From 1950s heartthrob to the face of the AIDS crisis: a new biography chronicles Rock Hudson's extraordinary life

This sympathetic biography examines the life of closeted Hollywood leading man Rock Hudson, whose admission he was dying from Aids proved a landmark in the fight to change perceptions of the disease.

An actor of limited range who never won an Oscar or played the classics, Rock Hudson spent the last 20 years of his life in a relentless attempt to keep working in a business that had long been losing interest in his charm. It is a tragic irony that he would only recover his diminishing fame when, in 1985, at the age of 59, he became the first celebrity to die publicly of Aids-related complications.

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Mark Griffin’s decent biography of this melancholy figure, well researched and written, sympathises without sentimentality: it is a cut above the salacious drivel that usually records the sorry tales of Hollywood stars, and does its subject honour.

Rugged and clean-cut with an all-American smile, Hudson belonged squarely to an era in which manhood was an unquestioned quantity. He was pure 1950s beefcake, with a fan base among those suburban housewives who Betty Friedan would set out to liberate in The Feminine Mystique. In comparison with his contemporaries James Dean and Marlon Brando, he seemed bland and cookie-cut. But in his prime, he embodied a physical and moral nobility that made him a plausible romantic hero.

Off screen, Hudson in many respects lived up to his image: he was a kind, easy-going, unpretentious man. Almost everyone enjoyed working with him. Douglas Sirk, who directed several of his best films (including Magnificent Obsession and the one that gives this book its title), paid tribute to “his straight goodness of heart”: Griffin reveals little to belie that. But there was, of course, something else going on – Hudson’s erotic activities, at a time when homosexuality was barely legal, unacceptable socially and pure poison to his career in the event of scandal.

Yet despite the threat of the Hollywood gossip machine (in particular the tabloid Confidential that exposed fellow star Tab Hunter), Hudson seems to have moved easily enough through an underworld that supplied him with a trail of bedfellows. True love wasn’t something he ever achieved, but he always had friends and very few of his discards bore him any grudge.

The backstory isn’t particularly interesting. A child of the Midwest Depression, he was born Roy Scherer, the son of a mechanic who walked out on his mother. An alcoholic stepfather made his teenage years miserable, but taught him the virtue of keeping one’s mouth shut and getting on with it. His get-out card was a spell in the US navy, which incidentally provided his sexual initiation as well as contacts that led him to Los Angeles and the brilliant but repellent agent Henry Willson, a predatory homosexual who insisted on droit du seigneur along with his 15pc commission.

The rookie was given the name Rock Hudson, cobbled from the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson river, and put on long-term contract to Universal. He worked his way up through B-picture cameos to starring roles in Sirk’s melodramas and the high spot of the 1956 epic Giant, in which he shone alongside Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. Taylor would remain staunchly affectionate to the bitter end; Dean, killed before filming was completed, infuriated him with his moods and whims.

Although unpleasant shouts of “faggot” and “homo” could occasionally be heard above the adulation and the FBI monitored his participation in “large-scale homosexual orgies”, walking out with female starlets on his arm and a brief arranged marriage to Willson’s secretary Phyllis Gates kept his image squeaky-clean. Yet he skated on thin ice: in the hugely successful romcoms Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back with Doris Day, there were scenes in which he played heterosexual seducers masquerading as camp effeminates – a double bluff comparable to the one that Dirk Bogarde would employ at the same time in the rather more challenging Victim.

In 1966, he left the clutches of Willson and his contract with Universal. His popularity was slipping, and he needed to reinvent himself, but the rot had set in: he became alcoholic and had a debilitating coronary bypass operation. He worked on, even accepting a stint on Dynasty as his health took its final plummet into Aids, then almost untreatable. His deathbed was besieged by prayer groups and made more difficult by a lawsuit served by a vengeful former partner, but the honest open statement made about his condition would prove a landmark in the struggle to allow Aids victims their dignity, allowing the reality of Rock Hudson to be understood at last.

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