Warning: Spoilers ahead for Hollywood finale, “A Hollywood Ending.”
“Oh, yes! That is actually such a good reference because I love that movie. It was important, you know?” Hollywood star Laura Harrier tells Refinery29 a few days before the May 1 premiere of her Ryan Murphy Netflix extravaganza. Harrier could have easily been talking about Dorothy Dandrige’s 1954 musical Carmen Jones, which she credits as one of her favourite films from the movie-making Golden Era that Hollywood loves so much (“It was the first movie with all these black actors that was so beautiful and portrayed them as fully rounded human beings”).
But in that moment, Harrier was actually beaming at the thought of 1997 gem Cinderella, starring pop star Brandy as the first-ever black actress to play the titular princess on the big screen. It is difficult to watch Camille’s journey through Hollywood’s season 1 finale, “A Hollywood Ending,” and not think of Brandy’s Cinderella. Both are black actresses in beautiful princess gowns, taking a piece of the Hollywood pie never-before afforded to anyone who looked like them. For Brandy, it’s Cinderella’s glass slipper; for Camille, she’s making in-Hollywood history as the first ever black woman to win an Oscar.
When I was a little girl walking down the street, I was called a lot of things. ‘Movie star’ wasn’t one of them.
camille's (Laura Harrier) oscar speech
“I didn’t think about it like that, but thank you,” Harrier says about the comparison. That’s because the Hollywood star instead looked to another black actress for the building blocks of Camille, particularly when it came to her big Oscars finale in “Ending:” Halle Berry, the real-life first black woman to ever win the Oscar for Best Actress.
“I was so nervous! I had to get up in front of a room, this auditorium of people like, Oh, I guess I’ll give my Oscar speech now,” Harrier admits about filming the Oscars scenes in “Ending,” which took about a week to shoot. In the episode, Camille makes the jump from aspiring actress to bona fide movie star when her breakout film, Meg, hits theatres in 1947. Camille plays the eponymous role, a young actress who nearly dies by suicide after being rejected — and spit out — by the Hollywood machine. Camille becomes an overnight sensation for her work, eventually getting an Academy Award nomination, fighting her way to her seat come Oscar night (against the behest of racist producers), and, finally, winning the 1948 Best Actress race.
It’s an emotionally exhaustive story for one person to carry, so Harrier took notes on how Berry handled the weight of the moment in 2002 for her winning performance in Monster’s Ball. “It was so emotional and so groundbreaking and so overdue, honestly. That was in 2002. Thinking about the impact it could have had on the world, not just on film, but on society as a whole had that been able to happen 80 years earlier,” Harrier continues, “it just really would have changed the world in a really big way.”
Hollywood seems to agree with that sentiment. As Camille gives her acceptance speech — “When I was a little girl walking down the street, I was called a lot of things. ‘Movie star’ wasn’t one of them,” she begins to a teary room — “Ending” flashes to a Black girl listening and lighting up, just from hearing Camille’s voice over the radio airwaves. Camille ends the speech by saying her win is proof that no little girl “will ever again be told that there are limits to what you can achieve.” It’s a scene engineered to make you cry over the enormity of the occasion.
“Camille would have realised the weight to this as well. Obviously, it’s an amazing honour to win an Oscar as an actor, but for her it was about more than that,” Harrier explains of her character in this piece of “faction,” or fact-fiction hybrid, as she says creator Ryan Murphy calls it. “It was about little black girls growing up like she did with not much and never seeing themselves reflected on-screen — never seeing themselves portrayed as intelligent or glamorous or beautiful, and recognising that this is going to change the way that the world sees us.”
Harrier — who feels “fortunate” she grew up with women like Berry, Oscar-nominee/now-fellow Ryan Murphy universe player Angela Bassett, and Jada Pinkett Smith as living inspirations — took that “knowledge” to set as the foundation of her big moment. “I tried to put that feeling through in those scenes as opposed to just being like, Oh my God, I won an Oscar,” Harrier said. “Which is awesome, but there was definitely the weight of history behind it and that’s the grounding factor in the scene.”
Still, the actress is hopeful the impact of Camille’s success isn’t limited to the confines of Hollywood’s alternate reality, where white actress Loretta Young actually won the Oscar in 1948 and a black woman wouldn’t hold the same statue for 54 more years. “[Hollywood] makes people think What if? and What if all of these things had been able to happen?,” Harrier said.
“Hopefully thinking about it like that inspires people now to keep pushing forward and keep fighting for representation and for the visibility of all people on-screen — and recognising how that affects everyone," she continues. “If you see yourself on-screen and if you feel inspired and like you’re not alone, that changes the way that people carry themselves through the world.”
But before you think everything about “Ending” is a dream, Harrier is here to dispel that fantasy. “When I first put on that Oscars dress, I was like, I love this dress. I feel like a princess. I think the last time i took it off, I threw it on the ground and stomped on it,” she admitted. “It’s so uncomfortable. As beautiful as it was, I never want to see that dress again.”