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The double life of Rock Hudson: ‘Let’s be frank, he was a horndog!’

Gore Vidal’s reaction to the news of Truman Capote’s death in 1984 is well known. “Good career move,” the writer said. Rock Hudson, once the most bankable star in Hollywood, died the following year – like Capote, he was 59 – but the manner of his death and the revelations that preceded it have deterred anyone from applying Vidal’s line to him. Looked at coldly from a 21st-century vantage point, though, Hudson’s death was a good career move, deepening his persona in ways that would never otherwise have happened. The actor died of complications from Aids, having been outed as gay months beforehand. His sexuality had been an open secret within the industry for decades: his pool parties, described as “blond bacchanalias”, were legendary. The public, however, remained oblivious until 1985. “It’s odd to put it like this,” says his biographer, Mark Griffin, “but Aids gave Rock a whole new dimension.”

The trade-off for a life cut cruelly short was an artistic longevity that has encouraged biographical readings of his performances. The suspicion has arisen that Hudson was trying to tell us something when he appeared in the 1955 Douglas Sirk melodrama All That Heaven Allows, which warns of the social dangers of nonconformity; or opposite Doris Day in the 1959 romcom Pillow Talk, where the actor plays a straight man posing as gay. “I don’t know how long I can get away with this act,” he says revealingly. Even his character’s pseudonym – Rex Stetson – sounds a bit like Rock Hudson, which was itself a screen name. (He was born Roy Scherer Jr in Winnetka, Illinois, and was later known as Roy Fitzgerald.) These onscreen tells are so plentiful and illuminating that an entire mock-documentary, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, was assembled from the actor’s back catalogue in 1992 by the director Mark Rappaport.

The star’s double life has now inspired Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed, a documentary by Stephen Kijak which uses cannily-chosen clips from a career spanning more than 35 years alongside new interviews with friends and ex-lovers, including Tales of the City writer Armistead Maupin. We find Hudson himself, a vision of unwavering equanimity, admitting that as a child he didn’t dare mention his acting dreams for fear they would be dismissed as “sissy stuff”. And, when rumours about him surfaced in the form of insinuating magazine articles demanding to know why he hadn’t found a wife yet, his wily agent Henry Willson made sure that none of them stuck, even if it meant leaking tittle-tattle about other clients instead.

He was a devastatingly handsome Adonis with a gleam in his eye and that indefinable something that makes someone a star

As the film points out, the actor became known as “the face of Aids”. His death boosted awareness of the disease and kickstarted fundraising efforts (Randy Shilts wrote in his 1987 book And the Band Played On: “There was Aids before Rock Hudson, and Aids after”). But it also brought home the reality of gayness to audiences. If a macho figurehead such as Hudson could be gay – having convincingly wooed Day, Jane Wyman and Elizabeth Taylor on screen, and gone toe-to-toe with John Wayne in The Undefeated – then so could anyone.

Before his Aids diagnosis, he had been so many other things: A-list hunk, suave romcom star and all-round Mr America. “He was the consummate movie star and matinee idol,” says Griffin. “A devastatingly handsome 6ft 4in Adonis with a gleam in his eye, a winning quality about him and that indefinable something that makes a star.”

Hudson in John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, in 1966
‘He chafed against his star persona in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 identity-crisis thriller Seconds.’ Photograph: Allstar Picture Library Limited./Alamy

The actor and film historian Illeana Douglas first became aware of Hudson in the comedies he made with Day. “They always played on television on a Saturday afternoon,” she tells me. “They seemed like the way life should be: everybody’s wearing fantastic clothing, everything working out in the end. The secret of his appeal was that he seemed to understand women better than their own husbands. He was good-looking, masculine, funny, charismatic and he could dance the cha-cha-cha. And he’s never a brute. He’s flirting with women but he’s not pawing them.”

Universal Studios initially seemed unsure how to use Hudson, but he responded well to attentive film-makers such as Raoul Walsh, Anthony Mann and Douglas Sirk, the last of whom directed him in eight pictures (or nine if you count Never Say Goodbye, which Sirk worked on but wasn’t credited for). These included the masterpieces All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. Douglas thinks Hudson’s partnership with Sirk is underrated. “We always talk about these actor-director collaborations like De Niro and Scorsese, yet we never think of Douglas Sirk and Rock Hudson like that,” she says. “Sirk moulded him into this iconic 1950s figure, this symbol of masculinity. I suspect what he saw was a sensitive quality, which is very different to James Dean’s sensitivity, because it’s also got this macho element.”

He’s a much better actor than people realise. He has this ability to be still so you see what’s going on in his face

Illeana Douglas

Hudson may have been moulded by Sirk but he was more than just a handful of clay, even if he did receive only one Oscar nomination, for George Stevens’s 1956 oil epic Giant, co-starring Dean and Taylor. “He’s a much better actor than people realise,” says Douglas. “Some of those Sirk films, with their heightened dialogue, are very hard to carry off. But Hudson is so grounded; he has this ability to be very still so you can see what’s going on in his face.” Kijak agrees: “Those films are such constructions but he’s weirdly natural in them.”

Pain plays a necessary part in Kijak’s documentary: Hudson’s biological father walked out on the family, and the boy was then abused by his stepfather. But Kijak was determined to avoid furtiveness and shame when it came to addressing the star’s sex life. “This was the McCarthy era, the ‘lavender scare’. They’re trying to root homosexuals out of the military. But Rock was protected. He was a huge money-maker for the studio. He’s white, he’s wealthy, he’s famous. We tend to talk about gay lives in terms of oppression, but this wasn’t one of those cases.”

Relaxing on a sofa with Doris Day, circa 1960.
‘He seemed to understand women better than their own husbands’ … with his close friend Doris Day, circa 1960. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Hudson is described in the film’s opening minutes as “a sexual gladiator”. Maintaining a public persona and even a sham marriage (to his agent’s secretary, Phyllis Gates) clearly did nothing to impede a prolific sex life. “I wanted to explore the sexiness and fun of that world and show that some gay lives thrived and flourished,” says Kijak. “Let’s be frank about it: he was a horndog!”

One of the movie’s problems may be that no one has a bad word to say about him. Hudson’s Republican loyalties are mentioned, but there is nothing about how he joined the celebrity pile-on against Marlon Brando, who refused his 1973 Oscar for The Godfather as a protest against Hollywood’s treatment of Native American people. “Actors can get on a soapbox,” Hudson said at the time, “but I think it’s often most eloquent to be silent.” Of course he did: he had skin in the game when it came to keeping mum.

The closest he got to exhibiting rebellious tendencies was when he chafed against his star persona, first in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 identity-crisis thriller Seconds, and then as a lecherous high-school sports coach in Roger Vadim’s vulgar 1971 Pretty Maids All in a Row (one of Quentin Tarantino’s all-time favourite films). But it was as a cosy TV perennial in McMillan & Wife, and as a guest star on Dynasty, however, that Hudson saw out his final decade. “That’s always the battle with actors,” says Douglas. “Do they stay safe and cash the pay cheque or take risks with artsy films? It’s such a shame we never got to see him age. Just think, he might have done the Burt Reynolds role in Boogie Nights!”

For all that Hudson’s death helped the fight against Aids, the question of whether his outing really changed anything in Hollywood remains moot. “I’ve been assured that there are leading men carrying today’s major blockbusters who are in Rock Hudson’s position,” says Griffin. “They are gay and closeted but, as far as we’ve come post-Stonewall, they are not going to come out because it would adversely affect their careers.”

“When this project was first suggested to me,” Kijak recalls, “it was called Rock Hudson: Accidental Activist. And I didn’t want the word ‘activist’ attached to him in that way.” Because it would be an insult to actual activists? “Exactly. You really can’t pin it on him. Everyone knows he was a gay man who had Aids, and the effect of that was incredibly positive. But did he have anything to do with it? I don’t think so. Was he in control of that narrative? Most likely not. If he’d had the choice, he would have stayed in the closet.”

More accurate, perhaps, to call him an inadvertent inspiration, blazing a trail against his own better judgment.

• Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed will be available to rent and own on digital platforms from 23 October