As Empowering as 'Hollywood' Is, Why Not Tell the Real Rock Hudson Story?

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Monday June 1, 2020

In Ryan Murphy's hit Netflix series "Hollywood," Rock Hudson (played by Jake Picking) brings screenwriter boyfriend Archie Coleman (a fictional character played by Jeremy Pope) to the 1948 Oscars, and is cheered by the audience when he introduces him as is boyfriend.

Such is the magically real world of Murphy's series, which looks back at post WWII Hollywood through rainbow colored glasses. (And as entertaining as this glossy remaking of Hollywood is, it doesn't hold a candle to another recent series rewriting Hollywood history, "Penny/Dreadful: City of Angels," currently airing on Showtime.)

In reality, Hudson's actual coming out was far grimmer: it occurred when he announced his AIDS diagnosis in 1985 along with a shocking photo of his emaciated body. He died shortly after the photo went public. His diagnosis had political significance: in acknowledging his friend Hudson's illness, President Ronald Reagan mentioned AIDS, the first time in his presidency some four years after the epidemic that devistated the gay community began.

While many admire the show's revisionist history, others find it an example of how Ryan Murphy is betraying the history of those who suffered in the blatant homophobia of post-war Hollywood.

"'Hollywood"- is just happy to paint a picture of what could have been, rather than work to say anything new about what Hollywood could become," writes Ben Travers in reviewing the series on IndieWire. "

... "Surfacing true stories about Hollywood's shameful past could be one eye-opening service 'Hollywood' provides, especially for Netflix audiences who, based on its streaming library, likely don't know much about movies before Will Smith," Travers continues. "But the way Murphy blends fact with fiction, not bothering to delineate the actual discrimination from the fabricated kind, means it's just as likely all the slights blend into believable fabrications instead of damning facts. Yes, it's easy to believe everything that happens in 'Hollywood' has really happened to someone, some time, in some shape or form, but the consistent cheer in Murphy's series betrays the real pain he occasionally references."

One unnamed producer put it this way to the Daily Mail: "It's the most preposterous thing I've ever seen... "Of course there is always artistic licence - Hollywood has been bending and embellishing the truth ever since movies began.

'This show goes too far. It takes the life of a Hollywood hero, someone who became even more iconic in death as the figurehead for an entire movement, and basically cheapens it by suggesting he was able to live openly as a gay man in a town where, in reality, he would have been arrested or lynched for admitting to having sex with a man, and his entire career would have been destroyed in an instant."

His breakout role came in 1954 in Douglas Sirk's "Magnificent Obsession," the first of his collaborations with the director in which his stolid brand of masculinity - strong, but sensitive - made him a new kind of Hollywood leading man. On the cusp of stardom in 1955, he was nearly outed by Confidential Magazine, something of the National Enquirer of its day with career-killing power. But his powerful agent, Henry Willson (played brilliantly by Jim Parsons in the series), stept in and protected Hudson at the cost of dishing dirt on two of his other clients: Rory Calhoun, who had spent years in prison, and Tab Hunter, who had been arrested at a gay pajama party.

Shortly after, Hudson married Willson's secretary Phyllis Gates, who later claimed that his surprise proposal came after they had been living together for three months and had nothing to do with the Confidential expose.

But three years later she secretly recorded a conversation in which she confronted Hudson about being gay.

"Everyone knows that you were picking up boys off the street shortly after we were married and have continued to do so, thinking that being married would cover up for you," she said in the tapes revealed by the Hollywood Reporter after Gate's death in 2013. The tapes were made by private detective Fred Otash whom Gates had hired to watch her husband.

"I have never picked up any boys on the street," Rock insisted. "I have never picked up any boys in a bar, never. I have never picked up any boys, other than to give them a ride."

She filed for divorce in 1958 claiming "metal cruelty" and never remarried.

Hudson remained closeted during the years he played in a series of highly successful sex comedies with Doris Day. His career waned in the 1970s and he turned to television, taking a leading role on ABC's hit series "Dynasty." One moment while shooting an intimate scene with co-star Linda Evans was fraught with anxiety.

"At the time, he was not public with his AIDS diagnosis," writes Elena Nicolaou in a story about the series in Oprah Magazine. ?'He was trapped,? his secretary, Mark Miller, said in the book, per AP. 'He couldn't ask them to change the script. He felt either you announce you have AIDS or kiss the lady.' While now we know that HIV is not transmitted through saliva, at the time, there was much less known about the transferral."

"On the day the kiss with Linda Evans was shot, Rock used every gargle, mouthwash and spray he could get his hands on. He told Mark, 'The kiss is over with. Thank God.' He said it was one of the worst days in his life.'"

He never officially came out, though his friend novelist Armistead Maulpin told NPR that he urged him to in the late 1970s. "Rock's entourage, his advisers, even his companion at the time, Tom Clark... were discouraging this. But I think at one point, Rock may have even seriously entertained the notion of coming out—came close but didn't quite get there."

His AIDS diagnosis was the closest he came to publicly acknowledging he was gay. Support for Hudson was staggering; the movie star, who expected the public to turn on him, received a flood of some 30,000 supportive letters, according to the biographer. That year, Elizabeth Taylor's benefit dinner raised more than $1 million for AIDs research," writes Vanity Fair in a recent story about Hudson.

"I am not happy that I am sick," Hudson wrote a month before his death. "I am not happy that I have AIDS, but if that is helping others, I can, at least, know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth."

His public revelation was a turning point in the public perception of AIDS. Randy Shilts put it in his 1987 book about the AIDS epidemic, And the Band Played On, "There was AIDS before Rock Hudson and AIDS after."

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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