Queer & Now & Then: 1955
In this biweekly column, Michael Koresky looks back through a century of cinema for traces of queerness, whether in plain sight or under the surface. Read the introductory essay.
Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)
In July 1985, it was disclosed in the French press that 59-year-old American movie and TV star Rock Hudson had gone to Paris for AIDS treatment. This was the first time the actor’s diagnosis had been revealed in print, and the article served as a tacit confirmation for a rumor that had persisted for well over a decade: Rock Hudson was gay. Both revelations were equally shocking to people: as the first major American celebrity known to have contracted AIDS, Hudson put a recognizable human face on a disease that for many Americans was abstract at best, something meant for all those faceless sexual “deviants” in major urban hubs whose lives would presumably never touch theirs. Meanwhile, the sudden shift in perception of Hudson all but exploded for many the image of white male hetero virility that he had long embodied, particularly at the height of his career as a 1950s Hollywood movie star.
The actor’s tragic story was instantly sensationalized, his noticeably thinner face slapped on the cover of an August 1985 People magazine under the headline “The Other Life of Rock Hudson.” But the sudden visibility of the disease following Hudson’s revelation also had a positive effect, provoking more widespread reporting on the crisis—a more than 200 percent increase. In the coming months, the Reagan administration increased spending on AIDS research, after years of maliciously ignoring the epidemic and cutting funding. Hudson’s diagnosis—and his death that same October—instantly questioned two long-held presumptions at once, forever changing the way the world viewed the disease, as well as the actor himself, whose repertoire of easygoing lugs and virtuous hunks are now retrospectively read through a queered lens.
Exactly 30 years earlier, when Rock Hudson filmed All That Heaven Allows, arguably the greatest of his nine collaborations with German émigré Hollywood director Douglas Sirk, gayness was perceived as a different kind of contamination. In the fresh Cold War era, homosexuality was regularly and easily equated with the “moral turpitude” of Communism; Heaven was released only one year after the censuring of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the wake of his Hollywood-leveling Red Menace fearmongering. In the post-Kinsey, postwar U.S., masculinity itself was seen by many as being under a permeating, invisible threat: men returning from fighting overseas were scarred and broken and haunted, and countless numbers of them had discovered new forms of mutual intimacy; the pressure to reassume their positions in the household, especially after so many women had begun to join the workforce in their absence, was reflected in a newly ascendant consumer culture regularly advertising images of dads as breadwinners and leaders. At the same time, movies, theater, and the arts were putting forth revelatory, complex ideas of maleness, as typified by sexually ambiguous new stars James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Montgomery Clift; they were fiendish in their sensitivity, their penchant for self-destruction, their Method-fueled performances seeming to emanate straight out of burdensome sessions with psychoanalysts.
Knowingly constructed in opposition to such dubious, withering types, Rock Hudson was a movie star whose masculinity went untortured, undeniable, and unperturbed by matters of self-identity. Born Roy Scherer, he was brawny, tall, and conventionally good-looking, and he had a stage name to perfectly match his physical bearing—as legend has it, this oft shirtless slab of beefcake never worked out a day in his life, his physique as natural as if hewn from rock. By the middle of the decade, following the stratospheric success of Sirk’s 1954 melodrama Magnificent Obsession—which featured Hudson in his first major starring role, as a spoiled playboy who has a spiritual and moral awakening and devotes his life to saving the woman he had accidentally injured—he was the most popular male movie star, according to polls taken in gossip magazines like Look and Photoplay. Such publications featured softball spreads on his alleged private life that made him as nonthreatening and milquetoast as possible, pushing the idea of Hudson’s sexual and social normalcy as a balm during an uncertain time. From 1955 to 1958, he married Phyllis Gates, the secretary of talent agent Henry Willson, who had discovered him; after their divorce, Hudson was exalted in the press for living an appealing bachelor lifestyle, shown picnicking with smiling friends, ensconcing himself in nature with his trusty dogs, and residing in a mountaintop glass house away from the world. He was earthy, stable, and morally upright.
All That Heaven Allows offers perhaps the least complicated, purest dose of Rock Hudson the Movie Star, the construct, the façade; the narrative feels as though it was knowingly built up around these ideas. While Sirk, believing that Hudson was not just a pretty face, would cast the actor in slightly more nuanced parts, especially his turn as an alcoholic reporter in the Faulkner adaptation The Tarnished Angels (1957), Hudson’s role as warm and wise gardener Ron Kirby in All That Heaven Allows is quintessential Rock, nearly parodic in its single-minded depiction of Hudson as stolid and dependable. He’s a man so upstanding that not once is the audience invited to question the May-December romance between Ron and wealthy New England widow Cary (his Magnificent Obsession co-star Jane Wyman) that stokes the ire of the townspeople, shocks Cary’s grown children, and fuels the film’s romantic crisis. At the same time, the way that Sirk casts him as a man alone, untethered to the norms of Cary’s stultifying, gossip-ridden suburbia, slyly toys with Hudson’s image, subtly queering—knowingly or not—a performer whose queerness wouldn’t be commonly known for decades.
The expressivity of Sirk’s canvas was never bolder than in All That Heaven Allows, in which deep reds, rich blues, and verdant greens are emotionally deployed with a devil-may-care confidence that still shocks to this day. Cary’s bedroom is awash in Technicolor mood catchers, pockets of ominous shadow and glowing light sources: sometimes it’s a sanctuary, at other times an abyss that’s on the verge of swallowing her whole. Cary’s life is built on a premise of neighborly appeal and friendship, of familial strength and support, all of which begins to get peeled away when she finds herself attracted to Ron, the son of her former gardener who has temporarily taken over his father’s business. Sirk, working from a tight, fatless script by Peg Fenwick, wastes no time: in the opening scene, Cary invites the strapping Ron to take a break from tree pruning and join her for lunch. He knows a lot about silver-tipped spruces, but doesn’t seem terribly interested in Cary at first, who’s facing the camera while Ron, framed in pensive profile, butters and devours two bread rolls that look absurdly dainty in his oversized mitts.
Like the Rock Hudson of Photoplay and Filmland, Ron Kirby functions on pure, single-minded male instinct, though he’s imbued with enough sensitivity to make women swoon. He tells Cary he wants to give up maintenance work and raise trees full time, be one with the land. A self-made Thoreauvian, he answers to no one but himself, and has little interest in what society thinks of his life choices. “His security comes from inside himself,” his friend (Virginia Grey) later tells Cary, her eyes narrowing with awe and reverence—what a man. Yet the same qualities intended to make him wildly appealing to the viewer are dramatized as liabilities for those in Cary’s world, from her nosy frenemy Mona (venom-dipped character actor Jacqueline deWit) to her abhorrent children: Kay, a prim, hypocrite academic, and Ned, sociopathically selfish proto–Pete Campbell (they’re played by Gloria Talbott and William Reynolds, who deserved some sort of joint award for expertly embodying two of the most objectionable people in film history). To her kids, Ron is a pathetic substitute for their dearly departed father; to her community, he’s alien, low-class, threateningly confident in his blithe disinterest in their blinkered way of life. Even her supposed best friend, Sara (Agnes Moorehead, endearingly cast against type), ultimately declines to come to her defense when she most needs it. It’s clear that no one believes Cary should be allowed to make her own choices—that she wants to spend her life with the younger, free-spirited stud who lives in a converted old grain mill must be evidence of some kind of middle-aged female derangement. Ned especially thinks he has her number: “All you can see is a good-looking set of muscles, ” he says before reminding her of her “obligation to father’s memory.”
Wyman’s aching subtlety and ability to release reservoirs of pain, regret, and confusion with just the slightest facial modulations and gestures persuades us that her decision between the town’s closed-minded intolerance and Ron’s devotion, moral righteousness, and sexual dynamism is at all a difficult one to make. “But the kind of life you lead—I don’t know that life,” Cary protests when he asks her to marry him. Yet, besides losing the respect of her demon offspring, what is she so scared of? Weekend hikes in nature? The occasional clambake? Socializing with salt-of-the-earth beekeepers, lesbian birdwatchers, and makers of “primitive art”? Looked at today, with our knowledge of Hudson’s personal life and biography, Ron’s overtures to Cary, to leave her emotionally and intellectually dulling life behind and join him to experience life’s pleasures, take on a host of secondary connotations—enhanced by the not insignificant fact that Wyman was Ronald Reagan’s first wife, which creates an extratextual through-line from the Rock Hudson of the ’50s to the perceptually altered one of the ’80s.
Hudson’s persona shifted in the coming years as he moved from melodrama to frisky sex comedies, often alongside Doris Day, in the late ’50s and early ’60s. In such films, and in a shifting sociocultural environment, the stability of his masculinity started to become a self-conscious act, and part of the joke; Pillow Talk (1959) features a recurring gag in which Hudson’s character toys with Day by inventing an alter ego, the effeminate mama’s boy “Rex”—a hall-of-mirrors gag in which a gay man hiding his true self successfully plays a paragon of hetero masculinity pretending to be something so far-fetched as a gay man. It’s the kind of pretzel logic that could only work in such a place as Hollywood, where movie stars are sold as ideal, unsullied icons.
If we think that today we’re beyond or above suspecting anything less than perfection from our stars, think again. The rules have changed for what’s acceptable, but little has changed in how much we allow our actors to deviate from our culture’s set playbook. Intolerance for any kind of perceived social transgression is ever thus, and for fear of retribution or “cancelation,” many still hide behind canned answers and faux universal messages. One day, hopefully we can all take a page from Ron’s playbook and live off the grid. Poignant for a character modeled so closely on a fabricated idea of a movie star, Ron’s stated ethos is “To thine own self be true.” All That Heaven Allows reminds us how precarious is the creation of an authentic self.
Michael Koresky is a writer, editor, and filmmaker in Brooklyn. He is cofounder and editor of the online film magazine Reverse Shot, a publication of Museum of the Moving Image; a regular contributor to the Criterion Collection and Film Comment, where he writes the biweekly column Queer & Now & Then; and the author of Terence Davies, published by University of Illinois Press, 2014.