Publication: Sissy Screens
Cue camp’s death knell: Netflix has released a new Ryan Murphy miniseries.
While his latest offers discerning viewers another chance to decry the demise of the Susan Sontag-coined sensibility, the truth is that its corpse had been buried and exhumed long before the producer/writer/director pitched his megachurch on its resting grounds. As filmmaker Bruce LaBruce argues, camp is no longer marked by sophistication and secret signification since queer culture has been co-opted by the mainstream. The result: “…the whole goddamn world is camp.”
The truth is that camp’s corpse had been buried and exhumed long before the producer/writer/director pitched his megachurch on its resting grounds.
Enter Hollywood. The show’s brand of oft-earnest, alt-history wish-fulfilment is highlighted by its opening credits: the diverse main cast helping each other ascend the rafters of the Hollywood sign, led by all-American aspiring actor Jack. He’s flanked by black screenwriter Archie, his actor boyfriend Rock Hudson, self-described “half-Asian” director Raymond, his black actor girlfriend Camille and Claire, the white actor daughter of a studio magnate. They reach the top and marvel at the sun rise over the hills. So far, so subtle.
They’re joined throughout the series by a cast of veterans working in and around the fictional ACE studios. Their paths converge on the production of ‘Peg’: a film based on the true story of an aspiring actor who flung herself off the Hollywood sign in 1932.
While the show features some entertaining subplots involving a gas station-cum-brothel (based on Scotty Bower’s real-life escort ring catering to the glitterati) and a party at queer director George Cukor’s house (with a guestlist boasting Vivien Leigh, Tallulah Bankhead and a cavalcade of naked young men), these excursions dwindle as the series progresses.
What we get instead are characters delivering long, didactic monologues. The most insufferable is director Raymond (played by Murphy acolyte Darren Criss), who declares in the pilot: “Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be and if we change the way that movies are made, you take a chance and you make a different kind of story, I think you can change the world.”
It’s hard not to see Raymond as a stand-in for Murphy: a wide-eyed creative intent on shifting the narrative on sexism, racism and homophobia. And there is no refuting Murphy’s contribution to culture-making: his shows feature countless LGBTQIA+ characters and storylines; he co-created Pose—a series starring, written, directed and produced by mostly queer and trans people of colour; and has helped elevate trans creatives such as Janet Mock (a co-executive producer here) and Our Lady J up the producorial ranks. His career pays testament to the fact that minority cultural production and expression matter; so why the need for Hollywood to preach?
Murphy’s career pays testament to the fact that minority cultural production and expression matter; so why the need for Hollywood to preach?
It’s the show’s penchant for positive representation that results in an unforgivable lack of nuance. The character of Henry Willson (Jim Parsons delivering a deliciously villainous performance) is a case in point: a Weinstein-esque agent and “star maker” who preys on young men, suddenly and incredulously redeems himself in the show’s finale. A number of other characters meet similarly tidy and boring fates.
For all its virtue-signalling, Hollywood peddles platitudes and delivers a pat happy ending. But with Murphy just two years into a five-year Netflix $300 million contract, there’ll be plenty of opportunities for redemption. Or at the very least, more chances to bitch about his debasement of camp.