the sexual needs of their drivers. One such client is the wife of a studio president, Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone), who hires Jack. LuPone reveals that the first thing she filmed with Corenswet was one of their sex scenes. “First thing we did, we met each and we got down -- and that was on the banister,” she says.
George Cukor’s Elite Dinners and Cole Porter’s Notorious Naked Pool Parties
During the heyday of longtime director George Cukor, it was an open secret that he was gay. While he was never public about his sexuality at the time, he was afforded allowances many others in Hollywood were not. According to What Price Hollywood?: Gender and Sex in the Films of George Cukor, one of those was his recurring Sunday dinners “with well-spoken elite friends,” who often included the likes of Vivien Leigh, closeted celebrities and a rotation of attractive young men. Cukor’s events were the high-class version of composer Cole Porter’s “naked pool parties for young men” that took place across town.
In Murphy’s version of such events, all of them happen all at once, with Leigh (Katie McGuinness) playing hostess alongside Cukor to the likes of closeted filmmaker Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello), while Ernie brings in men from his gas station who quickly disrobe and heat things up in the pool out back. Despite merging events, the production went to painstaking efforts to recreate Cukor’s famously intricate estate, using four separate locations to film the party scenes.
Peg Entwistle's Suicide
Entwistle was an English actress who found success on the Broadway stage before moving to Los Angeles during the Great Depression. In 1932, she landed her first and only credited film role in Thirteen Women, a female-driven psychological thriller, in which she played Hazel Cousins. However, because of the Hays Code, parts of the film were cut, including much of her part. A month before the film’s release, she climbed to the top of the H in the Hollywood Sign and jumped to her death at the age of 24.
What happened to Entwistle is what Murphy describes as a “cautionary tale” and one he wanted to in the series because of the parallels with his own characters, who wanted nothing more than their moment to shine. Ultimately, her story is the subject of Archie and Raymond’s ambitious movie, Peg (later renamed Meg), at the center of Hollywood. “She came here, tried to make it big. She actually got a break. She actually filmed a great part,” he says of Entwistle, who fell victim to the pressures of the industry’s narrowing moral guidelines at the time. “And she thought, ‘Well, I'm never going to get an opportunity again.’ And so that was it.”
Rock Hudson’s Rise to Stardom and Life in the Closet
The story of Rock Hudson in Hollywood is very different from the real-life events that led him to becoming one of the era’s most notable leading men and star of many romantic comedies while keeping his homosexuality hidden from the press and public. The actor even married Phyllis Gates for a brief time to keep suspicions at bay. He eventually died of AIDS-related complications in 1985. He was 59 and still in the closet up until his death.
Notably, where Hudson’s real life and the one in Hollywood diverges is when he signs with Willson, who, in addition to making him a star, also kept the budding actor’s affairs out of the tabloids while also preying on his insecurities. Soon after, he makes his debut in Archie and Raymond’s film Meg (which is a far different story than the one told in Peggy, the 1950 comedy that marked Hudson’s second on-screen role at the time). His involvement in Meg and subsequent relationship with Archie, however, sends Hudson’s career and personal life down a road not taken in real life.
That road, Picking says, is “a love story.” The actor, who is new to Murphy’s universe, adds that his portrayal of the leading man was more about “capturing the essence of who Rock Hudson really was,” while also trying to “pay homage and respect to his legacy.”
Henry Willson’s Shady Practices
According to Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood From Edison to Stonewall, agent Henry Willson “had a singular knack for discovering and renaming young actors whose visual appeal transcended any lack of ability. Under his tutelage, Robert Moseley became Guy Madison, Orison Whipple Hungerford Jr. was renamed Ty Hardin, Arthur Gelien was changed to Tab Hunter, and Roy Scherer turned into Rock Hudson.” But his clients’ success often came at a cost.
Perhaps the most despicable person depicted in Hollywood (“He's a complicated human,” Parsons says of his character), Willson is seen taking advantage of young stars like Castello and Hudson, blackmailing others to get what he wants and even cozying up to the mafia to get help taking care of potential problems with the press.
For the most part, everything seen on screen is fairly accurate. Willson was able to keep Confidential magazine from outing Hudson by trading stories about two of his other clients, and he frequently coerced his young male clients into sexual relationships in exchange for roles. While in the show his mafia consort is named Mickey, the character is not that dissimilar from New Jersey–born gangster Eddie Mannix, whose position at MGM ensured the studio’s biggest scandals were kept hidden from the public eye.
The Resurgence of Lana Turner
While there are many cameos of the likes of Leigh and Hedda Hopper, the gossip reporter who also appeared in Feud: Bette and Joan, there’s one actress whose presence is felt but never seen: Lana Turner, who went from beautiful teenage ingénue to one of MGM’s biggest stars in the 1930s. However, a decade later, the studio opted not to renew her contract after back-to-back critical and commercial failures. But she quickly bounced back and earned her one and only Oscar nomination for her performance in Peyton Place in 1957.
A loose version of Turner is depicted in the series by Mira Sorvino, who goes platinum blonde as Jeanne Crandall, a star of the silent era who has struggled to find the right role to make her shine and ends up sleeping with studio head Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner). “That was whom I was told to look at as inspiration for the character,” the actress says, adding that her overall look was directly inspired by the late icon of glamour.
--Additional reporting by Keltie Knight