erik lundegaard

Saturday December 16, 2023

Movie Review: Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed (2023)


Throughout Stephen Kijak’s doc, we get scenes from Rock Hudson’s movies that inform viewers of the real story behind the heterosexual facade. Basically they “Celluloid Closet” his oeuvre. 

  • In “Bengal Brigade” (1954), Rock’s character informs Arlene Dahl that he can’t marry her. “For a moment,” he says sadly, “I forgot who I am.”
  • In the 1957 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” an older woman tells him, cheerily, “You’re going to town tomorrow and find yourself some gay young playmate!”
  • In 1965’s “A Very Special Favor” he’s told: “Hiding in closets isn’t going to cure you.”

Even the 1950s tabloid press gets into the act:


One assumes these quotes are taken out of context, but there are a lot of them. Did the screenwriters know what they were doing? Did Rock? When did gay mean gay? When did in the closet mean in the closet? If all of this was done with a wink, they were certainly dancing on the parapet 

Maybe everyone just had the urge to say some small truth. Or a large one.

The personification of Americana
Rock Hudson was the biggest male movie star in the final years of the studio system. According to Quigley, he was among the top three box office performers from 1959 to 1964, and No. 1 in ’57 and ’59. Then everything changed. JFK was assassinated, the Beatles landed, and Hollywood, struggling to survive in the TV era, began to cut loose the decrepit Production Code in order to show what couldn’t be shown on television (sex and violence, mostly); to get people out of their homes again.

To be honest, Rock’s movie persona, or the movies he made in his heyday, never interested me in the way that, say, early 1960s Paul Newman movies did. I have no interest in the pillow talk movies, or in Douglas Sirk’s weepies, which cinephiles have elevated over the years. (Martin Scorsese has even given them his imprimatur.) Straight, Rock Hudson doesn’t do it for me. Gay, he’s fascinating.

“Rock Hudson is playing a man called Rock Hudson, who is the personification of Americana,” actress and film historian Illeana Douglas says here. “The identity was given to him. And he slipped into it and played it for the rest of his life.”

I’d go further: He was a gay man playing a macho straight man for a homophobic culture. A tall Midwestern kid named Roy Harold Scherer Jr. went to war, came to Hollywood, and was molded by gay talent agent Henry Willson, who, per the doc, taught his clients how to be heterosexual. Willson fixed teeth and effeminacy, and he gave his boys brawny names: Tab Hunter, Guy Madison, and, yes, Rock Hudson—a name so unyielding “The Flintstones” didn’t know what to do with it. In that cartoon world, Cary Grant became Cary Granite, Tony Curtis became Stoney Curtis, and Rock Hudson became … Rock Quarry? It was a name beyond parody.

Rock was toiling amid early 1950s B westerns and “easterns” when gay producer Ross Hunter hooked him up with Sirk for a remake of the 1935 film “Magnificent Obsession,” which became one of the highest-grossing movies of 1954. It made him a star. Several years later, the Doris Day comedies put him in another realm.

The doc spends a lot of time on his late-career attempt to upgrade to more serious fare, with John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds” (19660, an art film that bombed. What it doesn’t talk about? The roles he took immediately after:

  • Maj. Donald Craig in “Tobruk” (1967)
  • Capt. Mie Harmon in “A Fine Pair” (1968)
  • Cdr. James Ferraday in “Ice Station Zebra” (1968)
  • Col. James Langdon in “The Undefeated” (1969)
  • Maj. William Larrabee in “Darling Lili” (1970) 

In every movie, he’s a military officer in some dull action-adventure. It’s almost a return to his pre-“Magnificent Obsession” career. It was like he went, “Well, that didn’t work.” The Civil Rights Movement and Stonewall were all happening, and Rock was retreating back into the 1950s personsification of Americana.

Was he ever close to coming out? The doc interviews Armistead Maupin, of “Tales of the City” fame, who met Rock in the early 1970s when Rock came to San Francisco to shoot “McMillan & Wife.” Maupin was of the “out” generation, who felt Rock and his friends were slightly ridiculous—“The pride they took in hiding,” Maupin says. “I had a bee in my bonnet at the time. I said ‘You need to come out of the closet, and I’m the guy who can help you with that.’”

He says Rock listened; it was Rock’s partner Tom Clark who nixed the idea. “Not until my mother dies,” Tom said. To which Maupin adds, “If I was fucking Rock Hudson, I would want my mother to know immediately.”

(Maupin gets off some of the doc’s best lines. He met Rock at a party where Rock read aloud from Maupin’s work: “I think he expected it to charm the pants off me … and it more or less did.”)

For all of the closeting and hiding from the tabloid press (some of whom probably knew), and the FBI (which definitely knew), and the general public (including Rock’s wife Phyllis Gates, 1955-58, who claimed not to know), it’s surprising to me how open the gay community was even in the homophobic 1950s. There were pool parties and beach parties, out in the open, and Rock fucked everybody, and was known for fucking everybody. In the doc, there’s an audio clip of a 1974 phone conversation with a friend telling Rock about a new boy in town. “How is he equipped?” Rock asks.

That whole “Rock Hudson is marrying Jim Nabors” rumor from 1970 began as a gay joke, then spread to the straight press, where proper people were properly offended on his behalf. “How awful that someone would suggest such a thing!” was the right-minded implication back then, rather than “How awful that this is considered awful.” But that was me, too, into my 20s. Whenever a rumor arose that Such-and-Such was gay, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Just look at that phrase. It’s its own kind of homophobia.

Day, Taylor
In 1985 I was in college, reading Newsweek, when I was shocked by a photo of Rock Hudson with Doris Day. I remember scanning the text to see if they said anything on the why of it, but it was all about some Doris Day event, which Rock was supporting, and nothing on how hollowed-out and haggard he looked. The real news broke later that week. Maybe even later that day.

Then the media crapfest: Rock unable to return home from the Paris hospital; the outrage over his “Dynasty” appearances. He knew he had AIDS when he kissed Linda Evans! In voiceover, Evans talks about having to do that scene over and over because his kiss was so unromantic and dry; because, she says, he was protecting her. Yes. Every way except by telling the world who he was and what he had. And yes, that’s asking a lot. The world was a powerful mass and much of it wanted you different—or dead. I doubt I could’ve done it.

Elizabeth Taylor comes off well here. She was already advocating for AIDS awareness—chairing an LA “Commitment to Life” fundraiser—when Rock’s news broke. Who doesn’t come off well? The press. This was Tom Brokaw on the NBC Nightly News in the early days of the AIDS crisis:

Scientists for the National Center for Disease Control in Atlanta today released the results of a study which shows that the lifestyle of some male homosexuals has triggered an epidemic of a rare form of cancer. 

I’m hoping someday for a great Rock Hudson biopic. It’s all there: the irony and hypocrisy of mid-century America. And its tragedy.

Posted at 09:15 AM on Saturday December 16, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2023  
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