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Reflections Of Rock: How The Screen Legend’s Death Changed Public Perception Of AIDS

RHDDThe announcement was as surreal as it was unsettling. In the summer of 1985, former movie star Doris Day announced that she was coming out of retirement to host a new show, Doris Day’s Best Friends, a half-hour, Christian-network program featuring celebrities chatting about their pets and what their four-legged companions mean to them.

But talk of pets was soon upstaged by the press conference’s special guest. Day had recruited her old friend and rom-com co-star Rock Hudson to appear to help plug the show. As the two announced they would reunite for the first episode of Doris Day’s Best Friends, Hudson, gaunt and seemingly exhausted, clung to his co-star, doing his best to appear as though this was simply another routine promotional event. For a moment, Hudson seemed confused, stumbling for words. He leaned heavily into Day. She appeared to be holding him up.

rock_stry_cThough the word “AIDS” was not mentioned during the press conference, Hudson’s dramatic physical state effectively confirmed the rumors that had been circulating in the Hollywood community for months: Rock Hudson, former leading man and box-office box office draw, had AIDS. In the ensuing months, Hudson would become the public face of the epidemic, the first American public figure to acknowledge having the disease — then, of course, considered, at best, both a stigma and a death sentence. Suddenly, the disease had a far greater sense of familiarity — the epidemic had found the celebrity it needed to become a cause celebre, for the media to represent the disease as something killing people Americans knew, rather than just a Gay Plague. Elizabeth Taylor, one of Hudson’s oldest friends and a former co-star, swore she would not rest until there was a cure for the disease. A great deal of the stigma surrounding the disease had been lifted, and a new sense of urgency set in about finding treatments, a vaccine and perhaps even a cure.

And it may be difficult to imagine now, as treatments for HIV and AIDS have changed as significantly as public attitudes towards it have, but in ’85, much of the world was gripped in an AIDS panic. Prominent conservative and National Review editor William F. Buckley had advocated tattooing any who tested HIV positive, ignoring the Third Reich overtones, as he suggested this way people would know who to avoid sexual contact with. A Los Angeles Times poll revealed a slim majority of Americans favored a quarantine for people who had AIDS.

rock-hudson-453If Hudson’s death from AIDS was to change people’s perception of the disease, it would also forever change how people would see Rock Hudson, and what being gay looked like. Suddenly, the star Look magazine once declared “smelled of milk” was no longer the straight man. People magazine quoted Hudson’s aunt Lela as saying, “Never would we think that he would be that. He was just always such a good person.”

The San Francisco-based author Armistead Maupin, a former lover of Hudson’s and a long-time friend of the screen star, began to speak very openly about Hudson’s hidden personal life and his relationships. Maupin’s friendship with Hudson would certainly seem odd — Hudson signifies a life spent in the closet, a gay reality only exposed when fatal disease left no other option. Maupin, on the other hand, authored the hugely popular Tales of the City newspaper serials-cum-best selling books, in which an ensemble of gay and straight characters peacefully and colorfully co-exist in a San Francisco apartment complex. The books, and Maupin’s steadfast refusal to allow a Hollywood studio to translate them for the big screen while heterosexualizing his gay characters, have made him something of a hero in the gay and lesbian community. (In the ’90s, the books would eventually be turned into several TV miniseries, gay characters left as Maupin had intended them.) Maupin has always preached that honesty about one’s sexual orientation is a crucial priority for gays, and a prerequisite for true gay liberation.

Maupin’s tales of Hudson led some in the gay community to argue that he was in fact betraying his old friend. Critics contended that Maupin’s candidness simply did not reflect the intensely private nature of the late actor. Maupin fired back in a series of interviews. In 1987 he told America’s national gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate, “It seemed to me that someone had to say that Rock had nothing to be ashamed of. There were people who regarded that as a betrayal on my part; I saw it as going to bat for him. If Rock himself had seen it as a betrayal he certainly wouldn’t have asked his biographer to speak to me.” Maupin also pointed out that Hudson’s sexual orientation was what was referred to in Hollywoodese as an “open secret” — most people in Tinseltown knew about it anyway.

all-that-heaven-allows-4If perceptions around AIDS had been altered, the outing of Rock Hudson meant that his body of work had also forever changed. Watching a film starring the square-jawed hero with the new knowledge of his homosexuality — and given the massive amount of publicity surrounding his cause of death, that knowledge was effectively universal — had become something entirely different. Hudson had made a series of melodramas with the director Douglas Sirk, for example, in which restrictive sexual mores lead to misery and torture for the film’s central characters. In particular, Hudson made All That Heaven Allows, a film in which the actor plays a lower-class gardener whose relationship to the older, upper-class widow Jane Wyman (notably, then married to Ronald Reagan) is threatened due to their class and age difference. Despite the film ostensibly being about a heterosexual romance, it clearly resonated with gay audiences, given its eerily authentic depiction of suffocating sexual repression. (Not surprisingly, All That Heaven Allows has since been essentially remade by two gay directors, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes.)

pillow-talk-doris-day-rock-hudsonBut also of note were the fluffy romantic comedies that Hudson made with Day. British critic Richard Dyer pointed to a number of comic sequences within the Hudson-Day collaborations in which Hudson’s character pretended to be gay to tease Day. The result, Dyer pointed out, made for a complex interpretive hall of mirrors: “Here is this homosexual (Roy Scherer Jr, Rock’s real name) pretending to be this straight man (Rock Hudson) who’s pretending to be a straight man (the character in the film) pretending to be a queer (for the sequence or gag in the film).”

This shift in thinking on a figure as iconic as Hudson led to an odd hope in the gay community. I use the word odd because using the word hope in relation the AIDS epidemic was basically unthinkable at that point in time. Larry Kramer, himself an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, had famously already likened AIDS to a contemporary version of the Holocaust in which homosexuals were the victims, creating the phrase “SILENCE = DEATH.” In large urban centers like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London and Toronto, vast numbers of gay men were dying in their prime years. Many held that there could be no silver lining to AIDS, and to suggest that there might be was heretical.

rock_hudson_57607-1600x1200But some went as far as to suggest just that: now that Hudson had been outed, and given the massive cultural sway that Hollywood studios have, perhaps the average American would simply have to realize what homosexual activists had been preaching for years: that gays are everywhere, come in all shapes and sizes — are ‘us’ rather than ‘them.’ Perhaps now Hollywood screenwriters would think to represent gay and lesbian characters differently. Considering all the media attention Hudson’s illness and subsequent death procured, Tinseltown — the place Elizabeth Taylor once famously suggested wouldn’t exist without Jews or homosexuals — was due for a seismic shift in consciousness.

elizabeth-rockTo be sure, the fight for more accurate movie and television representations of gay and lesbian people — dubbed ‘positive images’ — had been established long before Hudson’s revelations. In 1981, American film critic Vito Russo would write the first edition of The Celluloid Closet, an exhaustive account of the depictions of homosexuals in American cinema. There were various conclusions: Gays and lesbians were treated with abject homophobia by Hollywood; Europe was ahead of the game, being more progressive on gay issues; and television often dealt more honestly with homosexuality than the big screen did. But the book’s most jarring evidence was its concluding section, a Necrology that detailed the way in which homosexual characters were skewered, mutilated, shot, burned or had committed suicide by the final credit roll in a number of prominent Hollywood films. “Hollywood is too busy trying to make old formulas hit the jackpot again to see the future,” Russo stated in his book’s concluding sentences. “This will change only when it becomes financially profitable, and reality will never be profitable until society overcomes its fear and hatred of difference and begins to see that we’re all in this together.” (Russo himself would die of AIDS in 1990.)

rock-hudsonBeyond any reasonable doubt, the ability of homosexuals to live openly, honestly and freely — at least in the western world — has improved dramatically in the past two decades. Whether Hollywood has played a part in this larger shift in public consciousness by pushing forward the normalization of gay and lesbian characters or was just reflecting broader social evolution is still the subject of debate. Along with those changes has come a shift in Hollywood casting calls: now, heterosexual actors are no longer afraid to take on gay roles for fear of being identified as gay themselves. This has brought major star power to LGBT characters and, by extension, the issues that affect them.

The shift has come in attitudes towards the epidemic, albeit very slowly, in part due to further revelations about public figures who have HIV. Since Hudson, there have been many — from Liberace to Isaac Asimov to Magic Johnson — and the public disclosure ritual has changed too. Witness the interview Charlie Sheen gave to Matt Lauer on Today but two weeks ago. The ultimate bad boy Sheen, whose persona is the antithesis of that of wholesome Hudson’s, was met with many empathetic and sympathetic email responses from viewers, which Lauer read to him. The breakfast TV audience response seemed one mired in redemption rather than condemnation. There was little prurient curiosity — at least on the surface — and no so-how-did-you-get-it question.

An Early Frost
An Early Frost

Important to note that Hudson’s death was not the only event that rocked the boat in 1985. In fact, it was something of a watershed year for the virus and the culture it inspired. The movie-of-the-week An Early Frost aired on American network TV, in which a gay man, his boyfriend and family grappled with the news that he had AIDS. Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart debuted off-Broadway, in which the playwright recounted his struggles with the burgeoning disease, a tone deaf New York City government and apathetic gay men. And Canadian filmmaker Nik Sheehan would direct the first documentary response to AIDS, No Sad Songs, in which he attempted to counter the increasingly common media representation of a person with AIDS as hapless victim.

77bded0ed1e4c6b001af019621e05018But in retrospect, Hudson’s revelation seemed the most shocking, and the one that sticks. It is downright weird the influence celebrity culture has on audiences. It is a one-way looking glass: we don’t know the stars we see on screen, but we think we do. If Hudson had the disease, a Life magazine cover concluded at the time that “now no one is safe.” And stranger still that we would look to movies to make sense of our world — they are, after all, merely an imitation of life. But we do.

If there is one profound irony that hangs over the legacy of the cause of Hudson’s death, it is that the institution that has arguably changed the least since 1985 is Hollywood itself. There have been obvious breakthroughs: the Oscars have now been hosted by an out lesbian (Ellen DeGeneres) and gay man (Neil Patrick Harris). There are many more actors who are completely open about their sexual orientation or gender identity, including Ian McKellen and Ellen Page.

But for the A-list male actors, the truth remains universally acknowledged: heterosexuality, or the appearance of heterosexuality, is imperative. This has created a strange paradox: actually being gay for an actor who aspires to be a leading man is taboo, but actors (and their agents) know full well that if straight actors do take on LGBT roles, they stand a very good chance of winning an Oscar. It has worked for William Hurt (Kiss of the Spider Woman), Tom Hanks (Philadelphia), Hillary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry), Charlize Theron (Monster), Sean Penn (Milk) and Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer’s Club). So playing gay is fine, but avoid being gay.

For a city famous for being ultra-liberal, Hollywood is slow to change. Armistead Maupin once told me we had come a long, long way in terms of the public’s perception of popular actors. I pointed out that we still don’t have out men on the Hollywood A-list. He thought about it for a moment, and then said, “You’re right. Back then we had Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift. Now we have the Church of Scientology.”

One of the final sentences in Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet haunt me to this day: “Hollywood is yesterday, forever catching up tomorrow with what’s happening today.”

World AIDS Day is December 1.

Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based writer whose articles have appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, Vice, The Washington Post and The Advocate. He is the author of The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers (Arsenal Pulp Press), which won a 2008 Lambda Award. He teaches film studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University