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Rock Hudson (1990) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

aids willson marc career

Principal social themes: AIDS, homosexuality

Konigsberg Productions. PG-13 rating. Featuring: Thomas Ian Griffith, Daphne Ashbrook, William R. Moses, Andrew Robinson, Thom Mathews, Michael Ensign, Diane Ladd, Joycelyn O’Brien, Don Galloway, Mathieu Carriére, Larry Dobkin, Jean Kasem, John Shepard, Julie Tesh, Diane Behrens, Ping Wu. Written by Dennis Turner based in part on the book My Husband, Rock Hudson by Phyllis Gates. Cinematography by Tom Sigel. Edited by Peter Parasheles. Music by Paul Chihara. Produced by Diana Kerew and Renee Palyo. Directed by John Nicolella. Color. 92 minutes.


Rock Hudson was probably the first person with AIDS who caught the attention of the average American. Previously, the disease was largely overlooked by the mainstream media, considered a condition only troubling the underground gay community. When it was announced that the disease had claimed the popular screen and television star, he personified the tragic illness in the mind of the general public worldwide. This biographical telefilm attempted to portray Hudson’s life in frank terms, including his homosexuality as well as his struggle with AIDS, secrets the actor tried to protect during his entire career.


Rock Hudson freely uses newsclips and photographs of the real Rock Hudson, even when his actual image clashes with that of Thomas Ian Griffith, the actor playing the title role. The picture begins as Roy Fitzgerald, a California truck driver, is signed and promoted by brilliant talent agent Henry Willson, who crafts a new persona for him, starting with a new name, Rock Hudson. Willson’s efforts soon bear fruit, as Hudson is cast in a bit part in Fighter Squadron (1948) by famous director Raoul Walsh. Hudson is embarrassed when he misspeaks his only line, resulting in countless retakes. On the set, however, he strikes up a friendship with Tim Murphy, a member of the crew, and they soon become lovers. When they decide to share an apartment, Willson warns Rock that he must protect his career in public. He urges that Tim and Rock take along a couple of girls as dates when they want to go out together.

Rock’s career starts to blossom as a contract player with Universal. Actual posters from Rock’s films such as Scarlet Angel (1952) and Sea Devils (1953) represent his screen career. When he signs for the male lead in Magnificent Obsession (1954), Willson introduces the actor to his new secretary, Phyllis Gates, and he begins to date her. Soon Tim begins to get jealous and moves out, feeling that Rock is spending too much time acting as if he were straight. Shortly thereafter, Willson warns Rock that Confidential Magazine is about to expose him as a homosexual. To protect his career, Willson suggests that Rock marry Phyllis, which would provide him some cover. Phyllis is delighted, and Rock becomes a good husband. He hides his homosexuality from her and has discreet liaisons with men. On one occasion he visits a gay bar, however, and when news filters back to him, Willson warns his client that a single misstep would ruin his career. Becoming increasingly moody, Rock loses his temper and slaps Phyllis during an outing to the beach. She demands to know what is troubling him, and he confesses that he is a homosexual. After hearing of his numerous affairs, she decides to ask for a quiet divorce.

Years pass, and Rock becomes a superstar. News clips show the real life Hudson with Doris Day at a publicity event. Hudson buys a lavish estate and tells Willson that he intends to live as he pleases in his compound, but Willson still urges caution. After he argues with his agent over the creation of a production company to develop new projects, Rock decides to end his contract with him, holding a series of stag parties at his mansion in celebration. Rock accepts a dramatically different role in Seconds (1966), about a man who attempts to adopt a new identity. The movie is an artistic success, but a financial flop. Rock revives his career on television with a successful series, McMillan and Wife .

His wild lifestyle comes to a halt, however, after he suffers a massive heart attack. Upon recovering, Rock has a relationship with a new live-in lover, Marc Christian. When Rock discovers an oddly shaped mole on his neck, he gets a check up and is diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a form of cancer that is a symptom of AIDS. Stunned, Hudson decides to keep his condition a secret, only informing his secretary, Mark Miller, but not Marc. Hearing about an experimental treatment in France, Rock flies to Paris. He begins the treatment, which involves a series of injections on four consecutive days each week. After six weeks, Rock decides to abandon the treatment when he is offered a role on Dynasty , the leading television series. He appears on the show, but continues to lose weight. When Marc urges him to get tested for AIDS, Rock insists he is well. He continues to deteriorate, and Miller tells Marc that Hudson is dying from anorexia. Hudson returns to Paris and collapses. He is told that the disease has progressed too far for treatment. A press release is issued on July 25, 1985, with the news that Rock Hudson has AIDS. He tells his doctor that he wants to go home to die. His journey home is accompanied by a media frenzy. When alone, Marc sits by his bedside and asks why he kept his condition secret. Rock says he was frightened that he would lose Marc. Rock Hudson dies on October 2, 1985. Later Marc Christian, in a landmark case, wins a lawsuit against Hudson’s estate because his lover had not informed him that he was infected with AIDS.


Rock Hudson offers scant coverage of the actor’s film career, except for brief cameos by actors playing Raoul Walsh (Larry Dobkin), John Frankenheimer (Don Galloway), and Robert Stack (John Shepard). The focus instead is on Hudson’s double life as a top movie star and a closet homosexual. Yet here the production only concentrates on several relationships, such as Tim Murphy and Marc Christian. His long association with actor George Nader, for example, is never even mentioned. His three-year marriage to Phyllis Gates is covered sympathetically, and the script has Rock proposing marriage to her before his agent alerts him about the tabloid press plan to expose his homosexuality. The screenplay portrays Hudson as a man eternally divided, almost wishing to be both straight and gay simultaneously. His secrecy after he knows he is infected with AIDS is painful to watch as he continues to lie to people he supposedly loves. Hudson’s homosexuality is treated in an open fashion unusual for a television production. It shows Hudson embracing numerous lovers, sharing his bed and other small intimacies, although avoiding open mouth kissing. Thomas Ian Griffith, who is also a producer and writer, is not fully convincing as Hudson in the first half of the film, but he is riveting as the older Hudson, particularly in the scenes in which he succumbs to AIDS. Other cast members are excellent, particularly William R. Moses as Marc Christian and Andrew Robinson as Henry Willson. In real life, Willson was a homosexual, but this fact is not suggested in Rock Hudson . (Ironically, Robinson earlier starred in the title role of another telefilm, Liberace (1988), which portrayed the life of another major star and cultural icon with AIDS.) The last twenty minutes of Rock Hudson are especially poignant and well done. When he decides to break off his initial treatment in Paris, his doctor warns him that he is risking his life. His reply that his career is his life is a significant admission, demonstrating that both the public and the private Hudson are essential halves of his personality. The film’s portrayal of Hudson’s experiences as a person with AIDS can be seen as representative of typical patients. His first reaction is shock, then disbelief and denial, false hope, and finally acceptance. Sadly, he never realizes the importance of the announcement that he has AIDS, which brought world focus on the seriousness of the disease for the first time.

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