LGBT Movies: Rock Hudson (1990)

Rock Hudson (born Roy Harold Scherer Jr.) was one of Hollywood’s top stars. The heart throb appeared in Douglas Sirk melodramas, Doris Day romcoms and the Oscar nominated Giant. He was also a closeted homosexual. He was outed in 1985 when he died of AIDS related illness. The 2023 documentary, Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed, is focused primarily on his sex life. His former lovers gossip about his appetites and his physical attributes. His career is credited to his ruthless agent, Henry Wilson. But no one captures Rock’s personality. Or explains why he became a star when Wilson’s other hunks were forgotten. The 2010 documentary Rock Hudson: Dark and Handsome Stranger covers much of the same ground. But the interviews focus on the women in his life. They discuss the persona he would wear for the world. The two films together would almost make a comprehensive portrait.

I decided to revisit the television biopic Rock Hudson. It aired on ABC on January 8, 1990. Dennis Turner’s screenplay crams four decades into 90 minutes. Thomas Ian Griffith (The Karate Kid, Part III, Cobra Kai) plays Hudson as a naïve innocent who becomes a bitter alcoholic. Andrew Robinson (Star Trek: DS9) wakes things up, briefly, as Henry Wilson. The story was inspired by the autobiography of his ex-wife and the court testimony of his former lover. Both are painted in a flattering light. Male intimacy is limited to shirtless lounging and passionate hugs. It didn’t stop advertisers from dropping the film. The result looks like a cheap soap opera. It’s a joyless work. But it offers an interesting look at 80’s attitudes towards homosexuality.

Let’s break it down in this spoiler filled recap.

Act One: Henry Wilson

Prologue: 1988
MARK CHRISTIAN (twunk): I’m suing Rock Hudson’s estate. He continued to have sex with me after he learned he had AIDS. He and his secretary hid his status from me.

Scene One: Henry Wilson’s Office. 1947.
ROY FITZGERALD (truck driver): I can’t walk, dress or act but I want to be a movie star.
HENRY WILSON (predatory agent): Sure, pretty boy. From now on your name is Rock Hudson. Hard as a Rock. Hudson as a river.
ROCK HUDSON: Gee whiz! Is this the part where I have to sleep with you?
WILSON: We’re not talking about that.

Scene Two: Movie Set. 1948.
ROCK: You need a bigger bird black! Boarder black big! Bigger black board!
DOOMED FIRST BOYFRIEND: You got it right after 378 takes. Let’s ki… hug! (They hug.)
ROCK: Move in with me!
WILSON: Are you trying to destroy your career? Confidential Magazine’s threatening to out you. The public needs to see you with dames, dames, dames!

Act Two: Phyllis Gates

Scene Three: Movie Set. 1955
ROCK: I hate James Dean! Who does that party bottom think he is?
PHYLLIS GATES (Wilson’s secretary): Gosh you’re handsome! Oops! Did I say that out loud?
ROCK: We sure look good together. Let’s pose for some photos! (Kisses her.)
PHYLLIS: Gee whiz! It’s a dream come true!
ROCK: Let’s get married!

Scene Four: Marriage Montage.
(Rock frolics with Phyllis but stares at men. Eventually, he gets drunk and hits her.)
PHYLLIS: You’re gay?
ROCK: Yes. I love you. But I also love the gardener, the pool boy and the milk man.
PHYLLIS: I had absolutely no idea. I want a divorce.
ROCK: What about allegations that you’re a lesbian who entered a lavender marriage until it no longer suited you? Then tried to blackmail me to secure your nest egg?
PHYLLIS: We’re not talking about that. 

Act Three: Marc Christian

Scene Five: Pool Party Montage
(Men in swim trunks frolic around Hudson’s new pool.)
ROCK: Ever since I fired my agent it’s been boys, boys, boys!
MARC CHRISTIAN (audio engineer): Gosh you’re handsome! Oops! Did I say that out loud?
ROCK: Hey baby. Let’s kiiiiii… hug! (They hug.)
MARC: I’ll hug your brains out.
ROCK: Rumor has it you’re not just an engineer. You’re also a sex worker. But…
BOTH: We’re not talking about that! 

Scene Six: Hospital Montage. 1980s
FRENCH DOCTORS: This is an experimental treatment for AIDS.
ROCK: No one can know. Say I have the flu. Anorexia. Anything!
MARC: Why didn’t you tell me?
ROCK: If it ever came out that I was gay, it would kill me. And look. It has.

THE END (No really. That’s the line they end the movie on.)


Richard Day’s 2004 farce Straight-Jacket pairs movie star Guy Stone with a silly fake wife and an earnest activist boyfriend. Matt Letscher (The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow) plays Stone as a goofy himbo. He sells every corny joke. But the film is an overlong sketch. It collapses when it starts to take itself seriously.

Ryan Murphy’s 2020 mini-series Hollywood is a historical fiction where homosexuals like Hudson (played by Jake Picking) are able to live openly. The series drew criticism for its glib dismissal of American bigotry. Perhaps if he’d changed the names, it would have gone down easier.

The most laid-back portrayal I’ve found is in Armistead Maupin’s Further Tales of the City. Maupin befriended Hudson late in his life. He portrays him as a plainspoken man, rather than a sex god or a martyr. Published in 1982, Maupin kept the character nameless. The 2001 mini-series named him “Cage Tyler.”

Some dismissed Rock Hudson as a pretty face. Others felt he was an underutilized talent. In 1966 he starred in the thriller Seconds. His character has extreme plastic surgery to restore his youthful looks. Only to have a nervous breakdown and destroy himself. Thomas Ian Griffith re-enacts a scene from it in the ABC biopic. Critics have called it Hudson’s most vulnerable work. Audiences rejected it. They wanted the fantasy.

You can find more of my reviews on The AvocadoLetterboxd and Serializd. My podcast, Rainbow Colored Glasses, can be found here.