By Alan Hurst
Rock Hudson is one of those rare movie stars whose death and the revelations that came afterward diminished their legacy as a star and performer. It happened to Joan Crawford with the accusations of child abuse in her daughter Christina’s best selling “Mommie Dearest”. And it happened to Rock Hudson in 1985 when it was revealed, a few months before he died, that he had contracted AIDS, confirming both his alarming physical decline and his homosexuality. Never mind that Hudson was the matinee idol for millions of women and men in the fifties and sixties, that he was a fantasy figure for many of those same women (and men), that he had a string of major hits during those decades that kept him near the top of the box office top 10 for many years, or that he had managed to successfully transition to television in the seventies with McMillan and Wife. Hudson’s legacy was suddenly and forever complicated with the duality of his public and private life, and his role in reluctantly bringing the urgency of the AIDS crisis to the mainstream in those more judgemental times.
I’ve been ploughing through Mark Griffin’s 2018 biography “All That Heaven Allows”, which provides a detailed look at Hudson’s life and a satisfyingly exhaustive look at his films and later television and stage appearances. I’m only partway through the book and one of the things I’m most enjoying is Griffin’s attempt to put the private life of Hudson and his career into proper perspective. Relying on countless interviews with friends, contemporaries, and family and, because he was allowed access to private papers, it feels like we’re getting the most complete picture we’re ever going to get of Hudson. He’s emerging from the pages of the book as an affable guy who came from pretty dysfunctional conditions but had the drive to do better. He wanted to be an actor in films so headed to Hollywood in his early 20’s and, because he looked the way he did and because he was willing to do what he needed to, he soon found himself with an agent and under contract, first with director Raoul Walsh and then Universal-International. The fact that Hudson was actively living a low-key gay lifestyle adds a level of fascination as he worked the system but tried to remain discreet enough that he could be himself but not kill his upward trajectory.
It took a long time for Hudson to be given even a modicum of respect as an actor and a quick look at some of his earlier films shows you why. He’s definitely handsome, but also very wooden, almost awkward, in both his movements and line delivery. You can see that he knows he doesn’t know what he’s doing. But there is no denying that visually he pulls attention – whether playing a cowboy, a native American, the boy next door, a boxer, or a gambler. And slowly, you can see his confidence build film by film and by 1954 – as he was in the midst of his eight-film run with director Douglas Sirk – he emerges as a decent actor (albeit with limited range) and a true movie star.
Sirk’s Taza, Son of Cochise (1954) is a western with Hudson playing Taza, Native American son of Cochise, a character who had been featured in the hits Broken Arrow (1950) and The Battle at Apache Pass (1952). Cochise (played by Jeff Chandler in all three films) dies at the beginning of Taza, and it’s up to Hudson to carry the film. And he does, despite the make-up and the all the clichés of the script. Hudson is a solid, dominating figure.
The partnership with Sirk was a mutually beneficial one. Of all of Hudson’s films, these are the ones that have grown in stature with a serious critical reappraisal of Sirk that began in the 1970’s. Hudson was front and centre in a wide range well-produced, thematically complex films and his roles both highlighted and tested his talent. And Sirk had the ideal leading man of the fifties whose own need to conform (and hide) in the face to the era’s mores could be utilized by the director in an intriguing way.
Their films together, in addition to Taza, included Has Anybody Seen My Gal (1952), Magnificent Obsession (1954), Captain Lightfoot (1955), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), Battle Hymn (1957), and The Tarnished Angels (1958). My favourites are Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows, both with Jane Wyman. These are two of the most purely “Hollywood” films of the decade and by that, I mean glossy, beautifully designed, slightly melodramatic, and they both visually uphold the fifties ideal of absolute (and unattainable) perfection. But underneath Sirk’s images are filled with symbolism as he gently skewers the notions of convention, class, and materialism. Hudson is the ideal actor to help convey that. You can watch any of Sirk’s 1950’s melodramas multiple times and still pick up some new subtle message or visual clue as to something deeper he’s trying to convey.
In addition to his work for Sirk and some other directors at Universal, Hudson had the good fortune to attract the attention of director George Stevens when he was starting to cast his adaptation of the Edna Ferber best seller “Giant”. Burt Lancaster and William Holden were other names considered, but Stevens wanted to go with someone a little younger so the character could believably play someone in their 20’s and be aged appropriately enough to look in their late fifties by end of the film. Hudson had successfully done that in The Lawless Breed (1953) and, after screening that film, Stevens knew he had his guy. Co-starring with Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, Hudson is the central figure in the film and he’s excellent. Giant was a major hit and it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including one for Hudson – his only nomination. The film pushed him even further up the ladder.
My first exposure to Hudson was, like most things for me, through a rerun of a 1955 episode of I Love Lucy. Coming towards the end of a series of episodes set in Hollywood, the episode focuses on the Ricardos (Lucy and Ricky) and the Mertzes (Ethel and Fred) and the fact that the spouses all have annoying habits that are getting on each other’s nerves. So instead of all four of them heading to Palm Spring for the weekend, Lucy and Ethel make the trip and Ricky and Fred stay in Hollywood but when they’re stuck inside because of rainy weather, the friends get on each other’s nerves. The husbands want to head to Palm Springs to join their wives, but in order to save face they have Hudson (who’s a guest at the resort) make their wives more amenable to a reunion with a fictional sob story about a script girl he knows who had a quarrel with her husband about his annoying habits. Hudson is funny and very charming in his short scene, hitting every comic note alongside Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance. Of course, he’s very handsome but also very likeable. It was a revelation that he could play comedy and in a few years his comic skills would be showcased to even better advantage.
After the success of Giant there was Richard Brooks’ Something of Value (1957) and three more with Sirk (Written on the Wind. Battle Hymn, and The Tarnished Angels). Producer Ross Hunter decided it was time for a change of pace and cast him opposite Doris Day in the wildly successful Pillow Talk (1959). The film was something that Hollywood hadn’t seen much of in the fifties – a truly adult (for the time) comedy with some pretty blatant sexual overtones enacted by a pair of stars whose onscreen chemistry caught everyone by surprise. The stage was set for the bulk of Hudson’s career in the sixties – the winking sex comedy, pairing him some the screen’s most beautiful women, but none of them really equal to Day as an actress or comedienne. If the quality of the films eventually represented a slow but steady decline, they were definitely popular and allowed Hudson to keep his place among the top 10.
But something was happening in Hollywood and by the late sixties Hudson – like Day – would be viewed as a relic of a bygone era. The turmoil and unrest of the decade seemed to be more suited to the likes of Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and Warren Beatty. Could Hudson have played Newman’s role in Hud? I think so – he was certainly sexy enough, but would he have willingly played someone so self-centred and nasty? Yes. It’s to Hudson’s credit he saw the writing on the wall and purposefully sought out work that would test his skills as an actor. That test came in the form of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), a dark, nightmarish tale of a man who discovers an organization that can give you a completely new face and life. Hudson is excellent as the man who feels his life has lost its purpose. It’s a tense, disoriented performance in very subversive film, not what audiences were expecting from him. Reviews were also mixed. It’s too bad that this didn’t click in a stronger way at the time because it discouraged Hudson from digging this deep again. Thankfully the film has gained in status and is now recognized as a chilling, Kafkaesque depiction of middle-aged angst.
There were more comedies, a western with John Wayne, some adventure films and he was nicely partnered with Julie Andrews in Darling Lili (1970), but it was a notorious flop despite good work form both stars. Hudson, still handsome but settling into middle-age and looking a little tired on screen, saw that TV was next move and he headlined McMillan and Wife from 1971-77. It was a lightweight detective yarn with pleasant echoes of Nick and Nora Charles, thanks to the winning casting of young Susan Saint James as his wife. It was part of the rotating Sunday night mystery line-up on NBC, where it aired on monthly bases along with Columbo, McCloud and others.
There were some more feature films, including a reunion with Elizabeth Taylor in The Mirror Crack’d (1980), but television was Hudson’s primary focus. There were also some forays into theatre in the seventies with John Brown’s Body with Claire Trevor, I Do! I Do! with Carol Burnett, and Camelot. By all accounts he had a decent if unremarkable singing voice on stage and proved to be popular with audiences.
In the eighties he continued to toil in the typical TV fare of the day and his last role was a series of guest shots on Dynasty in 1985. His last public appearance was as himself as the first guest on Doris Day’s Best Friends, a 1985 cable series built around Day and her animal welfare work. When he showed up for filming and to meet the press, everyone was shocked, including Day. The strapping heartthrob of the fifties was now gaunt, thin, glassy-eyed and clearly not well. The tabloid frenzy took hold and this heartbreaking image was everywhere during his final months.
But thank the cinema gods that we still have Captain Lightfoot, All That Heaven Allows, Giant, Pillow Talk, Seconds and all the others to remind us that Rock Hudson was more – much more – than a series of salacious headlines at the end of his life.
If you want to immerse yourself in the best of Rock Hudson on film, I think these are his essential performances:
Magnificent Obsession (1954): He starts the film as a spoiled jerk, but finds a conscience, becomes a doctor, and cures Jane Wyman’s blindness before the final credits. Hokey, beautiful and fascinating.
All That Heaven Allows (1955): Douglas Sirk’s best film, with Hudson meltingly perfect as the younger gardener falling for the “older” widow Jane Wyman. Probably my favourite Hudson performance and a gorgeous looking film.
Giant (1956): The big achievement of his career and Hudson is the key focus of George Stevens’ sprawling tale of a Texas oil family – he’s strong, masculine and perfectly matched with Elizabeth Taylor.
Written on the Wind (1956): More drama around Texas oil fields, with Hudson as the stand-up guy trying to do the right thing for Lauren Bacall amid the craziness provided by Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack.
The Tarnished Angels (1958): Hudson’s last film with Sirk, and solid performance as a conflicted reporter, again with Malone and Stack.
Pillow Talk (1959): Who knew that Doris Day and Rock Hudson would be the perfect emblem of fifties comedic sophistication? Smart, funny and very easy on the eyes.
Lover Come Back (1961): Day and Hudson again, this time in the ad business with Hudson in top form as a playful bachelor competing with and for Day.
Send Me No Flowers (1964): Teamed for a third time, this Day-Hudson vehicle may be the least of their pairings, but Hudson delivers his funniest performance as a hypochondriac who assumes he is dying.
Seconds (1966): Creepy, fascinating and very disturbing, this film contains Hudson’s most complex and personal performance.
McMillan and Wife (1971-77): Seventies style fun with Hudson and co-star Susan Saint James nicely matched as a police commissioner and his nosy wife solving a different crime each episode. Nice support from Nancy Walker as their maid.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.
I too have read “All that Heaven Allows” by Mark Griffin. It puts all other biographies to shame. What a lovely tribute to Rock’s legacy. Thank you.