November 17, 1925– Rock Hudson:
“I am not happy that I am sick. I am not happy that I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can at least know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth.”
Rock Hudson was blessed with the desirability, dashing good-looks, and the driving virile masculinity of Hollywood’s classic matinee idol image. That image and his considerable talents were used to great effect in 1960s romantic comedies, on some occasions paired with the equally magnetic Doris Day.
Hudson was a good actor; in the right project he could even be very good. But, he also had something extra special from the very start, a sparkling screen presence. He could totally fill up the screen. Hudson was unworldly handsome, with a broad chest, a deep, velvety voice and a smile that dazzled. He was that rare Hollywood commodity, a class act and an authentic leading man who could work in any genre: Westerns, Melodramas, Thrillers, War flicks, and Rom-Coms.
Rock Hudson was born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. He was six foot five inches of solid rock, just like the name dubbed him by his agent Henry Willson in 1948. Willson was also gay and built a stable of stars by cruising clubs looking for talent for his personal and professional handling. He usually gave his clients new names and new backgrounds that included conventionally masculine pursuits such as football or fishing. He coached them on how to shed any obvious gay traits.
Hudson’s new identity as Rock was assembled around his easy going, natural charm and hunky body, his Mid-Western roots and his easy wholesomeness. His public persona was defined by strength, firmness and constancy, although Hudson’s years as a heavy drinker suggest he had a private struggle.
Willson’s most successful star package was Hudson and the agent worked hard to make sure he continued to be a money maker. As Hudson became more famous, the press demanded to know when “Hollywood’s Most Eligible Bachelor” would find the right girl. In 1955, Confidential magazine threatened to leak a story, complete with photos, about Hudson’s secret gay life, a revelation that certainly would have destroyed his budding career. But, Willson quickly put together a marriage for Hudson to his secretary Phyllis Gates. The gossip rags reported on their whirlwind romance and film fans accepted the story because they wanted to.
One of the most popular film stars of his era, Hudson’s screen career spanned five decades and was a true example of Hollywood’s star system style of career promotion. His career began with a series of uninspired performances in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The first, in the World War II drama Fighter Squadron (1948), required 38 takes for Hudson to deliver a single line. His success was the result of careful cultivation by Willson and the studio brass.
Yet, Hudson’s acting did improve and showed unexpected glimmers of brilliance, especially in his collaborations with the great directors like Douglas Sirk and George Stevens, who directed Hudson to an Academy Award nominated performance in Giant (1956).
Hudson’s acting chops and his American brand of masculinity are at their most assured in Sirk’s masterpieces Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955). In his work with Sirk, Hudson’s performances are utterly seductive, playful and generous. With the right director, Hudson was perhaps the most appealing romantic leading man in film history.
But, after an excellent performance in David O. Selznick‘s rather drippy A Farewell To Arms (1957) directed by King Vidor, Hudson’s star started to wane. But, then he was smartly paired with Doris Day for the breezy sex comedy Pillow Talk (1959). With this shift to light comedy, Hudson’s star power developed another layer, with a light, sophisticated, hyper-masculine playboy persona. The duo teamed up successfully for two more delightful, fun films, Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964).
Hudson gave one of my favorites of his performances, surprisingly effective, in the demented science fiction thriller Seconds (1966) directed by John Frankenheimer.
Hudson then proved that his star wattage could work in television when he was breezy and sly in the lead role of McMillan & Wife (1971-77), but it will always be the Sirk films and that trio of sex comedies that made him a true movie star.
Known for his easy going demeanor in civilian life, Hudson was well liked by his colleagues. He seemed to enjoy a rich and happy life in the public eye. But in truth, Hudson endured a deeply troubled private life. It was no secret to Hollywood insiders and his closest friends that Hudson was gay, but he worked within a studio star system that regularly rewrote an actor’s life story to match what film-goers demanded and found most palatable. Being gay did not fit this script. When Hudson was named the Number One Box Office Star in 1957, he still was forced to sell his sailboat because someone kept painting “faggot” and “queer” on the bow.
Hudson was one of the greatest film stars of all time, but he was a gay man who played the part of an international symbol of straightness. In the more open 1970s, Hudson did open his closet door a crack. He was spotted in bars and bathhouses of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and was even included anonymously, but with his blessings, in his former lover Armistead Maupin‘s classic serial novel Tales Of The City.
Tragically, after contracting HIV, his private life was pushed onto the public. Hudson was the first major Hollywood casualty of the plague. Hudson’s sex life finally received detailed attention after his passing, when his boyfriend, Marc Christian successfully sued his estate claiming that Hudson had not informed him of his diagnosis. Christian died from a drug overdose in 2010.
Hudson’s death not only brought long overdue awareness of HIV/AIDS, it inspired his good friend Elizabeth Taylor to begin her decades long role as a prominent AIDS activist, raising hundreds of millions of dollars for her organization amfAR.
Hudson finally came out of the closet, forced really, when the press and the public stopped buying into the stories of weight loss from anorexia. We all discovered the truth in July 1984 when news spread that he had collapsed in his hotel room in Paris where he had gone for undercover treatments of the antiviral HPA-23, unavailable at the time in the USA.
Airlines refused to fly Hudson back to Los Angeles from Paris after his diagnosis became public. He was forced to pay $250,000 (one million in today’s dollars) for a chartered plane to take him home. The cost reflected the deep panic and prejudice towards people with AIDS in 1984.
I remember how shocked and confused The Husband and I were by his gaunt appearance and sad eyes when Hudson’s episodes aired on the prime-time soap Dynasty in 1984.
Hollywood promoted the fantasy that Hudson was the ideal American male because he looked like a real man: muscular, broad shouldered, deep-voiced and square-jawed. Watching it on TCM this summer, I had to laugh at the scene near the end of Lover Come Back where two guys are watching Hudson’s character run through his apartment building dressed in nothing but a woman’s fur coat. They express their disbelief with:
“He’s the last guy in the world I would have figured.”
He was brave about being the face of HIV/AIDS at the end of his life. I can’t fathom how Hudson felt knowing that the opportunity to finally be open and honest had come at such a terrible price. Thinking about this today makes me very sad. Despite his fame and fortune, Hudson had to have lived a very difficult life in the spotlight.
Hudson’s final credits rolled in October 1985. He was just weeks away from his 60th birthday.