With a few notable exceptions, the big leading men of Hollywood in the 50s and 60s seem to have been mostly forgotten by the wider culture. The small group that endure - Paul Newman, James Dean, for example - do so partly due to their undeniable talent, partly due to the calibre of films they made and partly due to Hollywood legend around their lives and deaths. Significantly more of these men are forgotten to the annals of film history, hewn to adhere to a post-war concept of U.S. masculinity that rendered them carbon copies of one another. They adhered to what was required in the moment, but once that moment passed, so did they.
Rock Hudson, however, is an anomaly. While he may not have the reputation of a Newman or a Dean, even a Montgomery Clift, he occupies an almost singular position. While he was never seen as an extraordinary actor in his lifetime, he delivered some genuinely great performances in some of the most important films of the period, from the Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk to George Stevens' gargantuan epic 'Giant'. He was also supernaturally handsome, capturing with startling ease the definitive image of the North American Male - tall, built, rugged, charming and yet strangely unknowable, almost like a mid-western answer to Cary Grant. His importance as an historical figure though perhaps trumps them all, not only as one of the most prominent Hollywood starts of the 20th century to come out as homosexual, but for the devastating manner in which he was forced to after his diagnosis with AIDS in 1984 and subsequent death in 1985. For a man who had always seemed so straight-forward (pun fully intended) during his career, Hudson has become one of the most fascinating Hollywood figures, respected and mythologised just as much in death as he was in life.
To an extent, breaking through the mythology seems to be on documentary filmmaker Stephen Kijak's mind with his new biographical documentary 'Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed'. A relatively straightforward film in terms of execution, it nonetheless presents an arresting portrait of Hudson while presenting him within the context of history in an affecting and fascinating manner. Perhaps the strongest decision Kijak makes is to allow Hudson to remain essentially unknowable, even while using sections of intimate recorded interviews Hudson gave later in life. We've only really known Hudson through his work on film and television, so for the most part, the film relies on clips from his work, emphasising what a remarkable screen presence he had but also the truth that so much of what we saw of Hudson was a performance. We thought we saw the All-American Heterosexual Male in its most perfect form. What we didn't see was a gay man hiding behind his classical good looks, using the persona as a smoke screen for his true self.
It's not a stretch to say that Hudson's entire life was a performance, likely from the moment he changed his name from Roy Fitzgerald (which was still not his full birth name) to the more star-appropriate Rock Hudson. The first act of Kijak's film juxtaposes recorded contemporary and archival interviews with early photographs of Hudson and clips from his early work, but the most fascinating aspect of this first stretch is how Hudson's transformation was part of a much larger grooming process by his agent Henry Willson, who transformed a number of young and handsome queer men into potential heterosexual stars. In this way, 'All That Heaven Allowed' uses Hudson's story as a means to examine the role of the closet in shaping masculinity in post-war U.S. cinema, how strict concepts of what a man should be not only forced these men to keep their true identities a public secret but also provided a means to keep their lives secret. Hudson's illusion was so convincing that, in one amusing anecdote, the film recounts a photo shoot he did for a major periodical about life with a "room mate" with whom he shared a one-room apartment in order to "save a buck". The public simply couldn't conceive of the idea that Hudson was romantically involved with another man.
The first half of 'All That Heaven Allowed' mostly sticks to this structure of film and archival footage with audio interviews, suggesting that what we're getting is a relatively standard if particularly enlightening biographical documentary, but then the form takes a welcome shift into contemporary talking head interviews with many of the gay men who knew Hudson as a friend and as a lover. It's a very simple yet deeply affecting change in the storytelling form, moving Hudson's sexuality from an abstract concept to a film reality. We see photos of them as young men, handsome and tanned and dazzling, and then see that same spark and charm in them as older men, reminiscing on their days on the beach or by the pool flirting with the biggest movie star in the world. They talk of their time with Hudson without manufactured romanticism but with a refreshing directness, whether it be about his amusement at play-acting straight or his prowess in the bedroom. In a way, these are the moments when Hudson feels the most alive, the most relatable, the most human, and as a consequence, we start to see a whole hidden world behind Hollywood, a peek into the celluloid closet and how it worked. There are also moving anecdotes on the ways in which his fellow actors, including Piper Laurie and Elizabeth Taylor, went to great lengths to protect Hudson, and the ways in which his greatest film roles fulfilled the greater need in his life to prove himself as a leader in his craft.
We see photos of them as young men, handsome and tanned and dazzling, and then see that same spark and charm in them as older men, reminiscing on their days on the beach or by the pool flirting with the biggest movie star in the world.
With all these elements at play in the first half, it's easier for the film to transition into the tragedy of its second act, the arrival of HIV-AIDS and Hudson's very public battle with the virus. Kijak paints a relatively safe and yet emotionally clear portrait of the crisis, focusing on the lens of Hudson and those around him. It's here that the testimonies of his gay male friends have even more weight, both the responsibility they hold as witnesses to Hudson's illness and their guilt at having survived when hundreds of thousands did not. We also get a window into the damaging discrimination and paranoia that came with Hudson's diagnosis, the most affecting anecdote being from his 'Dynasty' co-star Linda Evans who shared a kiss with Hudson on-screen that, after his illness was publicly announced, became controversial.
As a result, just as the story of Hudson's secret homosexual life acted as a means through which to explore the wider issue of the celluloid closet in the 50s through to the 80s, so too does the discussion of his illness and death become a means through which to look at Hollywood's wider response to the HIV-AIDS crisis. It perhaps isn't as rigorous a look as it could have been, but Kijak does make it clear the important historical and cultural position Hudson held within this crisis, and how he became a symbol of LBGTIQ+ rights and activism without his realising it.
I wouldn't say I walked away from 'Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed' with a stronger sense of who Rock Hudson was as a man. He still feels like that impossibly handsome monolith of U.S. masculinity, albeit one where, in hindsight, we can see the cheeky queer subtext poking out. I don't know though that creating a full portrait of Hudson was Stephen Kijak's intention. At its best, the film positions Hudson as an important cultural figure, more so that the great films he was in. Kijak's techniques aren't revolutionary for the most part, but the craft is clean and clear, and the choice to give both voice and image predominately to the gay men who shaped Hudson's life is a truly inspired and moving choice. For fans of Hollywood history, this is a wonderful watch, but for those interested in the history and legacy of queer history, I'd say it's a necessary one.