There were better actors certainly, and a few were even handsomer. But to moviegoers of the 1950s and '60s, no star better represented the old-fashioned American virtues than Rock Hudson. "He's wholesome," said Look magazine in 1958. "He doesn't perspire. He has no pimples. He smells of milk. His whole appeal is cleanliness and respectability--this boy is pure." Last week as Hudson lay gravely ill with AIDS in a Paris hospital, it became clear that throughout those years the all-American boy had another life, kept secret from his public: he was almost certainly homosexual.
Many people on the inside knew, as they have known about the homosexuality of other stars, from Ramon Novarro, one of the great Latin lovers of the silentfilm era, to Montgomery Clift, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Sal Mineo and several of today's leading men. In one sense, the dilemma of gays is no different in show business than it is in any other business. Many are afraid, usually with justification, that acknowledgment of their private lives will damage and perhaps ruin their careers, whether they work at MGM or General Motors.
In another sense, their predicament is both more serious and more poignant. They must project a false image not only to their friends and co-workers but, in the case of a star like Hudson, to millions of fans who they fear cannot and will not accept the truth. For years they have played a cat-and-mouse game with a press that for the most part is sympathetic. Now many of them are being exposed in a manner crueler than any scandal sheet could ever have devised: by a frightening, incurable and invariably fatal disease.
Hudson is a sad symbol for many others. Tall (6 ft. 4 in.), square-jawed and handsome, he gravitated naturally to Hollywood when he left the Navy after World War II. Henry Willson, the agent who turned Marilyn Louis into Rhonda Fleming and Arthur Gelien into Tab Hunter, thought it was appropriate that Roy Fitzgerald should become Rock Hudson, as solid as Gibraltar and as steady as the river that flows past Manhattan's towers. A series of B movies followed, and through hard work Hudson learned the craft if not the art of acting. He gave a fine performance in Giant (1956), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, and showed a gift for comedy in a series of romances (like Pillow Talk) that he made with Doris Day in the late '50s and early '60s. As his movie career faded, he turned to TV, demonstrating his continuing appeal in McMillan and Wife as the crime-solving San Francisco police commissioner and later in Dynasty, in which he gamely but unsuccessfully pursued Krystle (Linda Evans).