Director – Stephen Kijak – 2023 – US – Cert. 15 – 104m
Matinée idol Rock Hudson epitomised the Hollywood dream until he died of AIDS in 1985 – documentary portrait available on digital platforms from Monday, 23 October
It was only when Rock Hudson tragically died of AIDS in 1985 that the fact that he was gay entered into the consciousness of the American, movie-going public.
He originally came to Hollywood to pursue an acting career after a stint in the US Navy in the final years of World War Two, signing up with agent Henry Willson. Willson had a knack for renaming actors, and it was he who gave the young Roy Fitzgerald the name Rock Hudson with which he was to achieve stardom. Even so, the twentysomething spent the best part of a decade playing roles in Westerns and adventures before director Douglas Sirk cast him in the romantic melodrama Magnificent Obsession (1954) opposite Jane Wyman. Sirk clearly saw a quality in the actor that no-one else had identified, and a screen legend was born.
Hudson was to prove the perfect fit for the onscreen romantic lead and would play similar roles for much of his career which included not only further roles for Sirk in All That Heaven Allows (1955), again with Wyman, and Written On The Wind (1956), opposite Lauren Bacall, but also starring with James Dean in what was to be the latter’s final film Giant (George Stevens, 1956). He famously played opposite leading lady Doris Day in Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959), Lover Come Back (Delbert Mann, 1961) and Send Me No Flowers (Norman Jewison, 1964), but after that, his star waned until he landed the role as one half of a crime solving couple in the TV series Macmillan & Wife (1971-77). His final onscreen appearance was as a guest star on the small screen’s Dynasty (fifth season, 1984-5).
So perfect a fit was this typecasting, that when Hudson tried to step outside it in the thriller Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966), audiences gave him the cold shoulder and stayed away. Hudson was the man every traditional American male wanted to be, and every woman wanted to marry. The irony of all this was that it was at odds with Hudson’s personal life. Like many of his agent Henry Willson’s male clients (and, indeed, Willson himself), Hudson was gay, a fact that was known throughout Hollywood but kept a secret as far as the movie going public were concerned, since had it become public knowledge, it would probably have swiftly killed off his career.
No-one who appears here had or has a bad word to say about Hudson, although some of the interview material gets quite racy. The film’s main concern is not really with Hudson’s movie work. While fabulous clips are scattered throughout, they almost feel in hindsight like comments on the fact that he was gay and his accompanying lifestyle, something of which audiences at the time would have been completely unaware but which today is both out in the open in terms of public knowledge and generally far more widely accepted. You pick up a sense of his screen presence rather than talent (which is not to say that he did or didn’t possess talent, rather that the film never really goes there), however that almost feels coincidental as this is much more a portrait of a gay man keeping his private life very private than it is about a movie star. (It just so happens that a movie star is what Rock Hudson was.)
In this documentary, his final years are arguably the most compelling. We watch as he kisses Dynasty star Linda Evans onscreen, later noticing how his lips appear to be clamped shut as he does so. This is not your average screen kiss – it’s a kiss by a man who knows there’s something nasty doing the rounds, which he has, and desperately doesn’t want to pass it on to anybody else. The incident caused a panic in Hollywood. Hudson was in France when AIDS-related complications hospitalised him, and couldn’t find any airline prepared to fly him back to the US after his publicist announced his condition, forcing him to pay for a private plane himself. Had he not had the financial resources of a successful movie star, he would have been trapped in France until his death.
As the first high profile name to die from the disease, the public nature of his passing broadened out the debate and fostered widespread discussion. His legacy thus moved from a conventional movie star who in life bolstered up heterosexual norms even as his own private life ran counter to them, to a figure who in death brought the scourge of the AIDS virus into the public arena beyond the gay subculture to help it be taken seriously in the wider world. With gay identity finding greater acceptance in the Western world today, such struggles look almost quaint to contemporary eyes, but back in the eighties the AIDS issue was a colossal deal, and the impact of Hudson’s death upon it profound.
As this film suggests, if there remains something iconic about Rock Hudson the romantic lead, the manner of his passing and its broadening out of the whole AIDS debate is arguably more significant as a legacy. In their day, his movies were solid programmers which, at least at first glance, didn’t challenge anything. Today our perspective on being gay has shifted considerably. The current documentary would have been unthinkable in the days when Hudson was a huge star and his gay lifestyle a closely guarded secret. Today, it plays out as a fascinating story which doesn’t really challenge the accepted view of things: in a strange way, a phenomenon not unlike the career of a fifties movie star such as Rock Hudson.
Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed is available on digital platforms from Monday, 23 October.