Over the weekend I posted a piece on the real story behind Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series Hollywood involving Rock Hudson…
I got quotes from Robert Hofler, the author of the Henry Willson biography The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson and we struck up a conversation about his thoughts the production, the historical inaccuracies and more. It’s really fascinating to get the story behind the story… (BTW, there are spoilers if you haven’t seen the whole series, so you’ve been warned..)
Before I get to all the things Hollywood gets WRONG about Henry Willson, let’s look at one anecdote lifted directly from my book.
During interviews I did with two of Willson’s assistants, they spoke of a young actor Willson was infatuated with in the 30s. They told me this teenage actor had died in a car accident, but they couldn’t remember his name.
I then spent every Saturday afternoon for months going through every copy of Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Photoplay and other fan magazines of the 1930s. I found the name; Junior Durkin, a teenage actor killed in a car accident. He had played Huckleberry Finn in film versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Willson, then a fan magazine writer, wrote about Durkin and a club of actors he belonged to called The Puppets. They even had a “clubhouse” in Bronson Canyon. Willson was not an actor and older than most of these actors (then in their teenage years), but they made him an honorary member of The Puppets.
All of this is lifted directly from my book. It seems odd to me why Hollywood got this story right and so many others wrong.
Like Scotty Bowers…
I had talked with Scotty Bowers about doing his book in 2005. He was not interested. But about six years later, he wrote his autobiography Full Service. I covered his book party for Variety, where I was an editor. We also lived near each other and often had lunch at Greenblatt’s deli in Hollywood. I got to know him. He was nothing like the gas-station pimp in Hollywood.
In the 1940s, Bowers would have been at least 15 years younger, in his twenties. He was very sweet, even in his 80s and 90s when I knew him. He wasn’t the stereotypical hard-hearted pimp that Hollywood presents. Bowers was trying to help out struggling young men and women in Hollywood who needed some extra cash. No way did he take 50% for his pimp services. He was not exploitive. And of course he did not own the gas station.
Bowers was very bisexual, but he would never have forced a straight young man to service a gay man. Bowers knew that would have made for bad sex. Also, he wasn’t sadistic. He was a nice, fun-loving guy. Not the smartest person I’ve ever met, but charming and extremely likable. The representation of the Bowers character in Hollywood is even more dishonest than the series’s portrait of Willson.
What else does Hollywood get wrong…?
To portray Roy Fitzgerald (Hudson) as an innocent is particularly ludicrous…
Right after WWII, Fitzgerald developed a romantic relationship with a minor producer/real estate agent who knew Willson at the Selznick Studios. This boyfriend facilitated that meeting, and wanted to be Fitzgerald’s agent. Roy, of course, immediately dumped this boyfriend to sign with Willson, who at that time was head of talent for Selznick. But this was 1949, not 1946. In 1949, Selznick was bankrupt and Willson left the Selznick studio to become an agent, one of his first clients was Rock Hudson.
Many Hollywood powerbrokers like Darryl Zanuck, Harry Cohn, and Willson demanded sexual favors.
Willson learned this behavior from his old boss David O. Selznick. I did an interview with Shirley Temple, then a Selznick star in 40s, and she told me,
“If you walked into Selznick’s office and he had his shoes off, watch out!”
What Hollywood gets wrong is how “innocent” and “naive” young actors like Hudson and others were. Most of these men, gay or straight, willingly participated because, beyond their good looks, they had little or no acting ability. Theater actors in Hollywood (Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Monty Clift, Marlon Brandon) did not have to put up with this treatment.
As Willson learned from Selznick, so Hudson learned from Willson when it came to extracting sexual favors for professional services rendered. In films like Tarnished Angels starring Hudson, Willson often filled them with his minor clients. Rock, in turn, hit on those actors, feeling it was his due for them to service him sexually. After all, they had been employed in his movie through his connection to Willson
In over 200 interviews, I never heard anyone say Willson did drag.
Now, he might have done drag as a kind of Halloween or Mardi Gras thing. I don’t know. But I guarantee you that he never would have done drag to “seduce” Rock Hudson or any other young client. Willson was super-macho. In gay parlance, he was a “top,” never the passive partner. Never. Also, he would never have performed fellatio on any man. That would have been too submissive. He did receive blowjobs in exchange for setting up interviews at studios.
Willson often berated clients’ acting talent. But never in public, as Willson does at the George Cukor party.
Willson would never have allowed Rock to wear a terrible green leather jacket to the Cukor party [as he did Hollywood]. Willson did demand sex, but he also took care of his clients: fixed their teeth, dressed them, groomed them, often taking them to the same dentist, barber and clothing store.
He WAS famous for giving his actors novel names….
And he sometimes recycled names when a moniker failed. For instance, Rory Calhoun was first nicknamed “Troy” but dropped it for “Rory.” The name Troy later ended up on Troy Donahue, whose real name was Merle Johnson. One name he created was Chance Gentry. Tennessee Williams knew the actor and took the name “Chance” for his lead male character in Sweet Bird of Youth. In Hollywood, Willson forces Rock to have sex with Rory Calhoun and a character named Lank Meyers. Willson would never have repped anyone with a Jewish (or Italian or Greek) name. He would have changed the name to something Anglo and bland.
It’s ridiculous that a studio executive’s wife (the Patti LuPone character) would drive into a filling station to pick up hustlers.
Female and male clients of sex workers had to be handled very differently. Hollywood completely confuses this dynamic, just as it upends the dynamic between powerful gay men in Hollywood and the young gay men trying to become stars there.
In Hollywood, Willson arranges for the Mafia to beat up a man who is going to blackmail the Joe Mantello and Patti LuPone characters.
The real story is more interesting. Willson did have some underworld figures “threaten” a failed actor who was going to expose Rock Hudson as homosexual. This guy was not beaten up, but he was threatened. More significant, Willson exposed the prison record of Rory Calhoun, a former client, to Confidential magazine in exchange for not running a story on Hudson. He also gave Confidential the story of Tab Hunter‘s 1951 arrest for attending a gay party in Glendale. Hunter had fired Willson in 1955, right before the release of Battle Cry, and three months later, Confidential published this arrest story. Do the math.
In Hollywood, Willson has a secretary named Phyllis Gates.
The real Gates started as Henry’s secretary in ’54 or ’55. Phyllis Gates’s autobiography is completely debunked in The Man Who invented Rock Hudson. She was a lesbian who told her lesbian and gay friends (quoted in my book) that she was marrying Rock Hudson because it would be “fun.” Gates went on to blackmail Rock, as well as lesbians she had affairs with. Her autobiography is a complete fantasy. The columnist Liz Smith actually had compromising photos of Gates, and these were used to prevent her from blackmailing Rock.
Hollywood deals in nothing but cliches: old gay men are bad, young gay and straight men are innocents.
The real life story was much more complicated. A lot of these young men in turned used the old gay powerbrokers. Especially ludicrous is the poolside orgy thrown at George Cukor’s house. Cukor may have used hustlers. But he was famous for his Sunday afternoon pool parties, which were not populated by hustlers. Gorgeous young men were more than happy to be invited to these parties without having to be paid.
Same thing with Willson’s famous Saturday afternoon pool parties at his house. These parties presented opportunities for young men to make important contacts in Hollywood, eat a good meal, meet other gay men their age without endangering themselves by going to parks or alleys. Yes, I’m sure a number of these young men ended up sleeping with important older gay men in Hollywood. But no one was holding a gun to their head. Sex was one route through the studio gates. Another was to hone your talent on Broadway, as did Monty Clift, James Dean, and Brando.
The last few episodes of “Hollywood” veer off into complete fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that distorts real Hollywood history. One could write it off as a simple failure, but many viewers don’t distinguish between what’s fantasy and what’s real. Very little in Hollywood is the latter.” –Robert Hofler
FYI, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson was being developed as a series for FX by Ron Nyswaner (who wrote Philadelphia) at around the time that Murphy was developing Feud for FX.
Bob Hofler’s latest book is Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos. He lives in New York City.