The most important thing about “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” is that, within the essential act of recovery it provides for the star, it not only erases the life of the Hollywood icon as sad. This is an amazing thing for a documentary where its last 40 minutes are as heartbreaking a depiction of AIDS in the 80s as it has been in a movie since “How to Survive a Plague.”
Certainly, it is infuriating and upsetting on many levels: that Hudson was not allowed to fly on a commercial airliner due to his diagnosis and had to charter an Air France Boeing 747 at a cost of $250,000 to fly home to Los Angeles from Paris it became clear that his experimental treatment there had failed. And the revelation that her friend Nancy Reagan even urged her husband to deny him treatment at a military hospital is beyond infuriating.
Stephen Kijak’s documentary does an eye-opening job, however, of suggesting that Hudson lived, for the most part, a happy life. Being closed to the general public didn’t mean it wasn’t aimed at a large group of people: it certainly expressed his sexuality and with many partners, some of whom appear in Kijak’s film to share their memories of him.
Often in film portrayals, gay men were not allowed to be sexual, and the frank descriptions of his liaisons with numerous men (during one segment, Hudson can be heard getting on the phone in his stately Grand Canyon voice conveying detailed explicit) speak to the degree to which he was truly liberated. Doris Day may not have known she was gay, but many, many others in her orbit did.
Kijak even goes so far as to imply that there have been few Hollywood celebrity deaths that have ever had more significance than Hudson’s, in the way he helped normalize homosexuality and being HIV positive and spur action to improve the survival rate. For homophobic audiences, if Rock Hudson, the ultimate example of the American movie god, could be these things, so could anyone.
Where Kijak’s film falls short is in its consideration of Hudson as an actor. Allison Anders praises his portrayal of him in “Giant,” but she ignores how precise and methodical a performer he was. It’s a shame because the documentary would have been a natural place to do this, and it’s hard to imagine any other documentary on the horizon that would.
Even at the time of his greatest success in the late 1950s, Hudson’s acting gifts weren’t celebrated in the way they could have been. He was personable and private, inherently embracing the idea that navigating American life is about wearing and swapping masks.
He is the actor who comes closest to embodying the idea of Don Draper. What, am I comparing him to the aggressively straight character from Jon Hamm’s “Mad Men”? Yes, because that character was all about wearing masks, having invented his persona from scratch, literally assuming someone else’s identity. There is an element of self-invention that is always essential to the idea of the mid-century American dream: You were simply who you said you were. Jay Gatsby was the one on the page. Rock Hudson lived it.
Hudson was in every sense. Not just because he was gay and projected an image of righteousness, but in all of the other ways his character was fabricated. There is a legend, possibly false, that he developed his smooth voice by screaming at the top of a mountain while suffering from a cold, breaking a vocal cord so that he would artificially lower his voice for the rest of his life. What a crazy and mythical story. It is not presented in the document, again probably because it is not true, but it reflects Hudson’s unique place between legend and reality.
In so many of his films, Hudson’s characters navigate reality by projecting their own Image of reality. There are as many role reversals, detours and mistaken identities in “Pillow Talk” or “Lover Come Back” as in a Shakespeare play. “Magnificent Obsession” is about him becoming a better person by being more and more inauthentic; his authentic self is an asshole. His mysterious tree-grower in “Anything Heaven Allows,” not an unequivocally noble trunk at all, seems busy trading one cage for Jane Wyman’s character for another.
Questions of authenticity are at the heart of Hudson’s roles in a way that speaks deeply to the American character. But he was quiet and reserved where James Dean, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman burned. A twinkle in his eye and a wry smile as Brad Allen in “Pillow Talk” conveys an inner life that you have to work a bit to access—come to him, not him to you, as he’ll always hold back for a while. Method boys? They are all on the surface, their inner lives made external through outbursts of emotion. One of these acting styles was thought to be ‘acting’, the other to simply be celebrity.
That narrative has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s. Kijak’s film suggests that the flirtations with homosexuality in “Pillow Talk” and “Lover Come Back” were producer Ross Hunter mocking Hudson’s closure (although the relentless use of clips from his films implied gay overtones , which most of the public would not have noticed at the time, it almost seems that Kijak does the same). But he looks at Hudson’s comedic timing in those films. He looks at the very conscious (and contemporary) way he projects toxic masculinity into those films. It is performance and criticism at the same time. Dean and Brando offered rawness; Hudson expressed irony.
To me, the ultimate example of an actor’s greatness is when he or she can elevate an otherwise bad film. Look no further than Hudson in ‘The Mirror Crack’d’, a film entirely omitted from the documentary. This Agatha Christie adaptation is bad. Angela Lansbury (as Miss Marple) is also mean, which almost never happened. Elizabeth Taylor gives a performance to forget. But… Hudson is electrifying. Yes he once again he’s a man with a secret. And he almost single-handedly elevates that film to something both grand and tragic, acting in circles around his close friend Taylor. He was a serious artist who was able to offer serious art even when serious art was not expected at all.
That Hudson is missing in “All That Heaven Allowed”. I wish he had been there. Fortunately, Hudson’s films are still there to be discovered and enjoyed again. See them for what it is Therenot what you think is there.