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Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed review – Hollywood beefcake reassessed

The title of this efficient documentary, patching together archive footage with off-camera interview material, is naturally taken from the 1955 romantic drama All That Heaven Allows, directed by Douglas Sirk and starring Rock Hudson opposite Jane Wyman; it is a movie – and a genre – long since rescued from critical condescension. Hudson did indeed seem to have all that heaven allowed: an almost preternatural handsomeness with something like Cary Grant’s looks and pure movie-star glow, overlaid with a granite masculinity, and a cool, insouciant style, which appeared to enclose an enigma long before his gay identity and his Aids diagnosis was confirmed at the very end of his life.

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

Even when he went out of style during the American new wave, as the scuffed-up authenticity of Pacino, Hoffman and De Niro was starting to make Hudson’s beefcake gorgeousness look silly, he simply transferred to TV and became a big star all over again in the married-detective show McMillan & Wife. Hudson was a really good actor (something which this film could perhaps have spent more time analysing) – particularly in the Sirk movies, George Stevens’s epic Giant and John Frankenheimer’s masterly, disturbing 1966 sci-fi Seconds. In fact this documentary does do a good job of showing how this latter film’s agonised themes of identity, escape and living a lie were perfectly suited to Hudson’s private life.

How very strange Hudson’s career seems now. The open secret of his sexuality existed as an in-crowd joke in the tabloid-gossip magazines, but until the 1980s it was perfectly possible for this to be sealed off from his public persona where it was not questioned. His ex-wife Phyllis Gates (the secretary of Hudson’s agent Henry Willson), whose brief marriage to Hudson was engineered as a publicity move, claimed that she was unaware of the truth, but she herself may have been a lesbian who found the arrangement congenial.

Stephen Kijak’s film rightly recontextualises Hudson’s life in the world of gay men in Hollywood, who found that wealth, connections, a highly evolved studio PR machine and habits of discretion meant that they could be more or less insulated from homophobic prying. Kijak speaks to Hudson’s friends and lovers, including Armistead Maupin, and even seems to have access to a very frank, privately recorded audiotape interview with Hudson from 1983. Hudson was obviously an intelligent and thoughtful man, but his inner life remains untouched.

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

All That Heaven Allowed wants to make the point of Rock Hudson’s public life to be a kind of sacrificial martyrdom: the first celebrity to come out, or at any rate consent to be outed, as a gay man with Aids. With the support of people like Elizabeth Taylor, Hudson effectively kickstarted (without perhaps knowing or even caring) a new openness which meant that Aids could be properly addressed in the Reaganite 1980s. But Kijak doesn’t really address the strange paradox: Hudson was a Republican who admired Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. And perhaps it was the very fact that Hudson did not explicitly come out, which created an impression of pain and pathos and loneliness that inspired people to rush in to help, although Hudson’s more conservative friends like Doris Day clearly felt no great need to join the parade. This is a perfectly watchable film, though it perhaps could have delved deeper into the contradictions.

• Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed is released on 23 October on digital platforms.