‘Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed’ Review: HBO Doc Offers Authentic Look at Actor’s Public and Private Life

Tribeca 2023: Stephen Kijak’s doc hits familiar beats to tell a sensitive story of Old Hollywood’s celluloid closet

Rock Hudson
Rock Hudson (CREDIT: Everett Collection)

To those who don’t obsessively watch TCM, or generally eschew movies made before 1980, Rock Hudson is little more than a factoid, best remembered for his sexuality than for the movies he made. And yet, while Hudson today is known as a gay man, it was something that he did his best to keep hidden and, as Stephen Kijak lays out towards the end of his HBO documentary, would have taken to the grave if he could have.

“Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” is in the vein of other prominent documentaries aimed at telling the real story behind the Old Hollywood façade, including HBO’s most recent “The Last Movie Stars.” The revelations within the documentary’s 104-minute runtime aren’t revolutionary, but seek to give viewers an authentic look at a man whose life so often was swathed in artifice.

It’s impossible to underscore Hudson’s appeal to viewers when he burst onto the scene in 1948. “Rock Hudson was everybody’s type,” a talking head explains. He conveyed all that was hyper masculine, from his name to the numerous beefcake pictures he took, often with him shirtless and swinging an axe. Where so many stars were created by the studio system — often changing their name and appearance to suit a hungry audience — Hudson had an added layer of polish to him.

Henry Willson is oft-considered the man who invented Hudson, changing the young actor’s name from Roy Fitzgerald and turning him into the ultimate man’s man and ladies man. But, as the documentary explains, that success came with a price, though the film shies away from the claims that Willson tended to sexually exploit the men under his wing. It’s remarkable how little Willson seems to factor in Hudson’s story, at least as far as the doc is concerned, because he most certainly loomed large as a figure in the actor’s life.

Hudson’s life is very quickly summed up in the first few minutes before devoting most of its runtime to his Hollywood career. But “All That Heaven Allowed” tends to focus less on the creation of Hudson’s stardom and more the push-pull of the open secret of his homosexuality and the attempts, by Willson, to hide it. “He had this studio world [and] he had this gay world,” someone says and the two halves never quite reconcile here, though no doubt the latter is why most would watch this in the first place.

The film explores several of Hudson’s relationships, from his first meeting with paramour Ken Hodge to his long-term living situation with Bob Preble. As numerous interview subjects explain, including Hudson’s former co-star Piper Laurie, Hudson’s homosexuality was well-known to them. Sure, he would be seen out with women, but those women knew his sexuality. It’s why it’s fascinating to hear Mark Griffin, Hudson’s biographer, theorize that Hudson’s marriage to Phyllis Gates was arranged, possibly to conceal both Hudson’s sexuality as well as Gates’.

These moments of surprise come too few in “All That Heaven Allowed,” and when they do, they tend to be presented in the doc’s back half. Clips of the FBI file on him are presented, with J. Edgar Hoover himself calling Hudson a “known homosexual.” Even more salacious is hearing a conversation between a friend and Hudson where the latter is asking about the…assets of a man he’s going to meet (though the film never stipulates if Hudson engaged sex workers or not).

And yet, when the film is open and honest it’s at its best. Case in point, the exploration of Hudson’s friendship with George Nadar and Nadar’s partner, Mark Miller. Nadar, in fact, was Hudson’s personal secretary and the film’s back half is filled with heart-wrenching passages from Nadar’s journals when Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS. At one point, Nadar worried Hudson had given “Dynasty” star Linda Evans AIDS following a kissing scene.

The problem is the documentary’s tone feels a bit too cheeky at times, relying too often on footage from Hudson’s films playing on the double entendre of not knowing he was gay. It’s easy to see the intention of these moments: that while audiences didn’t know Hudson was gay, it was as plain as these scenes, but it becomes a bit too on-the-nose. Sometimes the clips make no sense, like a stray conversation between Hudson and Rod Taylor, no doubt showcasing their work with Doris Day, plays like Rod Taylor was also gay. Other scenes, like a moment talking about Hudson as a manufactured star while a clip of Rock Hudson paper dolls is shown, make the metaphors too pointed.

Of course, you can’t watch this without knowing Hudson’s end, and it’s upsetting watching him waste away, and realize how long he continued to work after his diagnosis. It’s said that he made Hollywood care about AIDS while also having to pay $250,000 of his own money to rent a private plane to get back to America from where he was living in France. (The film also reiterates the story that Nancy Reagan refused to help get Hudson treatment that might have extended his life.)

For as obvious as some of the film’s comparisons are, there’s no doubt “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” will help audiences realize what a phenomenal actor he was. And, yes, let’s remember his acting. The movie may focus on Hudson’s sexuality, but it also makes a point of showcasing several of Hudson’s features — including the fact he wasn’t nominated for his work in “Giant.” The blend of the salacious with the historical will get audiences to watch HBO’s Hudson doc, though it might not have enough meat to it to get TCM snobs to find anything new. But what’s there is a sensitive story of a man whose best self was known to only a few.

“Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” airs on HBO June 28.