Fresh out of the Navy, a tall, good-looking fellow with broad shoulders, a square jaw and a Pepsodent smile named Roy Fitzgerald decided to head for Hollywood and try his luck on the silver screen. Not surprisingly, he was soon spotted by Henry Willson, a dubious agent whose only talent was “discovering” pretty boys who wanted to be movie stars, changing their names to monickers like Tab, Troy, Rory and Lance, and launching their careers. So he groomed Roy Fitzgerald’s clothes, looks, and masculine image, and changed his name to Rock Hudson. The rest, as they say on Sunset Boulevard, is Hollywood history.
ROCK HUDSON: ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWED ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
The saga of the guy who was the Tom Cruise of the 1950s now forms the shadow and substance of a funny, sad, meticulously researched and painstakingly detailed documentary, Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed. It’s the story of a man who did indeed have all that, and more. Signed by Universal and relegated to bit parts, playing American Indians, Arabs, gunslingers and soldiers, he couldn’t act (in his first film, it took 38 takes for him to say one line) but he learned on the job, and climbed from obscurity to major stardom in love stories and romantic comedies. After years of hard work in forgettable B movies, he finally hit pay dirt in 1954, co-starring with Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession, and in 1956 he was nominated for an Academy Award for his superbly crafted starring role with Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Carroll Baker in the classic George Stevens blockbuster, Giant. Rolling in money, on the best-dressed list for three years, and featured on the covers of endless glossy magazines, his career skyrocketed. There was only one thing wrong: He was gay.
By day he was idolized by legions of fans as a clean-cut, big-screen romantic lead in glossy romantic melodramas romancing glamorous leading ladies such as Doris Day, Jean Simmons, Gina Lollobrigida and Lauren Bacall. Women craved him, men envied him, and the fan mail poured in, ensuring his place as a box-office sensation. Publicly, he wore the image like a tailored suit, but privately, at night, he headed from the bright lights and red carpets at Hollywood premieres to the darkness of smoky gay bars to pick up a parade of lovers. A lot of them, apparently (he was promiscuous), because the film is candid about his sex life, including first-hand interviews with an assortment of once-handsome, now-fading has-beens whose tell-all details of adventures in bed with Rock Hudson seem salacious, unnecessary, and self-serving. Considering the fact that he is no longer around to expand, explain, or deny, the obvious question is: Can a documentary be truthful and still refrain from being so revealing? For the most part, director Stephen Kijak does an admirable job of compiling so much material in a way that allows you to know Rock Hudson better than you ever imagined possible. The tragedy of living a double life in a business where any kind of life should have been acceptable, but wasn’t, is unmistakably real and inescapably touching.
In Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed (an apt title that refers to Rock’s second film with Jane Wyman) the elements of that remarkable life are compiled compellingly as they shift between Rock’s life of deception as a closeted movie star and the tragic consequences of life in any closet—in his case, death from AIDS in 1985. He was only 59 years old. Archival footage and interviews with friends who were there for him through his demise lend a hair-raising accuracy to the headlines of his death and I was touched by the people who now acknowledge the positive results of that mournful event, which he faced courageously, erasing the stigma of AIDS and giving hope to millions. “What a way to end a life” were his final words. In many ways it was a great life, and for the most part he lived it admirably and left it honorably. A worthy and decent movie indeed.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.