During his lifetime, Rock Hudson was a model for American masculinity. That changed after his death, when the strapping, straight-acting (but occasionally sensitive) hunk from Winnetka became the poster boy for Hollywood homophobia: a closeted star who’d been forced to play a role his entire career that wasn’t true to himself, on screen and off. “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” treats that compromise as a tragedy, leaning on the fact Hudson died of AIDS to underscore the injustice, but Stephen Kijak’s documentary does him a disservice, reducing Hudson’s career — in exactly the way he went so far out of his way to avoid — to the dimension of his sexuality.
Built around interviews with a handful of former lovers and friends, Kijak spills private details from Hudson’s personal life, ranging from whom he shagged to how he arranged such trysts in the first place. A secretly recorded phone call reveals Hudson to be a “size queen,” audibly excited by the prospect of meeting a tall, well-endowed stranger. The whopper — which underscores the kind of salacious gossip Kijak gravitates toward in the film — comes from Joe Carberry, who recalls, “Rock had a sizable dick, but he tried to put that thing up my ass, and I couldn’t do it.”
At a time when the average American would be hard-pressed to name a single Rock Hudson film, is this what audiences really need to know about the star? Or might the filmmaker have spent a little more time on the biographical basics? Certainly, the wealth of seldom-seen photos, news clippings and artifacts suggests there exists enough raw material for a more well-rounded portrait of the star with the square jaw and dimpled chin. Instead, nearly all the footage Kijak pulls from Hudson’s filmography has been bent to comment on his sexual identity. Even director Allison Anders’ impassioned defense of Hudson’s acting chops quickly gets derailed by scuttlebutt about him hitting on “Giant” co-star James Dean.
What history we get feels as tabloid-ready as Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood.” The doc describes how Roy Fitzgerald (the actor’s name when he arrived in Los Angeles) dropped an early male partner when Henry Wilson, the head of talent for Selznick Studios, took an interest in him. It was Wilson who rechristened the Illinois stud “Rock Hudson,” as he did the other matinee idols he represented: Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, Guy Madison, etc. Wilson “taught them how to be heterosexual,” the movie explains, which was true to a point — Hudson got his teeth fixed, learned to lower his voice and more — though it ignores the possibility that Hudson might have swung both ways at a time when such labels were far more fluid.
Kijak’s sources struggle to comprehend how Hudson’s wife of three years, Phyllis Gates, could have gone to her grave insisting she didn’t know Rock was gay. The marriage was obviously arranged (Gates was a secretary for Wilson, whose Svengali-like control of Hudson’s image extended to giving Confidential magazine a hateful scoop about Tab Hunter in order to kill a story on Hudson), but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was without emotions or intimacy. But talk of bisexuality doesn’t fit Kijak’s narrative, which downplays all the women Hudson kissed in his career in order to make a point about the smooch he shared with “Dynasty” co-star Linda Evans, after he’d already been diagnosed with HIV.
Queer artists and film historians have been parsing Hudson’s oeuvre for years, reading between the lines of every performance, the most notorious being 1959’s racy (for its time) “Pillow Talk,” in which Hudson plays a straight bachelor who tries to seduce Doris Day’s character by allowing her to believe he’s gay. The layers of deception twisted up in that role have always been fascinating, as are the cues Hudson used to signal the audience that his character is only pretending.
But what is achieved by perverting the intention of such clips now? There’s an obvious camp quotient, as audiences chuckle at lines that sound like double entendres today. There’s Gig Young telling Hudson his days as a “gay married bachelor” are up in “Strange Bedfellows” (1965), or a reedited scene from “All That Heaven Allows,” tweaked by editor Claire Didier to look as if Hudson is on the receiving end of a line — “Let me give you some advice as a friend: Marry him” — that was actually delivered to Jane Wyman. Director Mark Rappaport got there three decades earlier with his archival mock doc “Rock Hudson’s Home Movies,” and while the gimmick still plays, selectively sampling Hudson’s oeuvre in this way trains audiences to look for the gay subtext in roles that were intended as anything but. Doesn’t that merely reinforce his reasons for not owning his identity?
Hudson was hardly the only closeted celebrity in Hollywood, and A-listers are still making compromises today to maintain careers that they — or the industry that employs them — believe might suffer if their fans discovered that … gasp, they’d been acting all along. It’s one of the many ironies of stardom that audiences desperately want to believe the dream that movies represent, but they can’t help themselves from seeking out details that will inevitably shatter illusion. Was Hollywood homophobic in the 1960s? Of course, but guess who else had a problem with gay people at the time: the rest of America. (References to Hudson’s friendship with Ronald and Nancy Reagan are especially painful, given their lack of support amid the AIDS crisis.)
Openly gay author Armistead Maupin suggests that by alluding to Hudson in his “Tales of the City” serial, he showed the world, “This person exists, but he can’t tell you who he is.” After Hudson’s death, Maupin outed the star to People magazine, a decision he stands by here. Perhaps that strategy makes sense in an era of oversharing and OnlyFans, but Kijak’s doc proves quite thin when it comes to communicating what Hudson’s actual personality might have been like. “I could never freely say I wanted to be an actor when I grew up, because that’s sissy stuff,” Hudson admits at one point, suggesting that he learned to pass as straight long before moving to Hollywood. While the movie grapples with what it means for a gay star to cooperate in the erasure of his own identity, it also insists on defining Rock/Roy by the one aspect he tried hardest to keep hidden, rather than acknowledging how well he played the part. In short, Hudson was a better actor than the movie gives him credit for.