Rock Hudson was the Tom Cruise or Ryan Gosling of his day. Beloved by women, bedroom posters, cinema owners and movie screens the world over, the six-foot five poster boy of Douglas Sirk melodramas and Doris Day romantic comedies was also a studio contract player playing his greatest role: himself.
He made at least seventy movies, was one of the highest paid TV stars of the 1970s, and an icon of Hollywood’s golden age. And then he was outed as gay by a rabid press as he died of an AIDS-related illness a month short of his sixtieth birthday.
However, when he became the first A-list, high-profile victim of HIV/AIDS in October 1985, his whole Hollywood career and standing became an overnight punchline, a knowing eyeroll and an always nasty quip.
For a whole generation of young LGBTQ folk, Rock Hudson was a cruel projection of their futures steered by cruel media and cruel thinking. Despite Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood (2020) and a woefully fictitious depiction of the star attempting to rescue his name for today’s audiences, it is a new documentary feature streaming this month that is finally the rich and honest movie tribute the star deserves.
As Stephen Kijak’s Rock Hudson: All that Heaven Allowed is released (available to rent or buy on digital now), its director talks to Yahoo about his leading man, Hudson’s work, what his tragic death changed — or didn’t — and where Hollywood stands now on LGBTQ issues and representation.
"People have forgotten that moment. It was a crucial, historical moment," Kijak initially ponders as he reminds of that October 1985 death of a movie icon and that early, confused and bigoted fever about AIDS and its victims.
It took the death of Rock Hudson to wake up an industry, a country, and a world to the mid-1980s realities of HIV/AIDS.
People have completely forgotten the depth of the panic and the misinformation and the horror of it all.Stephen Kijak
However, while the decades since have seen Hudson’s legend fade for new generations, this documentary was not just inspired by a need to reappraise the star. Kijak asserts it is because "given where we are at with gay rights and all the anti-LGBTQ legislation and violence and everything that is going on not just back at home, but around the world.
"It is never a bad time to keep telling the stories of our gay elders and looking at these pieces of the past for lessons for the present."
Never one to use his fame for activism or LGBTQ advancements, Kijak nevertheless sets out to reframe Hudson as someone that did change, or at least confront, perceptions.
And unlike so many the world lost at that time and since, this particular gay elder had a wealth of archival footage, movies, television shows, and interviews at Kijak’s disposal. He admits it took a few years to assemble all the footage.
"It was a small team. Just my editor and a researcher and producer. And between us we watched pretty much everything he ever did. And that is upwards of seventy films and TV shows. It was really an intense intake process."
Part of the rich sheen to the documentary is how nearly every beat, story turn, or comment is marked by a Hudson’s movie moment. "Sometimes you are literally just looking at thirty or forty movies to find one glance or a look," Kijak recalls, "then you are thinking of a phrase or an idea and wondering if something is going to connect." It is a painstaking task dictated by time restraints. Yet, the end results soar.
Initially using Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) as a "great roadmap", Kijak furthermore realised early on how the movie Rock could inform insights into the private Rock. "He does not quite give you enough to work with," he admits, "You have to let his films help steer you."
Kijak is equally proud of the voices and inputs helping to tell Rock’s story. Intricately stitching together vintage interviews with the likes of director Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession), author Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City), former lovers, and actor peers Linda Evans and Piper Laurie (007 star Roger Moore even gets namechecked at one point), Kijak is pleased "we really have all these people in the film now who were intimate parts of his life professionally and personally. It is a good tapestry of everybody."
One of the fresh beats of the documentary is how that collective voice — and Kijak himself — quickly conclude how Hudson was never a sad, lonely closet case.
"In a way, there was an incredible ease to his private life," he reminds. "What was interesting I think is that he’s rich, he’s white, he’s famous, he’s a big star, he’s completely protected and isolated from the world.
"And, of course, he could have this care-free gay existence and have lovers and have partners and parties and all that stuff." Kijak astutely notes how "everybody lived split, double lives back then."
Hudson was hardly the only one self-presenting. If anything, the director believes that Rock’s "biggest cross to bear is that he wasn’t taken seriously."
He never won an Academy Award. He was a studio contract player who "had to do exactly what they told him. He would strive for serious roles and serious recognition." Yet, he never got it.
Kijak continues, "what was interesting was his career was this endless pursuit of respect and professional satisfaction. And I don’t think he ever found it. I think that is the thing that is extraordinary. When it works, he is really great. But there are a lot of bad movies just littering his filmography."
With his life so framed solely by his death, I ask Kijak if he thinks had HIV/AIDS not existed, would Rock Hudson had come out in his lifetime?
"I don’t think so," he quickly replies. "The guy was extremely conservative. He was of that generation," he adds. Kijak knows full well how "these guys were so jammed in the closet, it’s like they had nothing to gain from coming out. They weren’t activists. I think in some way it was generationally impossible for him."
These guys were so jammed in the closet, it’s like they had nothing to gain from coming out.Stephen Kijak
And as the end credits roll on this documentary and we ponder the political and legal equalities now afforded LGBTQ communities, there is still an additional, unspoken beat of this film. And it is stark, sinking feeling that requires wondering if forty years later has Hollywood and that entertainment society evolved for the better?
"It is interesting because there have been extraordinary advancements in visibility, trans visibility, and drag is as mainstream as it gets," Kijak reflects. "Oddly enough however, what seemingly straight, romantic action lead has climbed to those heights and then turned around and said, ‘I’m gay’?" he rightly reminds. "I keep being asked this and I think ‘am I missing something?’ Am I forgetting someone?! I can’t think of anybody."
Decades after Rock Hudson was the biggest movie star in the world with the biggest secret, it seems that all Hollywood allows is still prejudice.
"It still makes people uncomfortable. It is still sort of a weird taboo. We can be presentational. We can be flamboyant. We can be visible to a degree. But don’t screw with the structure… There’s still prejudice. There’s still a wall up. And there are still actors terrified of coming out."
Rock Hudson: All that Heaven Allowed is available to download and rent on digital platforms from 23 October.
Read more: Rock Hudson
The double life of Rock Hudson: ‘Let’s be frank, he was a horndog!’ (The Guardian, 8 min read)
Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed review – Hollywood beefcake reassessed (The Guardian, 3 min read)
Elizabeth Taylor snuck into the hospital to see Rock Hudson on his deathbed (Bang Showbiz, 2 min read)