Like a Rock…

4 Aug

Rock Hudson: An American Movie Giant

For baby boomers, such as myself, our parents and even our grandparents, Rock Hudson was known for being one of Hollywood’s greatest stars: good looking, and as rugged and durable as his earthy screen name suggests. To Gen-Xers, Hudson was arguably more famous for his death rather than his talent or his many celluloid triumphs, being the first American celebrity to succumb to the ravages of AIDS in 1985. As if that weren’t bad enough, I’m afraid that many of today’s younger audiences have no awareness of Hudson at all, and that’s unfortunate.

A hunkalicous 6’4″ with thick dark hair and a rich baritone voice, Hudson was just as comfortable as a traditional leading man in glossy romantic dramas (Magnificent Obsession 1954;  All that Heaven Allows, 1955; Written on the Wind, 1956) as he was in romantic-comedies (most notably a trio of successes with Doris Day…more about that later), along with a few westerns (such as 1969’s The Undefeated with John Wayne), action flicks (Ice Station Zebra, 1968), and even sci-fi (1966’s Seconds, a flop when originally released, now with a considerable cult following). He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for 1956’s Texas-sized epic Giant, from the Edna Ferber best seller. Per the Internet Movie Database, he earned many other accolades in his career, including four Golden Globes and three Photoplay Gold Medal awards (the latter actually predate the Oscars and were the equivalent of today’s People’s Choice awards); moreover, he was voted one of the top ten box office stars eight times between 1957 and 1964 in the Quigley publications’ annual poll of theatre exhibitors. Among current stars, perhaps George Clooney comes closest to matching Hudson’s stature and appeal.  When Hudson’s popularity with moviegoers waned (after some 60 films), he turned to television, starring in the hit series McMillan and Wife from 1971 till 1977 as well as a handful of mini-series (Arthur Hailey’s Wheels, and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles) in addition to a stint on the wildly popular 1980s prime time soap opera, Dynasty.

Tony Randall (l) and Rock Hudson (r) could write a bad “bromance” in Send Me No Flowers.

Hudson died in 1985, just a few months after he went public about having AIDS. Though he never publically disclosed any details about his sexuality, there had long been whispers/speculation that he might be gay; however, Hudson deflected such rumors by engaging in a short-lived marriage to his agent’s secretary. Furthermore, in Pillow Talk (1959), the first of Hudson’s smash trio of romantic comedies with Doris Day, he mocked the notion that he could ever be gay by portraying a suave ladies’ man who pretends to be a mild-mannered homosexual in order to rattle Day’s confidence, keeping her defenses off-balance in order to lure her into bed. Seeing a man of Hudson’s magnitude pretend to be captivated by fabrics and recipes seemed utterly ridiculous to audiences back in the day. Since Hudson looked so foolish trying to act gay, the assumption was that he was much too much of  real man in order to be a….fruitcake. In one fell swoop, Hudson managed to save himself by reinforcing some of the standard shopworn stereotypes about gay men. Lovely. In his last movie with Day, 1964’s Send Me No Flowers, Hudson takes the gag even further by engaging in a relationship with Tony Randall that evokes something akin to that of a old married couple (what we now call a “bromance”).

Rock Hudson (l) and Paula Prentiss (r) in Man’s Favorite Sport?, a real fish out of water story–hold the fish

Of course, while Hudson wasn’t necessarily out, many of his showbiz buddies have gone on record since his death with reports that his sexuality was pretty much an open secret among his closest friends and other Hollywood insiders. As such, as Armistead Maupin relates in The Celluloid Closet (1996), there was something strangely amusing about seeing a gay man portraying a straight man pretending to be, not just gay, but a nelly sissy. Perhaps no movie better plays a great big guessing game about Hudson’s sexuality than Man’s Favorite Sport?. Simply, this 1964 comedy presents Hudson as Roger Willoughby, an ace salesman and fishing expert at Abercrombie & Fitch in San Francisco. (Yes, before Abercrombie & Fitch reinvented itself as clothing store for people who don’t really like to wear clothes, it was a sporting goods store for the wealthy and privileged, but I digress.) Anyway, Willoughby’s big dilemma is that he’s not really much of a fisherman. Instead, he’s more like a super-slick scholar who’s learned everything he knows about fishing from reading books and listening to his customers. Unfortunately, his boss pressures him into entering a high profile tournament,  a gig arranged by the host lodge’s  fast talking female public relations agent, Abigail Page (Texas’s own San Antonio Rose, lovely Paula Prentiss). After Roger outs himself as as a “phony” to Abigail, she comes to the rescue by offering to teach him how fish on the fly, so to speak, and hilarity ensues.

I saw this movie in theatres when I was a child–twice, in fact–and I liked it a lot. And why not? It’s filled with some priceless gags, and my young mind was suitably dazzled by the revolving restaurant that figures in a key scene. I probably saw it on TV a few times in the sixties, maybe the seventies, and I sort of forgot all about it until I read Danny Peary’s Alternate Oscars. In the book, Peary makes a case for Prentiss as the Best Actress of 1964–over Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins— based on her performance in this film.  Well, I don’t know about all that, but I when I came across the DVD for something like $5.00 at a local outlet three years ago, I thought it would be fun to revisit. After all, I’ve always liked Prentiss–especially in Where the Boys Are (1960), and The Stepford Wives (1975)–plus, I wanted to see that revolving restaurant again. Luckily, I got much more for my money than I had expected.

Honestly, I don’t know what legendary director Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, 1938; His Girl Friday, 1940) and writers Pat Frank, John Fenton Murray and Steve McNeil had in mind when they set out to make  Man’s Favorite Sport?, or Hudson’s reasons for accepting the role,  but years of learning how to “read” a film, along with an appreciation for “camp” and an understanding of Queer theory certainly give the movie extra dimension and enhance my viewing pleasure. Don’t worry: I won’t give away the movie’s most telling line,  but I do ask that you consider the following because it helps to know that…

  • Hudson was, indeed, a gay man at odds with his public image similar to the way his character experiences issues with his private/public identity.
  • In drag culture, the highest compliment one queen can pay to another is to say she is “totally fish” as a measure of that queen’s level of “realness.” In other words, “fish” is code for “woman,” so remember that every time Hudson utters the word, “fish” or “fishing.” (Btw: if you need more info about this particular slang, I suggest you turn to the online Urban Dictionary.)
  • In one sequence, Prentiss and another female go all aquatic, thereby metaphorically transforming themselves into what? Fish.
  • Hudson goes to ridiculous lengths to secure privacy when he finally decides to “out” his phobia of fish to Prentiss; likewise, it’s easy to imagine the paranoia a gay person might have felt about divulging his/her orientation during the same time period.
  • Prentiss’s voice drips with disdain every time she calls out Hudson’s Willoughby for being a “phony,” especially when questioning him about his fiancee; substitute the word “homo” for “phony,”  and you’ll be good to go for a few laughs.
  • Pay special attention to the way that Prentiss and Hudson play switcheroo with gender norms, especially when she asks him out to dinner.
  • Speaking of both gender norms and Willoughby’s fiancee, notice the robustly butch nickname assigned to Hudson’s steady girl.
McMilland and Wife

McMillan and Wife, co-starring Susan St. James, aired on Sunday nights in weekly  rotation with McCloud starring Dennis Weaver, and Columbo starring the recently deceased Peter Falk. The trio of series aired under the umbrella title, NBC Mystery Movie.

Fun stuff! Per Peary, Prentiss is delightful, but the movie is really all about Rock Hudson and the many qualities that made him a great star long before the spectre of AIDS. His sheer physical being is a wonder to behold, and, thankfully, he’s smart enough and gifted enough to know how to use that great big strapping body of his for wonderful comic effect. Plus, he’s got that deep, rich masculine voice and exquisite dry delivery. Furthermore, and as noted time and time again, he’s ridiculously handsome.

My belief is that Man’s Favorite Sport? is just as cheeky regarding sexual orientation an/or gender identity in its own way as is the more obvious Some Like It Hot, and my hope is that Man’s Favorite Sport? finds a new audience and becomes recognized as a camp classic if not an outright classic. If you haven’t seen a Rock Hudson movie lately, it’s time to check out Man’s Favorite Sport?. If you have never seen a Rock Hudson movie, start with Man’s Favorite Sport? If you only know Hudson from his comedies with Doris Day, get over it and turn your attention to Man’s Favorite Sport?.

To learn more about Hudson, check out this official website managed by CMG Worldwide, “the exclusive business representative of the Estate of Rock Hudson”:

http://www.cmgww.com/stars/hudson/index.php

You can also check out his awards and filmography on the Internet Movie Database; btw, the IMDb lists his height as 6’5″, but the official Rock Hudson site indicates 6’4″:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001369/

Finally, you can read more about the annual Quigley poll at:

http://www.reelclassics.com/Articles/General/quigleytop10-article.htm

Thanks for your consideration…

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2 Responses to “Like a Rock…”

  1. listen2uraunt 09 August 2011 at 2:39 pm #

    In my rush to publish this entry, as well as a concern for length, I left out a few choice tidbits, such as Hudson’s influence on 1950s pop-culture can clearly be recognized in the title of the hit Broadway musical–and subsequent screen adaptation–Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? With that in mind, and more, it’s a little sad, at least to me, that when the American Film Institute presented its list of Hollywood’s greatest stars, Hudson was absent from the list though he was/is good company with the likes of Steve McQueen and Paul Newman were also curiously absent. In the same year, btw, Newman earned his 9th Oscar nomination for acting (Best Supporting Actor – The Road to Perdition), on top of his win as Best Actor for 1986’s The Color of Money, and an additional nomination for producing 1968 Best Picture nominee Rachel, Rachel.

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  1. Youth First Texas » Blog Archive » Voices of YFT - 05 August 2011

    […] Like a Rock by Aunt Equality Melanie […]

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