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Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed

Due to his high-profile death from AIDS early in the crisis and its galvanizing effect on the movement, Rock Hudson is arguably more known now as an icon of LGBTQ history than for the films he starred in. That is certainly the point of view of Stephen Kijak’s latest documentary, “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed,” which richly explores his personal life while taking a cursory look at his filmography.

This is true to the doc’s source material, Mark Griffin’s 2019 biography Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allows, which weaves the history of Hudson living as a closeted gay man in midcentury America within the framework of his most popular films. Viewers looking for an in-depth history of his diverse work as an actor will likely leave disappointed, though they will learn a lot about Hudson’s personal life and conflicted interiority.

The doc begins with a story told by Hudson to a fellow aspiring closet gay actor about a dream in which he was the center of a sparkling diamond. This dream supposedly was the anchor to which Hudson clung throughout his tumultuous career in Hollywood. It’s through this frame the filmmakers posit that much of his choices in life—including his reluctance to come out even post-Stonewall—stemmed from his desire to achieve and maintain this stardom.

Using a plethora of archival video and photography, Kijak plots the life of Hudson—born Roy Harold Scherer Jr.—from his childhood in Illinois to his stint in the Navy during WWII to his early days and later ascent in Hollywood. Kijack pays special attention to Hudson’s relationship with agent Henry Willson, who created the name and the star persona that fans knew as Rock Hudson. 

The filmmakers do not shy away from old Hollywood's lilac and lavender aspects, exploring how queer stars hid their personal lives and fought to keep their names out of tabloids like Confidential. This includes an in-depth look at Hudson’s brief arranged marriage to Wilson’s secretary Phyllis Gates and the damage it caused to both parties. 

All of this is rich and thorough. However, the formatting of the documentary remains curiously uneven. For the first 45 minutes, Kijack uses voiceovers from various interview subjects, some new recordings, and some archival, who either knew Hudson personally or have insightful commentary on his life and career. However, the last hour of the film shifts to on-camera interviews with various living people, some of whom were part of Hudson’s inner circle, like “Tales of the City” writer Armistead Maupin and Hudson’s ex-boyfriend Lee Garlington and a particularly touching interview with his “Dynasty” co-star Linda Evans who discusses their controversial kiss on the show.

While the shift in format is certainly due to the availability of these subjects and their proximity to Hudson during his lifetime—the private photographs supplied by Garlington of the two on vacation together will surely tug at your heartstrings—the execution of this shift is creaky and would have felt less abrupt had the filmmakers chosen to weave these on-camera interviews from the beginning. 

The film also heavily relies on the editing format from the excellent 1992 experimental essay “Rock Hudson’s Home Movies,” in which filmmaker Mark Rappaport uses footage from Hudson’s films—out of context—to cheekily make gay entendres and nod to queer readings of his films when watched with the knowledge of Hudson’s orientation, whether they’re actually there or not. While Rappaport’s use of this technique was playful and subversive, the way Kijack employs it is often far too on the nose and rings hollow.

One aspect of this documentary that shines as bright as Hudson himself is how it highlights his deep friendships with his co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day and their steadfast support of him after his diagnosis. Aside from some enlightening excerpts from his close friend George Nader’s diary, much of the documentary’s look at the cover-up and then impact of Hudson’s diagnosis of AIDS often comes across like a Wikipedia entry. But its use of archival footage of both women and especially a fiery speech made by Taylor, brings a much-needed personal touch to this sequence.

Kijack smartly ends this section on a bittersweet note. AIDS activist Bill Misenhimer states, “It’s hard to say he saved anyone because no one was saved. Everybody died,” but noted that Hudson’s announcement of his diagnosis “gave people hope.” Each living member of Hudson’s inner circle also shares how many friends they lost, with one friend recalling, “All we did was go to funerals and fundraisers,” and another stating how it inspired him to get tested. Kijack then contrasts audio of a reporter revealing that funding for AIDS research skyrocketed in the year after Hudson’s death with chilling footage of the AIDS Memorial Quilt being laid on the Mall in Washington, D.C. 

Kijack does not end the doc on this bleak note, rather allowing a ray of hope to shine through via one of Hudson’s final interviews in which he shares he’s not afraid of anything anymore. It is this quiet strength “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” aims to project, and although the documentary has structural issues, it will likely inspire those who may not know Hudson’s work to seek it out. Kijak's film can remind a new generation that, despite seemingly insurmountable difficulties, some of our queer forebears could find a little slice of happiness, despite living in a world that told them they were not welcome. 

On Max today.

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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Film Credits

Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed movie poster

Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed (2023)

105 minutes

Cast

Rock Hudson as Self (archive footage)

Illeana Douglas as Self

Howard McGillin as Self

Allison Anders as Self

Armistead Maupin as Self

Esther Shapiro as Self

Peter Kevoian as Self

Kathleen Hughes as Self (archive footage)

Director

Original Music Composer

Editor

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