Last week, I watched “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” while in Provincetown—partly why it felt so surreal to me. A gay enclave at the tip of the Cape, where out gay men rule the roost and the daily tea dance gives “peacocking” new meaning—Rock Hudson would have turned heads up and down Commercial Street.
But Rock Hudson lived and worked in mid-century Hollywood. The new HBO documentary about the double life this required definitively reminds us that silence equals death. Of course, most LGBTQ+ people lived in the closet back then because the risks of coming out clearly outweighed the benefits of doing so. No one knew this better than Rock Hudson.
I especially like how this documentary film title refers to Hudson’s breakout role in 1955’s romantic drama “All That Heaven Allows,” in which he co-starred with Jane Wyman. Of course, Wyman’s fourth husband was another handsome Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan.
“All That Heaven Allows” also later became the name of Mark Griffin’s 2018 biography of the matinee idol, on which HBO’s documentary is based. The film made me want to read the book—if only to better understand the enigmatic legend himself. While the movie contextualizes Hudson’s circumstances well, he was certainly not alone as a closeted gay man.
However, he was unique in other ways. His sexual orientation was evidently no secret among his film industry colleagues. And in the pre-Internet era, gossip columnists were the biggest threat to his personal privacy. Naturally, the Hollywood studio system made sure Tinseltown’s most eligible bachelor maintained his wholesome heartthrob image.
Fast forward to 1984: AIDS had become an epidemic over the prior three years. So, when Hudson succumbed to AIDS-related complications in 1985, public discussion about homosexuality came out of its own closet. Unfortunately, the knuckle-dragging of Reagan’s Republican Party prolonged the suffering of people living with HIV disease, but that was par for the course.
In fact, in his 1981 inaugural speech, Jane Wyman’s fourth husband said “government is the problem.” Granted, he was talking about the economy, but the irony still isn’t lost on anyone casually observing whatever the hell the Republican Party is now or was then, which Hudson belonged to himself.
In any case, Rock Hudson influenced me so much that I traveled to Marfa, Texas on the 50th anniversary of another one of his famous movies: “Giant.” Filmed in this west Texas outpost, co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean completed the trifecta of Hollywood royalty on set. And though “Giant” isn’t one of my all-time favorites, it certainly represents the Golden Age of Hollywood.
It makes me sad that Rock Hudson died at the early age of 59. The four gay men I am closest to have all been living with HIV for nearly 30 years; they are in their late 50s and early 60s now. And it is this complicated legacy that also makes me grateful Hudson achieved so much in his lifetime; ultimately, he helped us pay closer attention to a scary new disease. His star burned bright throughout a very successful career, and still he shines on now.