Warning: Major spoilers for Netflix’s Hollywood ahead.
“It was 1998, and I was meeting for Popular with an executive at The WB, who has since died,” Ryan Murphy explains to Refinery29 over the phone. “He would make fun of me in these meetings, imitate my voice and make me sound very feminine. He gave me a note on a Popular script, where I had one of the characters wearing a fur coat. He said, ‘You have to take it out...It’s code for gay. You’re being very gay here.’”
This is not a story of the first time Murphy was discriminated against in Hollywood. It is, however, the first time he remembers pushing back.
“I responded: ‘Good luck. You won’t. Go ahead. Cancel the show.’ I stood up, walked out, and I never spoke to him again,” he says. “I remember the thrill of that pushback, thinking: You're just a fucking homophobic bigot. And I'm not going to do your notes.”
Now, two decades later, Murphy has his most Ryan Murphy show yet: Hollywood, a fairytale about the Golden Age of Tinseltown in which each player triumphs in small and large ways over a sexist, homophobic, and racist system.
The show is splashy, and at times jaw-dropping, starting with Hollywood's "best kept secret" of the time, a gas station where sex workers tend to closeted celebrities like Rock Hudson (portrayed by Jake Picking in the series). Patti LuPone's Avis Amberg also frequents the station to find distractions from her cheating studio head husband (Rob Reiner), but it's mostly a place where queer people can be themselves. Like many Murphy shows, hidden amongst the glitz, glamour, sex and shirtless men, is a message about the importance of inclusion.
Murphy is one of the most successful TV writers on the planet. The New Yorker has called Murphy "The Most Powerful Man in Television," and he was dubbed a "Super Producer" by The New York Times. In 2018, he signed a five-year, $300 million dollar deal with Netflix, out earning fellow television producers Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy) and Kenya Barris (Black-ish) who also signed Netflix deals. It’s hard to imagine a time when Murphy wasn’t the Ryan Murphy — yet it was that time, during which he faced down homophobic executives and advertisers, that fueled Murphy’s writing.
Murphy’s very first series, the one he received the most pushback, was high school dramedy Popular. The show, starring Leslie Bibb and Carly Pope, ultimately split critics, but has since become a cult favorite, a prototype that highlighted Murphy's passion for camp, zippy dialogue, and criticism of society's pecking order. It ran for two seasons on The WB from 1999 to 2001.
"When I was doing Popular, I was told that my sensibility was too gay, that it was too female, that it wouldn't sell cereal, to change it,” Murphy says.
He went on to create Nip/Tuck, a sexy medical drama about two plastic surgeons that included storylines about serial killers and paternity drama. It was outlandish, to be sure — but not quite as niche as Popular. It ran over 100 episodes over the course of seven years on FX before bowing out in 2010.
Yet, it was the teen-centric spiritual successor of Popular that reached stratospheric success (six seasons, millions in iTunes sales, and a concert movie) and cemented Murphy as one of television’s most powerful showrunners.
Fox’s Glee — a musical series about high school misfits who join a show choir group — ran from 2009 to 2015. The show’s version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (performed by the group in the pilot episode, and then again...and again...and again over the years) may have sealed its place in pop culture, but its the diverse cast, queer love stories, and unapologetic celebration of the outsider that makes it so beloved by fans. It's these same themes that Murphy continues to explore in Hollywood, albeit set post World War II instead of in modern-day America.
The romance between Blaine (Darren Criss, who portrays director Raymond in Hollywood) and Kurt (Chris Colfer) on Glee is one fans are particularly passionate about. Kurt’s struggle to come out, and the bullying he receives due to his sexual orientation, is also one of the show’s most emotional plotlines.
I ask Murphy how he thinks Blaine and Kurt’s storyline on Glee would have been different if the version of Hollywood he presents on his Netflix series really happened. He’s not sure Blaine and Kurt would have existed at all.
“I believe in that idea of, ‘If you see it, you can become it.’ I never grew up with any [Hollywood] representation,” he explains, noting that the gay characters he saw onscreen were often tortured, maimed, or killed. “If Rock Hudson had been out and successful when I was a child, I think many more people would have followed in his brave footsteps. I would not have had to fight so hard. I would not have felt the urgency to put those images and stories up on the screen.”
Early in his screenwriting career, Murphy played by the book, indoctrinated with antiquated rules like, “If you want to write a romantic comedy, you write it for Sandra Bullock, you don't write it for Halle Berry.”
“That's what you did in the '90s,” he remembers, adding that while a gay sidekick was permitted then, they could never be the film’s lead.
“You can't have him fall in love. He can't have a full inner life,” he says. “I fell into that in my own career because I wanted to be successful and I was told I wouldn't be unless I did those things.”
What makes Hollywood such feel-good wish-fulfillment is that the characters don’t need a proven track record of success in order to break barriers. Post-Glee, Murphy found success with FX anthology series American Horror Story (now entering its 10th season, and renewed through season 13) and Emmy-winning American Crime Story before launching Pose on the network. Pose is set in the New York City ball scene and features a predominantly trans cast, a groundbreaking move for television. Pose's Billy Porter went on to win Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series at the 2019 Emmys, becoming the first openly gay African American actor to win the award. This overdue real-life moment is mirrored in the finale of Hollywood.
“There’s a lot of me in [Hollywood]. In my career, I got a lot of ‘No, the world isn’t ready for that.’ I would always say, ‘Well, how do you know that?’ Finally, a couple of great executives let me try, [starting] with Glee,” Murphy says. “I don’t have to fight as much now, which is the amazing thing. With success comes freedom. I can greenlight my own stuff. When I was starting out, I never dreamed that day would happen.”
A fitting Hollywood ending, indeed.