Rock Hudson Doc Is a Compassionate (and Juicy) Look at the Hidden Life of a Gay Star

Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed, on HBO now, tells a story that the actor and Americana icon never could.

Rock Hudson Doc Is a Compassionate (and Juicy) Look at the Hidden Life of a Gay Star
Photo:Bettmann (Getty Images)

The excavation of gay history is fraught with the conflicting imperatives of the past and present. The former sought to obscure, often out of fear given the unaccepting climate, while the latter seeks to enlighten. As James Kirchick writes in the introduction to his 2022 book Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington, “As is so often the case with the subject of historical homosexuality…much of the source material needed to tell this story is ambiguous, remains hidden, or has been destroyed. In some cases, it is gay people themselves who are responsible for this erasure, concealing their sexual orientation while they were alive and eliminating any trace of it before their deaths.” Whereas some cultures are able to nonetheless preserve their history within families, Kirchick points out that homosexuality is not a heritable trait: “Stories of gay struggle and accomplishment are not passed down over dinner tables or through family heirlooms; rarely are they taught in schools. This knowledge deficit harms not only gay people, deprived of a common past and a way of understanding their place in the world, but all Americans, whose awareness of their country’s history is made poorer by the large parts left unexplored.”

Kirchick’s book was about people in politics, but his words apply to queer history beyond that realm—and much of what he says perfectly describes the conundrum of Rock Hudson, the Hollywood leading man who defined low-voiced, square-jawed masculinity in the ‘50s and ‘60s, his face a kind of shorthand for mainstream handsomeness. Hudson, a gay man and by at least one account, a “sexual gladiator,” was “playing a man called Rock Hudson, who’s the personification of Americana,” an expert says in the new HBO documentary Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed (which premieres Wednesday). “The identity was given to him and he slipped into it and he played it for the rest of his life.”

What Stephen Kijak’s engaging and fast-paced doc aims to do is not poke holes in this image—despite how it’s been portrayed, male gayness and masculinity aren’t at odds—but to contextualize it. Its lens is entirely gay, spanning Hudson’s butch finishing school (courtesy of his agent Henry Willson) at the start of his career to his AIDS death in 1985. All That Heaven Allowed shines a spotlight on the life that existed outside of the spotlight, and it’s full of people who knew Hudson (and had sex with him). It also comes with an arsenal of amusing clips from Hudson’s filmography that inadvertently comment on his life backstage: Jennifer Jones in A Farewell to Arms tells Hudson’s character, “You’re going down to town tomorrow and find yourself some gay young playmate”; in another scene a co-star tells his character, “Hiding in closets isn’t going to cure you.”

People talk about masculinity as a construct, but All That Heaven Allowed walks you through the extent of it—so much of what has defined manliness has done so through example. The documentary points out that after World War II, the suaveness of Rudolph Valentino’s type was out and a new butchness was in. Hudson, who exemplified that shifted ideal, took classes to lower his voice. According to Willson’s biographer, the agent taught Hudson and other gay clients “how to be heterosexual.” And they, in a certain way, taught America. This at times created levels of obfuscation. In one of Hudson’s big hits, the 1959 rom-com Pillow Talk, “you have a gay actor playing a straight man impersonating a possibly gay man—it’s a house of mirrors,” according to critic Tom Santopietro.

Many of the talking heads in All That Heaven Allowed are not actually heads—they’re only heard in voice-over as an endless stream of photos of Hudson and footage from his movies plays. The documentary remains in his thrall, as if his great beauty and charisma could not be explained with mere words. You simply have to see it and keep seeing it to believe it.

Many of the gay guys who knew Hudson reflect on his personal life. One recounts “countless lovers, short-term boyfriends, and weekend flings that pass through Rock Hudson’s life.” Another, Joe Carberry, says Hudson wanted to live openly, though he didn’t dare to do so. “I don’t recall him having a very long relationship with anybody besides friends,” says Carberry. What he does recall, though, is Hudson’s “sizable” dick: “He tried to put that thing up my ass and I couldn’t do it.” In another scene, we hear a private phone call between Hudson and someone who’s only described onscreen as “a friend.” As the friend tries to set Hudson up with a guy, Hudson wonders, “How’s the package?” He seems pleased when he’s told nine inches. Another friend named Ken Maley recounts when he took Hudson to the San Francisco sex club called Glory Holes. Hudson was naturally recognized, but they stayed and played anyway. Tales of the City writer Armistead Maupin recalls Hudson reading from his book at a party (its first chapter mentioned Hudson’s TV show McMillan & Wife): “I think he expected it would charm the pants off me, and it more or less did.” He describes he and Hudson as “playmates.”

This juicy aspect of All That Heaven Allowed is undoubtedly part of its charm, but it also provides a contrast to the work of the gossip magazines like Confidential, which attempted to uncover various aspects of stars’ personal lives for profit. It’s posited that an expose on actor Tab Hunter, who was also gay, was offered in exchange for one on Hudson to spare exposing personal details of Hudson’s life. Hudson’s sexuality was nevertheless loudly whispered about in public, but, as he says in interview footage shown in All That Heaven Allowed, he never pursued legal action against the press, because “it calls attention to it and makes it worse.” He was well aware of the Streisand effect years before it had a name.

News of Hudson’s AIDS diagnosis rocked the world in 1985, after he collapsed in Paris (and after his supposed friend Nancy Reagan refused to help him get in touch with an expert doctor at a military hospital). AIDS fundraising snowballed in the wake of Hudson’s coming out as HIV positive. He helped destigmatize the disease, according to Bill Misenheimer, former director of AIDS Project LA. Though Hudson would never publicly admit that he was gay, headlines like, “The star who fooled the world,” abounded, as if he had been lying for sport. Hudson felt that he couldn’t tell his story; that it can be told so vividly and compassionately in a doc like All That Heaven Allowed is sheer progress at work.

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