Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed is now available to rent or buy.
On October 2, 1985, Rock Hudson died aged 59 at his Beverly Hills home. The cause of his death was AIDS. But Hudson didn’t die in silence or opt to try and cover up his AIDS diagnosis; instead, during his final months, his French publicist announced his condition on July 25, 1985, in Paris, where he was receiving treatment. It was a brave move for a man who had led two lives; one as a leading Hollywood icon adored by millions and the other as a partially out gay man who tentatively attempted to explore his sexuality in several of his pictures with tongue-in-cheek performances and scattered hidden clues. Stephen Kijak’s fascinating, emotional and celebratory documentary, Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed, explores these two lives through home videos, interviews and clips while asking us whether Hudson’s choice to ‘come out’ about his AIDS diagnosis at the peak of public hysteria and social and political oppression made him an unwitting AIDS activist.
Born on November 17, 1925, as Roy Harold Scherer Jr. in Winnetka, Illinois, Kijak explores Hudson’s humble beginnings, from his father leaving the family home when he was four to his mother’s re-marriage and his forced name change to Roy Fitzgerald. Like many young men, Hudson would enlist during World War II and fight in the US Navy. But it was 1946 that changed Hudson’s life forever as he moved to Los Angeles, hoping to become a Hollywood actor. The time of his arrival was fortuitous as Hollywood embraced American men who embodied strength and resilience through classic rugged good looks. He was soon picked up by Henry Willson, a Hollywood manager and entrepreneur with an eye for young men who could become Hollywood pinups. Willson’s black book included Guy Madison, Tab Hunter, Ty Hardin and Robert Wagner; under Willson’s guidance, Roy Fitzgerald would become Rock Hudson, taking numerous bit-part roles until his breakout lead in Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954).
Kijak pays special attention to Hudson’s relationship with Willson and the open secret of his sexuality and off-screen relationships. Here, Kijak explores the tabloid gossip that Willson quickly suppressed through an engineered marriage to Phyllis Gates (his secretary), who may herself have been a Lesbian. But there is also a darker side to this press manipulation, as Kijak hints at Willson’s willingness to throw others to the press to protect his prized asset. Kijak rightly explores this in the context of a studio system that owned the faces and the lives of its talent and the PR machine that aimed to protect each actor. Kijak’s documentary excels in exploring the open secret of Hudson’s gay life, his inner need to play with audience expectations and perceptions (Watch Pillow Talk, and you will know what I mean) and how his physicality and chiselled all-American masculinity provided the perfect cloak of invisibility.
However, despite fascinating interviews with lovers, friends and colleagues, including Armistead Maupin, his ex-partner Lee Garlington, Linda Evans, and captivating home video footage, elements of Hudson’s life remain obscure; for example, his republican values and friendship with the Reagan’s sit uncomfortably with his apparent belief in sexual liberation in private. At the same time, his relationship with fellow actors feels underexplored despite fascinating titbits such as his clash with James Dean on the set of the outstanding Giant. But where Kijak’s documentary truly finds its voice is the emotional and delicate exploration of Hudson’s HIV and AIDS diagnosis and the months leading up to his publicist’s announcement in July 1985.
Whether you come away from Kijak’s documentary believing that Rock became an unwitting activist is up to you, but no one can dispute the bravery of his decision to announce that he had AIDS. Activist Bill Misenhimer says, “It’s hard to say he saved anyone because nobody was saved. Everybody died,” but his announcement “gave people hope.” There’s a lot of truth in these words. Many celebrities hid their AIDS diagnosis from public view, only adding to the sense of shame that 80s society encouraged. Much like Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson was a shining Hollywood talent who wasn’t prepared to hide, and as Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed comes to a close, it becomes clear that Hudson ducked rather than hid behind a wall of secrecy built by a studio system rooted in absolute control. But in his final months, Rock Hudson took back that control, and in doing so, Rock or Roy Harold Scherer Jr. from Winnetka, Illinois, helped light a spark of hope in the campaign for AIDS treatment and an end to AIDS-related oppression that would, eventually, become a raging fire.
Much like Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson was a shining Hollywood talent who wasn’t prepared to hide, and as Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed comes to a close, it becomes clear that Hudson ducked rather than hid behind a wall of secrecy built by a studio system rooted in absolute control. But in his final months, Rock Hudson took back that control, and in doing so, Rock or Roy Harold Scherer Jr. from Winnetka, Illinois, helped light a spark of hope in the campaign for AIDS treatment and an end to AIDS-related oppression that would, eventually, become a raging fire.