In Ryan Murphy’s latest series, Netflix’s Hollywood, viewers are transported back in time to the golden age of cinema — but with a twist.
The show reimagines a Hollywood that could have been, where unfair biases across race, gender and sexual orientation don’t stop actors, writers, directors and other Hollywood figures from daring to be bold. Focusing on both fictional and real-life portrayals, the series tackles an array of narratives from early Hollywood, including a take on the wrongs done to Anna May Wong.
Wong, who is considered to be Hollywood’s first Chinese-American movie star, is known for the controversy surrounding The Good Earth, a 1937 film about Chinese farmers who struggle to survive. She lost out on a role that was instead given to white actress Luise Rainer, who later won an Oscar for her portrayal.
The real-life events play out on the newly released series, and Wong (portrayed by actress Michelle Krusiec) is introduced in Hollywood’s second episode.
Viewers first meet Wong as she sips scotch and complains about her treatment by the industry during a meeting with aspiring director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss, who is half-Filipino like his character), referring to herself as “the great ghost.”
Laughing off Ainsley’s suggestion that she could star in his next film, she tells the young hopeful off: “They don’t want a leading lady who looks like me.”
“You need proof? 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,” she says.
Ainsley then tells her, “I think what happened with The Good Earth was just awful,” before the show flashes back to Wong’s powerful screen test for the film, an adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s novel of the same name.
The scene flashes ahead to the Academy Awards, where Wong watches tearfully from a balcony as Rainer accepts the Best Actress statuette instead of her — even though studio executives agreed she’d nailed the performance and would have been the best actress for the job.
The scenes depicted on the show showcase the heartbreaking reality that Wong, and many others in Hollywood, faced with white-washing and racial discrimination.
Wong was already a star when she auditioned for The Good Earth, having successfully made the transition from silent films to talkies and landing roles in films such as Shanghai Express alongside Marlene Dietrich.
But the majority of her parts did harp on racist Asian stereotypes, which Wong resented but dealt with in order to keep working.
In The Good Earth, Rainer, a German-British actress who won back-to-back Academy Awards in 1936 and 1937, wore an offensive example of yellow-face, designed to make her look Asian.
But in Hollywood, Wong’s reality is altered, and she gets a bit of justice: being cast in a film that earns her an Oscar years after losing out on The Good Earth.
In real life, Wong was never nominated for an Oscar. She did eventually return to Hollywood and continued acting for many years, transitioning to television by the 1950s before her death of a heart attack in 1961. She was 56.
Speaking to Vanity Fair, TV mastermind Murphy shared that he wanted to rewrite Wong’s story to examine “not just what [an Oscar win] would have done for her, but what it would have done for so many people in the Asian community.”
He added, “To be able to see somebody who looked like them being called the best … how many windows of opportunity and doors that would have opened for so many people.”
Hollywood is now streaming on Netflix.