In “Written on the Wind,” Douglas Sirk’s high grossing, if high-strung, 1956 melodrama, the agreeable young marquee idol Rock Hudson took on what was already a familiar role for him. He played “the noble, valiant, and eternally self-sacrificing hero,” as biographer Mark Griffin describes it.
Hudson, one of the most bankable movie stars of the 1950s, was physically imposing, but with “a boyish sweetness and vulnerability [that] made him completely nonthreatening,” Griffin writes in “All That Heaven Allows.” In the most lucrative years of his career, he was serially cast as just the sort of man a woman would long to bring home to her parents.
That’s how the studio chiefs saw him, anyway. In real life, Hudson had a secret, one that left him perpetually susceptible to blackmail and career ruin. He was gay.
This will come as no surprise to anyone who lived through the AIDS era of the 1980s, when the disclosure that Hudson was dying of the disease helped change public policy from a despicable shrug to more serious commitment. But in the 1950s and ‘60s, during the peak years of Hudson’s movie stardom, any public admission about his private life would have torched his career. Living up to his carefully sculpted image, he knew, was impossible.
Griffin, a Maine-based film writer who has contributed to the Globe, has written a definitive biography, one that effectively toggles between gleeful gossip-dishing (as befits Hudson’s era of film-world glitz) and a genuine affection and admiration for the man behind the screen presence. “His most brilliant performance was playing ‘Rock Hudson’ all his life,” Michael Kearns, one of the few uncloseted actors in Hollywood in the 1980s, tells the author. “I think the acting he did off screen required more work, more transformation . . . I mean, from the very beginning of his life, this is someone who had to act just to survive.”
A strapping young truck driver from Illinois, the former Roy Fitzgerald had no acting experience when he arrived in Hollywood. He was groomed by a notoriously predatory agent, a man Hudson’s occasional castmate Roddy McDowall once likened to “the slime that oozed out from under a rock you did not want to turn over.”
Within a half-dozen years, Hudson went from bit player to swoony leading man. He starred in several of Sirk’s stylized romances, including the forbidden love story — proper older widow, bohemian young landscaper — that gives Griffin’s book its title. In 1956, he earned his sole Academy Award nomination as the Texas rancher Bick Benedict in the epic “Giant,” which co-starred Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. By 1959, a decade after his arrival, Hudson’s image was all but fixed for good, as he split the screen with Doris Day in the snappy, genre-defining romantic comedy “Pillow Talk.”
Like many of Hudson’s films, “Pillow Talk” featured a dizzying level of psychoanalytic innuendo, with Hudson the gay actor playing a very eligible straight bachelor, who in turn masquerades as an effeminate man. (Some years after Hudson’s death, the filmmaker Mark Rappaport made a sly documentary, “Rock Hudson’s Home Movies,” that spooled together dozens of those nudge-nudge, wink-wink clips.) Though rumors of Hudson’s sexual orientation persisted over the years, the ticket-buying public was never privy to the truth, as all of Hollywood seemed to be.
The book gradually takes on a repetitive rhythm: the requisite plot synopsis of Hudson’s next film, followed by a pre-Tinder profile of his latest boy toy. The author’s tone is a little too chummy; more often than not, Hudson is referred to as “Rock.”
But Griffin’s biography finds its deeper meaning when his subject, long past his top-billing days and working in a supporting role on the prime-time soap opera “Dynasty,” attends a state dinner at the White House in 1984. Alarmed at his apparent sudden weight loss, Nancy Reagan tells him he needs to fatten up. (“You’re thin, also,” he supposedly replied.) Although Hudson and the Reagans were friendly, Nancy Reagan declined Hudson’s request for help in getting specialized AIDS treatment in France in 1985, as documents obtained in 2015 by the Mattachine Society, a gay-rights group, confirmed
Weeks after the European event, Hudson died of AIDS-related complications at age 59. The revelation of his sickness shocked the world. Beloved as a matinee idol, he lent his face one last time to a wider screen. Before he died, he made a $250,000 donation that effectively launched amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Hudson’s death would help awaken the Reagan administration to an epidemic it had actively ignored.
In Hollywood, Griffin writes, Hudson was “the perfect specimen . . . devastatingly handsome, extremely ambitious, and almost effortlessly manipulated.” The first two characteristics made him an everlasting star; the latter, one of Hollywood’s sadder sagas.
ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS:
A Biography of Rock Hudson
By Mark Griffin
Harper, 473 pp., illustrated, $28.99
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James Sullivan is a frequent contributor to the Globe. His new book, “Which Side Are You On?,” publishes in January. Email him at email@example.com.