In July 1985, Rock Hudson announced through a spokesman that he had AIDS. He died two months later. In between, People published a cover story that acknowledged for the first time in print what had been known throughout the film industry for most of the 59-year-old actor’s adult life: “The stunning disclosure implied for Hudson’s public what for decades had been an open secret in Hollywood—his homosexuality.” Yet even on his deathbed, Hudson refused to admit that the six-foot-four matinée idol who had romanced Doris Day and Elizabeth Taylor on screen preferred to have sex with men.
His silence was far from surprising. Until recently, no Hollywood studio would cast a star who was publicly known to be homosexual, for it was assumed that uncomfortable moviegoers would refuse to see the films in which he appeared. This is one reason that studio-system contract players were made to sign a “morals clause” forbidding them from engaging in off-screen behavior that might bring their employers into “public disrepute.” When miscreant stars were popular or promising enough, the studios would unhesitatingly paper over their misconduct at all costs—but if it proved impossible to keep their transgressions quiet, their careers were cut short.
Today Hudson is mainly remembered as the first celebrity to have died of AIDS. But his off-screen life has also won him a secure place in the history of Hollywood, one prominent enough that he is now the subject of a decently written primary-source biography, Mark Griffin’s All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson. It constitutes a serious attempt to tell the story of a man who in his lifetime did all he could to stop it from being told.*
Is it worth telling? No one has ever claimed that Hudson was a great artist. At his best, though, he was a thoroughly competent professional whose life and work were exemplary of Hollywood in the days when the studio-system “star machine” (in the phrase of the film scholar Jeanine Basinger) took young men and women with little or no acting experience and turned them into celebrities. In Hudson’s case, the story of how he became a star—and the price he paid to do so—is very much worth telling.
Roy Scherer Jr. was born in 1925 in Winnetka, a small town (not yet a suburb) not far from Chicago. When Roy was five years old, his father, an auto mechanic, lost his job and deserted his family. In 1934, Roy’s mother married a hard-drinking Marine who adopted her only child. Unfortunately for the boy, Wallace Fitzgerald thought Roy effeminate and beat him and Kay, his mother. Kay divorced Wallace in 1941, but the damage was done: Roy Fitzgerald had become a lonely, introverted teenager who was, like many such youngsters, obsessed with movies and longed to appear in them.
Roy enlisted in the Navy in 1944. We do not know when he realized that he was homosexual, but it seems likely that it was in the Navy that he started coming to terms with it. After his discharge, he moved to California, briefly living with his father and driving a truck. Then he met Henry Willson, an agent who represented male ingénues like Troy Donahue and Tab Hunter. Even though Roy had never before acted and was, in his own words, “a clumsy, tongue-tied galoot,” Willson saw that his handsome features and unusual height made him a plausible candidate for stardom. He took the young man under his wing, arranged for him to have acting and voice lessons, insisted that he shed the fey mannerisms he had picked up from his gay friends, and changed his name to the hyper-masculine “Rock Hudson.”
“I always give a green actor the gimmick of a trick name to help him get known while he’s learning his trade,” Willson later explained.
Willson was an effective agent with a sure eye for what he called “picture potential.” He was also a notorious sexual predator who expected to be serviced by the male actors in his stable as a condition of representing them. Then and later, Hudson’s friends agreed that he was ambitious enough to do anything, for Willson or anyone else, to get ahead. Willson upheld his end of the deal and introduced Hudson to Raoul Walsh, a director who had worked closely with Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn and, in 1930, had discovered John Wayne. Walsh was struck by Hudson’s good looks and saw him as a natural for the action movies that were his specialty. “At the very least, he’ll be good scenery,” the director said.
Hudson spent the next few years working his way up from bit parts in major films to leading parts in bottom-of-the-bill “programmers,” simultaneously studying acting as part of Universal’s in-house training program. The studios used these films to gauge the development of their contract players, and Hudson’s early screen appearances were noteworthy only for their apparent lack of promise. At one point, Universal’s executives considered dropping him, but they were sufficiently impressed by his determination and hard work to give him more time to develop.
Part of the problem was that they were slow to figure out what kind of actor Hudson was. Misled by his appearance into supposing that he had the stuff to be a John Wayne–like action hero or a traditional leading man like Tony Curtis (at the time Universal’s most promising contract player), the studio failed to grasp the true nature of his still-emerging screen persona. Unlike Wayne and Curtis, Hudson was a sexually nonthreatening man whom women found irresistibly attractive on screen but who was by all accounts extremely shy in real life.1 The critic David Thomson would call him “innately gentle and sympathetic…and unusually tender or sensitive for a man of his physique.”
Such failures of perception were not uncommon in Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart, for example, was initially pigeonholed by Warner Bros. as a tough-guy gangster, and it took five years, from The Petrified Forest in 1936 to Walsh’s High Sierra in 1941, for the studio to figure out that he was really a disillusioned anti-hero. Once Warner started giving Bogart roles that fit his personality, he became a star almost overnight.
The same thing happened to Hudson when he was cast in Douglas Sirk’s 1954 remake of Magnificent Obsession, a sentimental melodrama whose central character, an irresponsible playboy, becomes an altruistic brain surgeon and restores the sight of a woman (Jane Wyman) whose husband he had accidentally killed and whom he inadvertently blinded in a later auto accident. Preposterous though Magnificent Obsession was, it showed that he had developed into a strong “supporting lead” who, like Charles Boyer and Claude Rains before him, brought out the best in actresses.
Sirk directed five more films starring Hudson, the best of which is All That Heaven Allows (1955), in which the actor was again teamed with Wyman. This time she played a well-to-do suburban widow who falls in love with her gardener, a younger man played by Hudson, who is not only handsome but kind and intelligent as well. Their affair scandalizes the class-conscious town, but in the end she opts for romantic (and sexual) fulfillment over conformity to the rigid code of social propriety that allegedly prevailed during the ’50s. Once again, Hudson gives a fine supporting-lead performance in a film whose emotional extravagance can feel campy to modern-day viewers, though Sirk’s melodramas have come to be regarded by a growing number of critics as “subversive” portraits of Eisenhower-era emotional inhibition.
The success of All that Heaven Allows put Hudson on the road to stardom—but it also placed him in the crosshairs of Confidential, a widely read magazine that published scandalous stories about the private lives of movie stars. He had already been the subject of articles in Life and other magazines that made increasingly pointed mention of his perennial-bachelor status, and while Universal’s publicity department responded by planting other articles describing his supposed romances with starlets, the editors of Confidential knew better.
To prevent him from being outed, Willson and Universal are generally believed to have arranged an unhappy mariage blanc between Hudson and Phyllis Gates, the agent’s secretary. Whatever Gates knew or did not know about her new husband’s sexual proclivities, it is a matter of record that their union lasted only three years, from 1955 to 1958. But it served its purpose. While rumors of Hudson’s homosexuality continued to follow him, they did not see print until the end of his life, even though his promiscuity had long been a byword in Hollywood. (It is revealing, as well as sad, that he seems never to have had a successful long-term relationship with a person of either sex.)
All that remained was for Hudson to show that he carried sufficient weight to be a full-fledged star. He proved himself equal to the task—up to a point—in Giant, the 1956 film version of Edna Ferber’s bestselling novel, in which he played the head of a Texas cattle-and-oil dynasty. His performance as Bick Benedict won him an Oscar nomination, but Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean were far more memorable as Bick’s restless wife and chief rival. Hudson came across as subdued, even diffident, by comparison. After Giant, he would continue to appear in Sirk-directed melodramas, forgettable action films, and stodgy middlebrow epics like Charles Vidor’s 1957 remake of A Farewell to Arms. Three more years went by before Universal finally found the missing piece of the puzzle that was Rock Hudson.
Hudson’s guest shots on such TV series as I Love Lucy and Caesar’s Hour had already revealed that he had a knack for light comedy. It was not until 1958, however, that Universal paired him with Doris Day in Pillow Talk, in which he played a songwriter who beds sexually available women but falls for a spunky young lady who refuses to sleep with him before marriage. Ross Hunter, the film’s producer, later described Pillow Talk as a latter-day counterpart of the “sophisticated comedies” that “went out with William Powell.” It is, in fact, a sniggeringly coy farce devoid of the true sophistication of Powell’s comedies of the ’30s and ’40s (and full of equally coy allusions to its star’s homosexuality). But Hudson’s self-deprecating charm meshed well with Day’s bouncy liveliness, and the film became a box-office smash that spawned two more successful vehicles for its stars, Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964).
By then, the studio system was all but dead, and American movies were moving in newer, more challenging directions that were alien to the conventionally inclined Hudson, who turned 40—old for a leading man in Hollywood—a year after Send Me No Flowers came out. He made a short-lived effort to change with the times by appearing in Seconds (1966), a John Frankenheimer–directed science-fiction thriller about a secret organization that gives new bodies to middle-aged men. But even though his performance was genuinely and unexpectedly impressive—very possibly the best thing he ever did—Seconds was so far removed in subject matter from the movies that had made Hudson famous that it sank without trace.
As his film career went into decline, Hudson started working in TV. A small-screen natural, he scored an immediate hit in 1971 with McMillan & Wife, a comedy-mystery series well suited to his affable personality. Gossip about him still circulated—including a bizarre rumor alleging that he and Jim Nabors, another TV star who was in the closet, were planning to marry—but he ignored it, as did his fans. He was, however, unsettled by the downward arc of his career, enough so that his promiscuity became dangerously compulsive, which doubtless led to Hudson’s becoming infected with the HIV virus in 1983 or 1984. He continued to work for as long as he could, but his health quickly deteriorated, and the nine episodes of Dynasty, a prime-time soap opera, that he filmed in the second half of 1984 were the last performances that he gave before his death.
Hudson was in the vanguard of another revolution in cultural attitudes. He was one of the first leading men to cultivate a less overtly masculine image, as did such other actors of his generation as Montgomery Clift and Anthony Perkins (both of whom, perhaps not coincidentally, were also secretly gay). The line of descent that leads from Hudson, Clift, and Perkins to Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio is easy to trace.
No less consequential is the drying-up of the studio-sponsored training programs that taught yesterday’s movie stars how to act, both on screen and in public. There is no longer a “star machine,” only self-made actors who are judged by their ability to fit neatly into the motion-picture franchises that now dominate the American film industry. It is not necessary to be a powerfully individual performer to play Batman or Kylo Ren: Indeed, it may well be disadvantageous. Moreover, it is within the realm of possibility that today’s moviegoers will live to see an age when the “actors” in such films are no longer performers of flesh and blood but computer-created artifacts.
Therein, I suspect, lies Rock Hudson’s ultimate significance, as well as the source of the pathos of his troubled, largely secret life, which foreshadowed what Hollywood is now in the process of becoming. More than most stars, he was a pure creation of the studio for which he worked, a shy, painfully self-conscious gay man who pretended to be the straight-acting public figure whom he privately called “Charlie Movie Star,” and who became rich and famous by doing so. As another gay actor who knew him in the ’80s observes in All That Heaven Allows: “Who would he have really been if Roy Fitzgerald had been allowed to exist? Who would he have really talked like? I mean, from the very beginning of his life, this is someone who had to act just to survive.”
When it was all over, Hudson told one of his oldest friends, “God, what a way to end a life.” It is hard not to wonder as well what he thought of the way he had lived that life, hiding behind the mask of Charlie Movie Star until he could no longer be sure who he was.
1 To watch Hudson share the screen with Wayne in Andrew V. McLaglen’s The Undefeated (1969) is to see why he was never fully convincing as an action hero. While his demeanor is in no way effeminate, he lacks the larger-than-life self-assurance that Wayne exudes from every pore.