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Something in the air in Hollywood: shining a light on the real Rock Hudson

In Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood of the 1940s, Rock Hudson is an openly gay actor and quite the player in tinseltown. His most controversial stunt is probably arriving at the 1948 Oscars to make his first public appearance with his African American boyfriend Archie Coleman. Nervous and fidgety, the couple are met with radio silence the moment they step out of the car holding hands, a mute witnessing that soon descends into a shower of boos and jeers by the onlooking public just not ready to accept an openly gay relationship under their noses.

In real life, it didn’t happen. Not on your Nelly. 

Remember, this was the era of the celluloid closet, when there were no gay characters in pictures and no gay actors in Hollywood. Officially at least. To make sure that remained true, one had to look no further than the Hays Code or the various press departments forever manufacturing stories. Or killing them: the studios had a ‘cover up’ system to make gay film stars appear straight and often paired them with ambitious young women, i.e. “beards”, with the added intention of using one star to further another star’s career.

Rock’s agent Henry Willson did everything he could to hide his star turn’s personal life from the public. According to Robert Hofler’s 2006 book The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson, when Confidential magazine threatened to publish an article exposing Hudson’s sexuality, Wilson traded private information about two of his other clients — including providing Rory Calhoun’s arrest record — to keep Hudson’s sex life out of the tabloids.

It was a particularly unedifying quid pro quo, but in doing so, he saved Rock’s career.

Following the averted crisis, Willson set up Hudson with his secretary at the time, Phyllis Gates, to help solidify his straight identity to the public eye. The sham marriage was sad evidence Rock had joined a long roll call of actors — James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Cary Grant to name but three — forced to hide their sexuality.

Let them eat cake: Hudson and Gates get hitched

The “couple” remained married for three years until Gates filed for divorce, though it’s unclear exactly when and how much Gates knew about her husband’s sexuality. In 2013, The Hollywood Reporter claimed to have obtained audio of Gates secretly recording Rock’s “gay confession” in January of 1958, three months before she filed for divorce. In the audio, Gates allegedly said, “Everyone knows that you were picking up boys off the street shortly after we were married and have continued to do so, thinking that being married would cover up for you.”

Hudson never remarried.

Of course, scenes in the revisionist mini series show Hudson standing up for his right to love who he chooses, but it’s almost like watching a classic period piece rewritten to reflect the attitudes and societal standards of the 21st century rather than mid 20th.

Ryan uses a range of constructions which express or imply similitude. But because Hollywood rewrites much of history, the best way to watch this visual feast of fact and fiction is to pretend your Tardis has just landed on a strange alien planet where you have no prior knowledge of the inhabitants’ lives or wives. 

Tricky, I know, but not impossible.

If you do you’ll be transported into an alternate universe that attempts to reimagine what the glamorous Golden Age of the silver screen would have been like if the shining light of equal opportunities were given to the LGBTQ community, people of colour, and other underrepresented groups.

Hollywood highlights Hudson as a crucial figure and dives deep into his journey of self-discovery. as well as how he navigated the world of the studio system that expected an actor of his prestige to be whiter than white.

Some viewers had another problem with how the actor was portrayed, however. Played by Jake Picking, one major complaint is an allegation that Murphy deliberately dumbed down Rock’s personality. A handful of Twitter conversations claim he was smarter and didn’t deserve to be given a less-than-intelligent charisma in the Netflix series.

Picking claimed his goal was to truly portray Hudson. “I think the goal was just to pay homage to the legacy of Rock, and when I first sat down with Ryan, it was just about capturing the true essence of who Rock was on his rise to stardom,” he told People magazine. “It’s hard not to feel a presence of Rock watching. You kind of need to remind yourself [of that] in order to be present. You just rely on your scene partners. Hopefully the audience will feel like a fly on the wall. That’s the goal.”

The actor also spoke of Rock’s difficult upbringing, one he saw translate to loneliness in adulthood. “One other thing that stood out to me when he was a kid was he went across country with his mom to ask his dad to come back, and he said No,” Picking remembered.

“So, already facing that rejection, I can’t imagine that bus ride back home. Then his stepfather comes in and is abusive. It’s really unfortunate. It just rings true to me, it’s not real unless it’s painful to hang on to. I feel that’s what Rock was doing, constantly having to feel he couldn’t be himself. I think he was a hero. He progressed through judgement, he was resilient. He had great success. He was a hero in my eyes.”

Hero or not, in real life Rock Hudson equally a construction, an illusion. He was born Roy Harold Scherer Jr. on 17 November 1925 in Winnetka, Illinois, a wealthy stockbroker belt enclave outside Chicago.

With his square-jawed looks and tall, muscular physique, Hudson became a prominent Hollywood heartthrob in the fities, starring in everything from Seminole (1953) with Anthony Quinn to Giant (1956) with James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor.

He also found continued success with a string of lightweight romantic comedies, including a trio co-starring the effervescent Doris Day: Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964); plus Darling Lili, a so-so musical with Julie Andrews in 1970.

In the seventies, Hudson turned to television, starring in the long-running mystery series McMillan & Wife (1971–1977; and, as I remember it, my earliest memory of Rock).

His last role was as a guest star on the fifth season of the rich bitch soap opera Dynasty with John Forsythe, Joan Collins and Linda Evans.

Sadly it would prove to be his farewell, as he had been diagnosed with AIDS in June 1984. He eventually decided to go public with a statement from his French publicist Yanou Collart in July 1985 after the actor had been rushed to the American Hospital in Paris for treatment.

The disclosure of Hudson’s AIDS diagnosis — the first by a major celebrity —provoked widespread public discussion of homosexual identity, as I remember only too well.

As well as being the time of Freddie Mercury’s show-stopping performance at Live Aid, July 1985 was the month I left school: paranoia was in the air, which was hardly helped when it was assumed (wrongly) that HIV could be passed on through kissing or sharing a coffee cup.

Rock Hudson died on 2 October 1985 — 35 years ago today — in Beverly Crest, Los Angeles, less than seven weeks before what would have been his 60th birthday. A few days after his death, the US Congress set aside $221 million to develop a cure for AIDS.

World, we’re still waiting.

Steve Pafford

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