“Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” covers the life and career of an actor who rose to fame at a time when being homosexual would end one’s career. Hudson’s death at 59 from AIDS-related complications in 1985 drew attention to what was then considered “a gay disease” — shrouded in fear and ignored by the Reagan administration.
The most refreshing characteristic of director Stephen Kijak’s documentary, which premieres Wednesday on MAX, is its frankness; this is an unapologetically gay film, featuring interviews with former friends and lovers of Hudson, as well as biographers, film critics, and actors. Hudson’s lifelong friends, partners Mark Miller and George Nader, are given ample screen time; and even Doris Day shows up for a minute or two.
Some of the stories get pretty spicy, and the interviewees are unafraid to spill tea and assign blame. Such openness makes the film even more moving and effective when it details the darkest days of Hudson’s life and the homophobia his diagnosis generated.
“Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” has a tragic arc that reminded me of the Technicolor dramas Hudson made for producer Ross Hunter: It begins with a clip of Hudson’s appearance on the reality program “This Is Your Life” and ends with Hudson eulogizing himself via a scene from one of his films.
At nearly 6 feet, 4 inches tall and with a rugged, masculine look that was manufactured by his agent, Henry Willson, Rock Hudson quickly rose to matinee idol status while under contract with Universal. The actor formerly known as Roy Fitzgerald from Winnetka, Ill., was deemed a man’s man; women wanted to be with him and men wanted to be like him.
Directors like Douglas Sirk, who made the film that gives this documentary its subtitle, “All That Heaven Allows,” and producers like Hunter (both of whom we see and hear in clips) helped elevate Hudson to superstardom. His role alongside lifelong friend Elizabeth Taylor in 1956′s “Giant” earned him his sole Oscar nomination. He even managed to be a hit on television in the 1970s, starring in the long-running series “McMillan & Wife” (and later, just “McMillan”).
Hudson’s homosexuality was well-known in Hollywood but could never be exposed to the general public. “Virtually every bit player, makeup man, assistant gofer at Universal knew the score,” we are told.
Watching this film, I wondered how his straight fans weren’t more clued-in. Here was a bachelor nearing 30 who not only hadn’t married but was living in a one-bedroom apartment with another drop-dead gorgeous single actor named Bob Preble. Sure, Hollywood kept distracting fans with planted articles and even a marriage to Phyllis Gates that the documentary states was a sham, but the truth seemed so obvious.
Before I’m accused of stereotyping, I must state that it’s always felt to me that Hudson was blatantly flaunting his sexuality to tease a clueless public. There are so many lines and scenes in his career that can be read as potentially gay. In fact, the one major issue I have with “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” is that Kijak and his editor, Claire Didier, use numerous scenes from Hudson’s films as meta-commentary on his sexuality. It starts out as a clever device, but it’s overused to the point where the film starts to resemble the clip-filled 1970 fiasco “Myra Breckinridge.”
Take those Doris Day movies, for example. Films like 1959′s “Pillow Talk” (which Hudson says almost didn’t get made because “it was too filthy”) or 1961′s “Lover Come Back.” “You have a gay actor playing a straight man impersonating a possibly gay man,” says film critic Tom Santopietro. “It’s a house of mirrors.”
“Tales of the City” writer Armistead Maupin also points out that this “fake” queerness was “to get Doris Day into bed. That was the joke.”
“It was kind of an evil gag, actually,” he adds.
In its final minutes, “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” covers Hudson’s appearance on the nighttime soap opera “Dynasty,” specifically the kiss he shared with the show’s star Linda Evans. Once Hudson’s condition was made public, all hell broke loose around the possibility of Evans being infected by a disease that, at least back then, was a terrifying mystery because of a lack of information.
We hear Evans discussing this in voice-over, dispelling the rumors that spun at the time and becoming emotional as she considers that Hudson did everything he could to protect her. The film is also not shy about dragging both Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The former first lady declined to help the actor after his publicist reached out about getting Hudson admitted into a French military hospital that could have treated him in his last days.
“Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” is ultimately a celebration of its subject told with more than a little humor and honesty. It’s a good film with which to end this Pride Month.
ROCK HUDSON: ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWED
Directed by Stephen Kijak. With Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Armistead Maupin, Linda Evans, Tom Santopietro, Mark Miller, George Nader. 104 minutes. On MAX. Unrated (heaven allows nudity and ribald language)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.