It can be easy to assume the lives of closeted public figures are the kind solely defined by self-loathing, marginalization, and poor mental health. Of course, we should not ignore the very real oppressive aspects that come with being forced to hide your sexuality but it’s important to also remember these people often live multi-faceted lives which are fulfilling regardless of that secret. In Stephen Kijak’s Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed, the filmmaker appears eager to rewrite the established narrative surrounding one the biggest movie stars of Hollywood’s golden age.
This solidly sweet, undeniably touching if workmanlike documentary seeks to represent a more complete picture of Hudson. Most importantly, this means reminding audiences that the actor spent many of his years as a self-assured gay man who was, at least in private, content with his sexuality. This is mostly because Hudson was not closested in the strictest sense of the word. To use a recent term, he was in a ‘glass closet’, which means the man’s sexual orientation was known to many but not publicly acknowledged. Much of this private homosexual life was more joyous then perhaps many might first have assumed, and Kijak wants you to know it.
If you are looking for someone who personifies the slick manufacturing of the studio system, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone more suitable than our subject here. Born as Roy Harold Scherer Jr. in 1925, he would adopt a stage name and become the impossibly cool and rugged-sounding Rock Hudson following a suggestion from Henry Wilson, the talent scout and agent who helped launch his career. It would take one year after Wilson’s discovery for Hudson to appear in a one-line role in 1948’s Fighter Squadron, it would take just three more for him to become a leading man in Scarlet Angel.
While Hudson enjoyed some success as a heartthrob hero in a string of adventure films, it was the Hollywood melodramas he made with German director Douglas Sirk which brought him stratospheric levels of fame. The likes of Magnificent Obsession and especially All The Heaven Allows made Hudson an era-defining sex symbol for the suburban housewife. He was now the gorgeous, burly hunk with a sensitivity so deeply felt he cared not to hide it in an age of rigidly-defined masculinity. Similarly to how Sirk’s white-picket perfect works hid a subtextual assault on the confined reality of the 1950’s woman, so too was Hudson hiding his homosexual life behind the womanizing image portrayed by the tinseltown rags in stories paid for by the studios.
As this is a biographical documentary released after 2010s Senna, it goes without saying that the film is legally obligated to mirror the Asif Kapaida model. For the most part we hear the disembodied voices from cultural critics and those who knew the man play over an endless supply of archival footage and imagery. This tried-and-tested modus operandi is starting to become a bit rote, but it’s become omnipresent for a reason, as it allows for a fluid final edit without interruption from talking heads.
In an interesting change of pace to that method, we do eventually see some contemporary footage of interviewees. For the most part, these are men who either knew Hudson intimately or who shared a social circle with the actor. It’s a nice touch from Kijak who is not only centering gay men but also those who knew Hudson for the man he really was. By showing only them, he’s sending a clear message about how it’s those who spent too much of their lives in concealed fashion who now deserve the most visibility. It’s also these same men who offer up the majority of the documentary’s most touching moments, as they provide warm, loving anecdotes and sometimes crudely funny descriptions of the sex life. It’s all so unapologetically gay, and the film is at its best when it revels in that.
This isn’t to say All That Heaven Allowed shies away from the obvious cruelty of both the era and what Rock was subjected to. It’s well known that Henry Wilson expected sexual favors from his clients, and would probably have a Weinstein-esque expose of his practices had he been around today. Another horrid detail is Wilson offering up fellow gay star Tab Hunter as a sacrificial lamb to the tabloid press to avoid reports of mealticket Hudson’s exploits.
There is a deeply cruel irony also, to the actor being close friends with the Reagans only to die of AIDS, a disease ignored by both for too long to the detriment of him and so many. Perhaps the most moving moment comes near the end, when Linda Evans reveals she was heartbroken at discovering Hudson had tried to avoid kissing her for a scene they shared on Dynasty following his diagnosis. The audible cracks in her voice showing us the depths of her empathy.
Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed is perhaps not a detailed character study. For one, it implies Hudson was practically apolitical and was only a republican due to the high society circles he found himself in. This is, however, a little hard to believe considering the man campaigned for US presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. Diving into the more thorny complications of his personality and that dichotomy may have made for a more penetrating portrait. That said, this is a celebration of a gay life, and maybe that’s the least he deserved.
Rock Hudson: All that Heaven Allowed is available to download and rent on digital platforms from 23rd October
Featured Image Credit: NBC Universal