In the 1950s and 60s, Rock Hudson was the quintessential matinee idol, with his chiseled good looks. Hudson had adoring fans and, on the surface, led the life of an A-lister, paired up onscreen with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day. But Hudson had a hidden life as a closeted gay man whose secret didn't become public until he was dying of AIDS. His death in 1985 at age 59 is considered a turning point in AIDS awareness. Rock Hudson's career life struggles and death are all examined and detailed by Maine author Mark Griffin and his biography, “All That Heaven Allows.” Griffin spoke with Maine Public's Ed Morin.
GRIFFIN: I think he's so important because he embodies so many different things, Ed - you know, he basically represents the American dream. This is a former truck driver who came out of virtual obscurity from Winnetka, Illinois. He had no formal training whatsoever, and through hard work and fierce ambition and determination became the number one box office star in the nation - or around the world actually - in the 1950s and early 60s. And then when he died, that was a tragic death - you know, it was from AIDS-related causes. But it also represented the metaphoric demise of the Hollywood studio system that Rock was a part of. And, in a sense, Rock Hudson was one of that particular era of Hollywood's greatest creations. This was the era of the studio manufactured star. And then lastly - sadly and tragically - you know, he transcends mere celebrity later on in the 1980s by becoming the poster boy, if you will, for a global pandemic, which is AIDS.
He was like the very definition of American manhood, and gay at a time when these two things were considered mutually exclusive. How did that work out?
GRIFFIN: Well you can imagine the psychological and emotional disconnect that must create for this person who, on the one hand, is this great romantic matinee idol who's wooing women like Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day on screen. And yet in his private life he's involved with a number of male companions. And, you know, this was an era - again pre-Stonewall, pre-gay liberation, where the merest hint that you may have been gay could destroy your career. So, at the same time that he's managing this high-profile career, he's also trying to keep scandal sheets like “Confidential” at bay which were always threatening to expose him to the public. And I can't imagine, Ed, the amount of internal pressure that must have created within this individual. Yet, by all accounts, he was always the consummate professional - completely good natured, not only with his co-stars but with virtually everyone that I spoke with - this is relatives and former companions. I mean, was he perfect? No, and I don't think that he would want me to portray him that way. But I think, for the most part, this is somebody that was operating under almost crushing daily stress. And I think he carried himself really well.
So what did it take to try to keep this secret?
Right. It was kind of, I think, what's now referred to as an open secret in Hollywood. Most of the people that Rock was under contract with at Universal Studios knew about his true proclivities as a gay man. And yet there's this sort of - I don't know if conspiracy would be the word - but this sort of silent agreement that, in the name of his career, nobody is going to mention this publicly. So, on the one hand, you have his Hollywood colleagues who know this about him. But to, say, a fan out in Peoria, Illinois - you know, they're maybe believing the fantasy that he is this great romantic matinee idol image that he is portraying on the screen.
At the beginning of his career as an actor, was pretty much what he had going for him - Rock Hudson - his looks? Could he act? And how did that develop over his career?
GRIFFIN: I think very early on he was lucky to land at Universal instead of another major studio, like MGM or Paramount, because Universal had what they called a contract player program whereby a young actor like a Rock Hudson or a Piper Laurie - they were making films but they were also being sent to horseback riding classes, or they were getting voice lessons or tap dance lessons. So, the studio was really training them and grooming them to become stars. And I think in the beginning Rock Hudson was this very photogenic, incredibly handsome guy who the camera just loved right from the get go. But even Rock would have admitted that early on, you know, he was very tongue tied. He didn't really know how to behave in front of a camera. But I think Rock took his ambitions to be a fine actor really seriously. And eventually he had the good fortune to work with the great director Douglas Sirk, who cast him in what we now consider to be these classic melodramas, like "Magnificent Obsession" with Jane Wyman, and the follow up, "All That Heaven Allows" - which I know I appropriated that title for my book because I thought it was so fitting to Rock's life story.
Mark Griffin, thank you so much.
Oh, thank you, Ed. It was a pleasure.
Maine writer Mark Griffin is the author of "All That Heaven Allows," a biography of Rock Hudson. Universal Pictures has picked up the option on the book with plans to release a film based on the biography.