You don't exactly have to squint to see the life of Rock Hudson as a tragic tale. Gifted with a face seemingly chiseled from Greek marble and the frame of the all-American ideal, young Roy Fitzgerald came to Hollywood, changed his name, covered up his homosexuality, and became one of America's biggest and most definitive movie stars. He lived a life in the closet, with all the hushed-up lovers, sham marriages, and whispered rumors that entails, and he died of complications from AIDS in 1985, the biggest star to date to have been claimed by that merciless plague.
HBO's new documentary, Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed, doesn't shy away from the tragedy of Hudson's life and death. But it's not a morose movie — it’s often a knowing, gossipy recitation of Hudson's life as told by the people who were there (friends, co-stars, lovers, admirers) and the biographers and industry professionals who knew and appreciated him best. In this way, the film feels more authentically queer than something more traditionally reverent might have. It's an attempted reclamation of Hudson's story from the sad silence of the closet.
Director Stephen Kijak — who's made documentaries on Judy Garland, The Rolling Stones, and the Japanese band X, as well as the lowkey excellent 2020 gay-history series Equal — pulls together biographical passages, archived interviews with Hudson himself, and illuminating interviews with a patchwork of people from Hudson's life. Perhaps owing to the realities of filming during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these interviews are either archived audio or have been conducted over the phone, which presents a challenge of both aesthetics and dramatization. Initially, it feels like a flaw, with these tinny voices reciting the broad strokes of Hudson's life story like they've just been cold-called by a telemarketer. It brings to mind the powerful HBO documentary series The Last Movie Stars, in which Ethan Hawke was similarly hindered by COVID and managed to get his famous actor friends to record pristine audio for their vocal dramatizations.
Such a comparison isn't fair to Kijak and his project, and it also matters less and less as the film goes on. As more of the people from Hudson's life contribute more stories about his life, that low-fi audio contributes to the atmosphere of a delightfully gossipy phone tree. Old queens who knew Hudson and have passed the point of discretion, wizened former co-stars like Piper Laurie and Linda Evans, are all here to dish — sometimes regretfully, always lovingly — about Hudson's life.
And what a life. Rock Hudson's career is emblematic of so many aspects of Hollywood in the second half of the 20th century. He was the classic corn-fed hunk who stepped off of the bus from Illinois into Hollywood, and the image makers (or were they vultures?) set out to turn him into a star. One such image maker was Hudson's agent, the notorious Henry Willson, who is referred to by one of Hudson's friends in the doc as "that evil agent of his" and who was played with acidic predation by Jim Parsons in Ryan Murphy's quasi-fictional Hollywood. Willson was the man who groomed the queer affectations out of Hudson and "taught him how to be heterosexual," as one voice puts it.
There was also Ross Hunter, whose voice is heard in the doc via archived interviews and media appearances. Hunter was the producer behind most of Hudson's biggest star-making vehicles, including the films of director Douglas Sirk, who turned Hudson into the swooning romantic ideal of 1950s melodrama, and the romantic comedies Hudson starred in opposite Doris Day. Kijak enlists indie film staples like Allison Anders and Illeana Douglas to talk about Hudson's legacy from a more modern perspective, which is a valuable perspective, considering Hudson's career has often been flattened to only his good looks and superficial chemistry. Anders in particular spotlights Hudson's work in the George Stevens film Giant (for which he garnered his only Academy Award nomination), while Douglas is sharp on the subject of the subversion at work in the Sirk pictures.
The focus on Hudson's work is both admirable and necessary, but it's his screen-idol persona that was so meticulously crafted and maintained that makes his story so compelling. Hudson's marriage to Phyllis Gates (Willson's secretary) was a way to keep the rumors at bay as Hudson turned 30. Scandal-sheet reports were buried and actors like Tab Hunter were thrown to the gossip columnists, his career sacrificed to keep Hudson out of the news. We get to hear Hudson himself speak in interviews on the subject of James Dean, his co-star in Giant, whom he publicly said he didn't get along with. Of course, Dean was also long rumored to have been gay, with the animosity between Dean and Hudson stemming from Dean's resentment that Hudson could be so straight in the public eye while making a pass at him on set.
That is, of course, a rumor relayed by this network of friends and ex-lovers Kijak has assembled. Most of them end up just as voices on the phone or archived recordings, while a handful, like Hudson's ex-lover Lee Garlington and author (and Hudson's friend) Armistead Maupin appearing on camera as well. The effect is that of a web of industry gossip and tales told out of school. It's the story of Rock Hudson's life you'd get if you wandered into a gay bar on a weekday afternoon and were fortunate to sit down next to a septuagenarian who's heard all the stories.
This chatty-old-queen vibe is also present in the delightful bawdiness and charming vulgarity of some of the stories. "He was sort of a sexual gladiator," we're told. One former lover recalls Hudson's "sizable d*ck" and its attendant logistical complications in the bedroom. Maupin recalls Hudson "charming the pants off" of him when they first met, though the author admits he was more starstruck and "wasn't really up to the task."
There's an angle from which this might all come across as tasteless or purely apocryphal, but there's more to it than that. Throughout the film, we're shown photographs of Hudson in private life. At first it just looks like a parade of beefcake photos meant to illustrate the contradictory image of a man desired by women but whose body-consciousness pointed so clearly in another direction. As the film goes on, though, the photographs shown are of Hudson and his friends; smiling, laughing, gorgeous, shirtless men living under the thumb of taboo and the threat of scandal. Hudson's public life was a sham, and his career was precariously balanced on that fiction, but in these photographs, we see glimpses of the moments when he might've felt free.
As the doc moves into the '80s, the politics and mores of the era begin to assert themselves. Maupin is, as he always tends to be, an interesting figure. He was of a younger queer generation than Hudson, and in the doc he talks about pushing Hudson to come out of the closet. One anecdote about Hudson and his partner at the time, who said he wouldn't want to come out publicly as Hudson's lover until his mother was dead, ends with Maupin opining, "If I was f*cking Rock Hudson, I would want my mother to know immediately."
Hudson's death of AIDS is probably one of the most widely known things about him, so it's unsurprising that this part of the story is told as a grim inevitability. His Dynasty co-star Linda Evans relates a story of trying to film a kissing scene in which Hudson stubbornly refused to open his mouth, terrified at this moment of peak uncertainty about the facts of HIV transmission, that he might be putting Evans at risk.
Hudson's friendships with Nancy Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor emerge as totemic polar opposites in his life at this time. Reagan encouraged Hudson to lean into the Republican side of his personal politics but who wouldn't lift a finger to help him while he was dying of AIDS. Meanwhile, Taylor, his longtime friend since co-starring in Giant, took on the task of mobilizing AIDS awareness in Hollywood. As a blessed bit of levity amid this most sorrowful portion of Hudson's story, we get a clip of Taylor at an AMFAR press conference, where she describes her thought process in deciding to get involved with AIDS philanthropy ("Bitch, do something yourself!").
It's moments like these that make All That Heaven Allowed feel less like yet another queer tragedy within the hegemony of straight popular culture. Instead, there's something vital and knowing and even celebratory within this parade of anecdotes and asides. Hudson's legacy resides on the screen and in his complicated and often sad story. His death from AIDS brought awareness with devastation. But queer stories go deeper. Their heroes and heroines are funnier, angrier, smarter, and sexier than mere tragedy can contain. Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allows is a tale told by the people he left behind, for the community to which he could only ever partially belong.
Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed premieres Wednesday, June 28th at 9:00 PM ET on HBO and Max. Join the discussion about the documentary in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.