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Wild parties, repression and tragedy: the true stories behind Hollywood, our latest Netflix addiction

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Anna Brech
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The new Netflix series Hollywood rewrites history for a series of stars whose lives were blighted by racism, sexism and mental health battles. Here are the real-life stories behind the show.

Fabulous costumes, a stellar cast and the whiff of old-school cinematic glamour.

It’s little wonder that Hollywood, the new seven-part Netflix series from screenwriter Ryan Murphy, has us all agog on the edge of our sofas.

This is the kind of viewing that slow nights on lockdown were made for, as it whisks us off to a parallel world where a group of aspiring actors and filmmakers are attempting to make it big in post-World War II Hollywood.

The reason why the show is so compelling is that it rewrites the biases of racism, sexism and prejudice that were entrenched in 1940s Hollywood (and that still persist today) with a series of aspirational “what ifs”?

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In a love letter to the industry, Hollywood subverts the reality of what really happened in Tinseltown during its boom era, as it hands Oscars to people who never won or allows characters to be open about their sexuality when in reality, they never could.

For all its magical elements, however, much of this fictional show is inspired by real-life characters from a bygone era of cinema. These are the bold movers and shakers who really did dare to dream a dream and make their mark in a booming industry ruled by a small, intractable set of moguls. The series Hollywood reimagines history, gifting them a happily ever after that often wasn’t the case.

So if you’re loving the miniseries as much as we are right now, come meet the real-life faces whose stories are infused throughout.

Anna May Wong (played by Michelle Krusiec)

Anna May Wong is often hailed as Hollywood’s first Asian American movie star, but her career in the early 20th century film industry was blighted by endemic racism and prejudice. 

The Chinese-American actor found fame in silent movies from the 1920s onwards, yet she was often sidelined into stereotyped parts of a dragon lady or a butterfly that exoticised her heritage. Equally, she often played the role of a submissive slave girl or servant. It has since emerged that Anna May was routinely underpaid compared to her white colleagues, too.

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Perhaps the biggest slight of Anna May’s career came when she missed out on the role of Chinese villager O-Lan in 1937 drama The Good Earth, despite an excellent screen test.

When the part of O-Lan’s husband, Wang Lung, went to Paul Muni, a white actor, a production code that banned on-screen interracial relationships meant that Anna May was automatically ruled out. The part instead went to German-American actor Luise Rainer, who went on to win an Oscar for it.

While the series Hollywood attempts to right some major wrongs of Anna May’s life story, her real-life experience of breaking down boundaries was an altogether bleaker one. As her character in the Netflix series says: “My entire career: oversexed, opium-addled courtesans; dangerously exotic Far Eastern temptresses. That’s what they wanted to see from someone who looks like me.”

Hattie McDaniel (played by Queen Latifah)

The first black actor to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel blazed a trail for women of colour in Hollywood. The triumph came for her portrayal of “Mammy” in 1939 classic Gone With The Wind. Incredibly, this groundbreaking moment was undermined by the fact that she had to sit at a separate table to her co-stars during the ceremony at a segregated hotel with a “no coloured” policy. 

Though Hattie’s story is in many ways one to celebrate – the 13th child of two former slaves who went on to land Hollywood’s highest honour – it is also punctuated by sadness. Hattie took on more than 70 roles of servants, maids and cooks in her career, and was unable to escape these negative stereotypes even after her Oscars victory. However it didn’t take away from the enormity of the achievement. “This was too big a moment for my personal back-slapping,” Hattie later said, of winning her Oscar. “I wanted this occasion to prove an inspiration to Negro youth for many years to come.”

Tallulah Bankhead (played by Paget Brewster)

A larger-than-life personality, Tallulah Bankhead was the life and soul of Hollywood in the early 1930s. Whenever she went, the scent of scandal followed – this is a woman who freely dabbled in alcohol and cocaine, who had countless affairs with men and women, and who was always at the centre of debaucherous parties (she was well-known for throwing off her clothes after a few drinks).

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However, it seems Tallulah’s party-hard reputation was also the undoing of her. Her roles started to dry up in the mid-30s as a more censorious mindset took hold in Hollywood (surely it would have been fine for a male star to behave in such an outrageous way, and many did, but a woman doing so was frowned upon). One film director who worked with her also lashed out at Tallulah’s “hooded and dead” eyes, illustrating clearly how the women of Hollywood were often reduced to their looks.

Tallaluh’s career did pick up later on again, as she pivoted between Broadway and Hollywood, all the while continuing to thrive in her exhibitionist reputation. She struggled with drugs and alcohol as she became older though, although she never lost her sense of humour. In later years, when people on the street asked her, “aren’t you Tallulah Bankhead?” she was fond of replying, “I’m what’s left of her, darling.”

Vivien Leigh (played by Katie McGuinness)

She was one of the greatest lights of old-school Hollywood, winning hearts and minds with her Oscar-winning turn as Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. But Vivien Leigh’s rapid rise to fame in 1930s Hollywood was marred by her lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder. She also had a tumultuous on-off relationship with her great love, husband Laurence Olivier.

Vivien makes a cameo during a party scene in Hollywood, during which she disappears off to cavort with a guest while her husband, “Larry”, is away. The account is based on the memoir Full Service: My Adventures In Hollywood And The Secret Sex Lives Of The Stars by United States marine turned Hollywood pimp Scotty Bowers.

Rock Hudson (played by Jake Picking)

Rock Hudson was the legendary screen icon and heartthrob who became an overnight star with his performance in 1954’s Magnificent Obsession.

Hudson was gay but he kept his sexuality a secret under pressure from movie bosses, who felt it would damage his reputation as a sex symbol. His agent Henry Willson was even rumoured to have made him “eradicate” perceived signs of “femininity” such as swaying hips.

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At one point he was forced into a brief and unhappy marriage with his agent’s secretary, Phyllis Gates. After a box office-smashing career, Rock died of Aids in 1985. It was later revealed that former First Lady Nancy Reagan, a close friend of Rock’s, refused to help him get treatment because Aids was seen as “a gay disease”.

Henry Willson (played by Jim Parsons)

Henry Willson was a Hollywood talent agent who was known for grooming young, good-looking men and transforming them into overnight stars. His clients included Rock Hudson and many others who were known to have performed sexual favours for him in return for furthering their careers. 

“He was a tormented gay man who preyed on tormented gay men. He would be their manager and make them sexually service him,” Hollywood director Ryan Murphy said. Henry’s story ended in drug abuse and destitution, not long after Rock managed to break free from his grip. 

Catch Hollywood on Netflix now

Images: Netflix and Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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