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Rock Hudson: How an Aids diagnosis saw the closeted Hollywood icon finally accepted

Matinee idol Rock Hudson embodied the American Dream, starring in blockbusters with Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day – but he had to hide who he really was

Rock Hudson and Lee Garlington

Rock Hudson and Lee Garlington in Puerto Vallarta, 1963. They were secretly a couple in the '60s. Photo courtesy Martin Flaherty & The Rock Hudson Estate Collection/HBO

“He is the center of the storm – dead or alive,” a publicist once said of Hollywood icon Rock Hudson.

For once, this wasn’t some studio-manufactured propaganda or blatant media hype but the plain and simple truth. After all, here we are – nearly a century after his birth and almost 40 years after his death – and Hudson and his complicated LGBTQ+ legacy continue to fascinate and challenge us.

Even in this era of Instagram, TikTok and whatever’s currently trending online, a closeted movie star – who was all the rage when sock hops and poodle skirts were in season – has somehow remained relevant.

The boy from Winnetka is back in the spotlight courtesy of the new documentary Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed, directed by Stephen Kijak. The film reminds us of everything this one individual embodied: the American Dream; the Hollywood star trip; gay life – both pre- and post-Stonewall riots and the battle against Aids. All of this and over 60 feature films packed into an all-too-brief 59 years.

Rock Hudson in Puerto Vallarta, 1963. Photo: Lee Garlington/HBO

Through it all, Hudson was consummately professional, almost always good natured and well-loved by his co-stars, friends and family members. The fact that Rock was held in such high regard by virtually everyone in his orbit is all the more impressive when you consider that his life often seemed like the ultimate endurance test.

In 1931, Hudson’s biological father abandoned six-year-old Rock (then ‘Roy’) and his mother during the Great Depression. Three years later, Hudson’s mother remarried an alcoholic, hot-tempered marine, who was physically abusive to his pre-adolescent stepson.

As a teenager, Hudson came to understand that if he wanted to be accepted, the very essence of who he was would have to be edited out of the frame. Whether it was his career ambitions or early same-sex attractions, living out loud was simply not an option.

“I could never freely say, ‘I’m going to be an actor when I grow up…’ because that’s sissy stuff,” Hudson tells an interviewer in the documentary. “So I never said anything. I just kept my mouth shut.” It is this phrase – “I just kept my mouth shut” – which turns up in countless Hudson interviews spanning decades. In many ways, his was a life lived as a covert operation.

After landing in Hollywood in the late ’40s, Hudson’s startlingly photogenic features got him noticed by the predatory agent Henry Willson, who operated the busiest gay casting couch in the business. Hudson and other aspiring actors were subjected to Willson’s rigorous reconditioning process. Part Henry Higgins, part Harvey Weinstein, Willson bedded his male clients and exerted a Svengali-like control over their careers.

Rock Hudson in a swimsuit
Rock Hudson in the 1950s. Photo courtesy Photofest/HBO

Ex-sailors (as Hudson was) or ex-cons (as Rory Calhoun was) were spruced up, butched up and served up as generous hunks of beefcake to the movie-going public. Under Willson’s tutelage, Roy Fitzgerald – the awkward, self-described “Midwestern hick” – was transformed into Rock Hudson, a straight-arrow, uber-masculine Adonis.

After signing with Universal, Hudson quickly transitioned from bit player to matinee idol. When he co-starred with Jane Wyman in a pair of romantic melodramas – Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows – both films were blockbusters and Rock’s star continued to rise. Hollywood had found its Prince Charming and the role of heterosexual heartthrob was one that Hudson would now be required to play both on screen and off.

As Rock’s popularity surged in the mid-’50s, it wasn’t enough that he made movie love to Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day in glorious Technicolor. Shouldn’t the most eligible bachelor on the planet have a real life dream girl? In 1954, Modern Screen posed the question that seemed to be on everybody’s mind: Is Rock Hudson Afraid of Marriage?

Even the ordinarily staid Life magazine got into the act by publicly challenging the actor: “Fans are urging 29-year-old Hudson to get married – or explain why not”. Hudson’s aversion to matrimony being explored in a mainstream publication like Life was concerning, though not alarming, to studio executives but a threatened Confidential expose was another matter entirely.

Boasting a monthly readership of approximately four million, Confidential was the most notorious scandal sheet of its time. The magazine’s founder, Robert Harrison, freely admitted that his stock and trade was “sin, shame and suicides”.

Rock Hudson smiling with a dog, beside a pool
Rock Hudson with one of his beloved dogs. Photo: HBO

By the mid-’50s, Confidential had already filled readers in on “Why Joe DiMaggio Is Striking Out with Marilyn Monroe!” and reminded the public about “The Wife Clark Gable Forgot!”. But the juiciest exclusive of all was still waiting in the wings. Confidential’s editors had one objective at the top of their to-do list: Expose Rock Hudson.

Once Henry Willson was tipped off that Confidential was planning to tell all about Hudson, he moved swiftly and with great precision. Two former Willson clients – Tab Hunter and Rory Calhoun – were offered up sacrificially so that the agent’s most valuable asset would be spared.

Instead of a salacious story chronicling “Rock Hudson’s Magnificent Obsession – After Hours,” Confidential ran articles about Hunter being arrested on a ‘morals’ charge at an all-male ‘pajama party’ and Calhoun’s armed robbery conviction.

Confidential may have been pacified but Henry Willson and Universal executives knew that there was only one way to silence the rumors about Hudson’s homosexuality. Rock had to get married… and fast.

So, only eight days before Hudson’s 30th birthday, he wed Willson’s secretary, Phyllis Gates. A fresh-faced former Sunday school teacher, Gates was ideal casting as Mrs Rock Hudson. The majority of Hudson’s friends and surviving companions are emphatic that this was an arranged marriage from the get go. Still, in a memoir published after Hudson’s death, Gates would contend that she was duped into participating in a sham marriage.

The controversy that arose from Hudson’s much discussed nuptials was nothing compared to the media firestorm that engulfed the actor 30 years later. “Mr Rock Hudson has Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” announced a French publicist, addressing the international press corps outside of the American Hospital of Paris on 25 July 1985.

The admission that Hudson had Aids and the presumptive gay outing that accompanied it sent shock waves around the world. Despite the fact that there had been thousands of Aids-related deaths by the mid-80’s, the disease was considered a “minority phenomenon” and was largely ignored by the administration in Washington.

Fans hold up a sign saying: We Love You Rock
Fans support Rock Hudson. Photo: PR

After Hudson went public with his diagnosis, suddenly everyone – from the Oval Office at the White House to the front porches of Middle America – knew someone who had Aids. And even if Hudson’s gay admission had been implied rather than stated, the fact that a rugged, red-blooded screen hero was homosexual instantly shattered stereotypes and changed how gay people were perceived.

Personally, Hudson seemed less concerned about his looming mortality than how his loyal fans would handle the news that he was gay. The 30,000 letters of support that poured in from all corners of the globe offered reassurance in no uncertain terms.

At the very end, Hudson was finally accepted and embraced – not for his carefully cultivated Hollywood image – but for who he really was.

Mark Griffin is the author of All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson (HarperCollins). The documentary Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed is available to rent and own on digital from 23 October.

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