Wednesday, January 09, 2019 1:00 am
Bio follows film hunk's stardom, tragic secret
Book reviewed by Douglass K. Daniel | Associated Press
“All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson” by Mark Griffin (Harper)
496 pages, $28.99
Had Rock Hudson not died of AIDS in 1985, he might be best remembered as the most successful of the postwar male stars who got into the movies solely on their looks. He remained on the screen for decades because of a likability that can't be learned or manufactured.
Instead, Hudson became the first celebrity to acknowledge that he suffered from the mysterious disease that seemed to target gay men, which ended his life at age 59.
Mark Griffin's perceptive and sympathetic biography “All That Heaven Allows” gives Hudson, both the movie star and the man, the kind of reassessment only time can allow. He improved as an actor yet never lost the fear that moviegoers would discover that their ideal leading man was only playing a role.
While he needed time and experience to hone his craft, pretending for the cameras came easy to handsome, Illinois-born Roy Fitzgerald. Escaping reality at the Winnetka movie theater was a must for the boy with an overprotective and domineering mother, a father who walked out on the family, and a stepfather who beat him. Childhood friends remembered Roy for many of the same qualities that made him a favorite with fellow actors and film crews: diligence, generosity, easygoing charm and fun-loving spirit.
Living a closeted life and trying to make it as an actor only added to his insecurities. Eager to learn, he blossomed under the direction of Douglas Sirk, whose romantic tearjerkers “Magnificent Obsession” (1954) and “All That Heaven Allows” (1955) turned Hudson into a heartthrob at 30.
With the hugely successful epic “Giant” (1956), Hudson was an Oscar-nominated actor and soon Hollywood's most popular star. Routine dramas followed until 1959's “Pillow Talk” with Doris Day revealed Hudson's knack for light comedy. He remained an audience favorite for several more years despite undistinguished movies.
All the while Hudson lived and loved on the down-low. A sham marriage around the time of “Giant” quelled the gossip for a time. Publicly, he played along with the fan magazine image of the happy if lonely bachelor trying to find the right woman.
Griffin suggests that Hudson's better performances – the paranoia classic “Seconds” (1966) being one example – came with roles in which he could identify with a character's internal turmoil. Wisely, the writer explores Hudson's films and TV shows without trying to make them more than what they were – generally average entertainments punctuated by occasional hits and many, many misses.
Like most other aging stars, Hudson struggled to find good roles as the wrinkles appeared. Alcohol and cigarettes took a toll on his health long before the AIDS diagnosis.
Griffin's interviews and correspondence with many of Hudson's co-stars – among them Doris Day and Carol Burnett – and many of his lovers show how protective they were of their warm, loyal friend. Had he lived into the next century, the abandoned and abused boy from Winnetka might have discovered a public ready to root for him to be who he really was.