Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed ****
Director: Stephen Kijak
I’ve been waiting for a Rock Hudson biopic my whole life. The story of the secretly gay All-American matinee idol who successfully hid his sexuality for decades only to be outed days before his death from AIDS is ripe for the full Hollywood treatment. Unfortunately that day has not yet dawned, but in the meantime we have this luscious documentary that rightfully claims Hudson as a retrospective gay icon.
Laying its cards on the table from the very beginning, this biography explores his life and work firmly through the Queer Gaze. Rising to fame in the wake of World War Two, Hudson rode the crest of the trend for hypermasculine burly men whose muscular statuesque frames seemed poised and ready for combat. But despite the fact that he was discovered by an agent who traded sex for professional favours, his chiselled jaw and 6’5” frame became the paragon of heterosexuality. Except while his image was decidedly straight, the man behind it definitely wasn’t.
Hudson’s double life has been the stuff of Queer Legend for so long that it feels strange to be reminded that until the 1980s the public didn’t have a clue. One of the most closely guarded secrets in Hollywood, it was widely known among the movie community, but that’s where it firmly stayed. The film explores his relationships, dalliances and one night stands, illustrating his now iconic sex parties through candid photographs and first-hand testimonies. It’s also fascinating to hear accounts from his conquests who, though now elderly, are quite forthright in their recollection of Hudson’s sexual prowess.
Hudson’s striking face and handsome body are never far from the frame, with clips assembled from his vast filmography and photos collated from a lifetime in the press. It revels in his beauty, which was considerable, and ruminates on the tragedy that a man of such standing on the silver screen was never able to become the gay hero that he would have been today. It analyses his canon, picking apart his hundreds of roles to find a clutch of Queer-coded nuggets a la Celluloid Closet. Footage of co-stars Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, Linda Evans and others reveal how they – like the whole movie industry – were complicit in the vast cover-up that surrounded the maintenance of Hudson’s straight facade.
The final chapter of Hudson’s life is handled sensitively and with continuing sympathy. Contributions from Tales Of The City author Armistead Maupin explain how Hudson’s death was a turning point for the AIDS Crisis, especially due to his close relationship with First Lady Nancy Reagan. In fact, it’s the interviews with those around Hudson throughout his life that makes this so much more than just a prestige-piece. Taking a flaws-and-all exposé approach, the film isn’t afraid to open the door of his closet so we can really see the man whose death had as much of a legacy as his life.
As celebrity biographies go, there aren’t many whose stories were as rich for the screen as Hudson’s. His work may have elevated him to the Hollywood A-List in the mid-twentieth century, but it’s his status in LGBT+ History that has made his memory live on so vividly when those of his contemporaries have already faded. As a result, while this documentary gleefully harvests his portfolio for all its greatest cinematic moments, this is decidedly more about the man than about his work. But then, that’s what we’re all here for, isn’t it?
I might be still waiting for my Hudson-biopic fantasy to be fulfilled, but this punchy and accessible documentary is more than a worthy stopgap in the meantime.
UK Release: Available to download and rent on digital platforms from 23rd October (Universal Pictures Content Group)