'Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed' review: An illuminating account of the double life of a beloved Hollywood icon

‘Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed’ review: An illuminating account of the double life of a beloved Hollywood icon

Just over 30 years ago, director Mark Rappaport in his playful deconstructionist essay Rock Hudson home movies, deftly mined the queer subtext in the mid-century Hollywood superstar’s cinematic work to speculate on his inner conflict as a closet-confined gay public figure. Stephen Kijak’s more conventional, yet more sincere docu-portrait, Rock Hudson: All Heaven Allowedtakes an equally cheeky approach to sniffing out coded behavior in a jaw-dropping series of clips that find as much pathos as entertainment.

Contextualizing Hudson’s regimented stardom against the relative freedom with which he experienced his sexuality within a trusted circle, the HBO film paints him less as a victim of repressive times – though he certainly was – than as an expert product of the studio system that quickly learned how to play the game without losing its sense of self.

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Rock Hudson: All Heaven Allowed

The bottom line

A moving chapter in queer history.

Place: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Airdates: Wednesday, June 28 (HBO and Max)
Director: Stephen Kijak

1 hour and 44 minutes

The tragic end of his life in 1985, when he died of AIDS-related causes at the age of 59, turned what had been a relatively open secret in Hollywood into a startling public revelation, exposing evidence of Hudson’s homosexuality which they had been just below everyone’s surface. long. Kijak argues that being the first major celebrity to contract HIV and succumb to its ravages helped destigmatize the disease to some extent, two years before President Reagan belatedly addressed the pandemic and began funding research.

Whether or not you agree with the doctor’s assessment that Hudson’s death made him “an activist without knowing it,” there’s no question that he pushed the topic into the main conversation by putting a highly recognizable face — a widely believed to be the essence of wholesome All-American masculinity – about a disease that was almost invariably a death sentence at the time. Support from Hudson’s close friend and ally Elizabeth Taylor, among others, further amplified the attention.

While most of the specifics here are familiar from biographies, news stories, previous documentaries, and fictional treatments like Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, Kijak and editor Claire Didier have assembled the richness of the material into a fascinating, multi-layered portrait that will interest queer historians and Hollywood obsessives alike. Insights from friends, co-stars, and ex-lovers also provide as intimate an access as we’re likely to ever get to the beautifully chiseled chunk of granite that women wanted and men wanted to be. OK, and a lot of men wanted that too.

As a matter of fact, the exposure of Hudson’s sexuality probably would have ended his film career in that unapologetically homophobic era, and now it seems surprising that it remained under wraps for so long. Ironically, the gay relationship that came closest to Hudson’s exit was a completely fabricated rumor of a “marriage” to her friend Jim Nabors.

The idea that a 1952 Photo game spread titled “Bachelor’s Bedlam” — its images conveying what seems unmistakably married domestic life between Hudson and fellow actor Bob Preble in the one-bedroom house they shared off Mulholland Drive — could be taken as something less of a complete coming out that underlines the hilarious naivety of that less cynical time. Instead, the lyrics described them as “two hunks living together to save a buck.”

Much of the successful secrecy was due to the careful handling of talent agent Henry Wilson, the gay casting couch vulture (described by one of Hudson’s boyfriends as “that evil agent of his”) whose efforts to keep the gossip tabloids far from his biggest paycheck included arranging Hudson’s wedding to his assistant, Phyllis Gates, in 1955; and negotiate a deal with Reserved magazine scapegoated another Wilson customer, Tab Hunter.

But one of the general impressions to emerge from the documentary — reinforced by former co-stars like Piper Laurie and Doris Day — is that Hudson’s good reputation in the community as an all-around nice guy has made Hollywood protective of him. That’s certainly the image he conveys in the archival interviews seen and heard here: of easygoing amiability and relaxed confidence.

His public persona while under contract to Universal was fabricated like that of any studio star of the time, arranged with “dates” for previews and disguised as romance articles planted in the press. But compared to many queer matinee idols and sirens of the time, Hudson lived as openly as possible under the circumstances. She wasn’t fazed by being the star guest at clothing-optional gay pool parties, and once got Wilson and Universal into a frantic cover-up mode by setting off unannounced on a cross-country vacation to New Orleans with a boyfriend.

His relationships tended to be brief, but his friendships were enduring, particularly with longtime partners George Nader and Mark Miller, whom he entertained at his Beverly Hills hacienda-style home nicknamed “The Castle” and frequently visited at their house of Laguna, accompanying them to the gay beach there. (When the couple fell into financial trouble, Hudson employed Miller as his personal assistant from 1972 until his death; Miller’s journal entries from after Hudson contracted HIV are heartbreaking.)

Even later, when Hudson’s big-screen star had faded and he was headlining NBC’s primetime police procedural McMillan and wife for much of the 1970s, he made seemingly little effort to stay in the shadows. Gay archivist Ken Maley recounts a fun night with Hudson at a sex club unequivocally called the Glory Holes, where the star also stayed for hours after being recognized.

While Kijak’s documentary foregrounds the strangeness of the subject, it doesn’t overlook the Hollywood success that transformed him from Roy Fitzgerald into Rock Hudson, dubbed “The Big Man from Winnetka” in a fan-mag headline. Instead, he weaves those films into his life story by finding parallels and overlaps with the characters he played.

Her early screen appearances were in throwaway, military, and B-action Westerns, until Douglas Sirk, Ross Hunter, and later George Stevens, saw her potential for more nuanced roles. In archival interviews with Sirk in both German and English, the director jokes that Hudson “got off the truck” to star as a drugstore soda addict in the mostly forgotten 1952 comedy Has anyone seen my girlfriend? (James Dean, who would go on to star with Hudson in Stevens’ film Giantis seen in an uncredited role as an arrogant little boy who orders a soda.)

But it was Sirk’s glorious melodramas of the mid-1950s, Magnificent obsession, All That Heaven Allows AND Written in the wind, which turned Hudson into a heartthrob. While Kijak has no shortage of illuminating audio commentary from critics, film scholars, and biographers, he makes interesting choices to provide key analysis on the actor’s canon films, starting with Ileanna Douglas on Sirk.

He notes that as an outsider, the German director was adept at breaching American values, pulling back the glamorous surface world to show the torrid reality underneath. According to producer Hunter, Hudson was the perfect sensitive male Adonis, “America personified,” which makes his hidden off-screen sexual identity seem more subversive now.

Allison Anders talks about it extensively Giant, noting that as Hudson butted heads with Dean, he immediately bonded with leading lady Taylor and they remained close thereafter. Anders also champions Hudson’s role as a progressive American hero: inclusive, feminist, and, by the film’s end, grandfather to a mixed-race child.

The other part of Hudson’s Hollywood output that receives the most attention are his popular comedies starring Day, starting in 1959 with the risqué-for-it-it-time Pillow talk and later in the early 60s with The lover comes back AND Don’t send me flowers. With Hudson’s character blurring her sexuality for plot purposes, Pillow talk, in particular, has become positively meta. As Hunter puts it: “A gay actor playing a straight man playing a possibly gay man.”

The echoes between Hudson’s characters on and off screen do All that heaven has allowed highly entertaining, with its lively editing and unnerving juxtapositions, often suggesting that Hollywood was winking at its audience. But Kijak handles the detour to grief with delicacy and class, particularly in reconstructing the nasty speculation that was sparked after Hudson’s death by an onscreen kiss with Linda Evans playing her in Dynasty.

In an emotional audio interview, Evans recalls how Hudson held back and kept his mouth shut in retake after retake of the kiss, then realizing he was trying to protect her. The uncertainty at the time about the ways in which HIV could be transmitted also caused Evans to be ostracized on the Dynasty on set, with makeup artists and others refusing to approach her, while personal friends also kept their distance.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 casts a long shadow over the final stretch. Perhaps the most damning evidence of public ignorance and intolerance is when Hudson fell ill in Paris while participating in a clinical drug trial. Doctors determined that the best place for him was the US military hospital. But this required special permission from Washington. Despite Hudson’s years of friendship with Nancy Reagan, he replied that it was not an issue he felt the White House should be involved in, representing a shocking betrayal.

Commentators recall those crisis years as a time of despair, when gay lives became an endless round of funerals and fundraisers as the government continued its dogged inaction. But the doctor makes a telling case for reconsidering Hudson’s death as a hero’s death that single-handedly changed many attitudes. The impeccable selection of closing clips allows us to reimagine him as a man not just idolized as a star, but accepted for the totality of who he was.