Warning: Spoilers are ahead for Hollywood.
"What if?" It's the question at the heart of Netflix's new series Hollywood, which offers a revisionist history of the Golden Age of movies. What if a black woman could have been a romantic leading lady in the 1940s? What if a woman ran a major studio during its heyday? What if Rock Hudson hadn't been forced to live in the closet to keep his career?
Ryan Murphy's new series attempts to answer by giving one-time Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson a happy ending. Sadly, the real story of Rock Hudson's life is far more heartbreaking.
The first time we meet Hudson (Jake Picking) on Hollywood, he introduces himself as Roy Fitzgerald. The farm boy from a small town in Illinois came to Hollywood to reconnect with his dad, but ends up finding agent Henry Willson (played by Jim Parsons), who really did rename him in hopes of moulding him into a bonafide star.
In real life, Willson did take advantage of young male stars including Hudson. "He was a tormented gay man who preyed on tormented gay men," Murphy said of Willson in an interview with Vanity Fair. "He would be their manager and make them sexually service him." He would spend his money on getting them new teeth and clothes, along with teaching them to act more masculine.
Willson biographer Robert Hofler wrote that the power agent would slap Hudson on the wrist every time he did something he felt was too effeminate. “He was equally effective at teaching gay men how to butch it up and pass for lovers of women on the big screen," Holfer wrote in 2005's The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, according to Vanity Fair.
It's true that Hudson's first audition went as poorly as it does on Hollywood. He reportedly needed 38 takes to deliver two lines in the 1948 war film Fighter Squadron. While Willson was embarrassed, perhaps, he shouldn't have been all that surprised since he became famous for saying, “The acting can be added later”
That saying appeared to be true for Hudson, who became a leading man in the '50s, first with the 1954 romance Magnificent Obsession and later 1956's Giant, which starred James Dean and Hudson's friend Elizabeth Taylor, who would later become a fierce advocate for HIV/AIDS patients because of him.
Giant would earn Hudson an Oscar nomination, but he would become best known, for starring alongside Doris Day in '60s rom-coms like Pillow Talk.
Hollywood allows Hudson to walk the Oscars red carpet with his boyfriend, screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope), who wonders if they're doing the right thing by coming out. "Absolutely we are," Rock replies, a sign of the freedom that came with taking a stand for gay men. In real life, though, Hudson was forced to keep his boyfriends a secret, often with help from Willson who would bribe the tabloids to keep them from reporting on his personal life. In 1955, Willson arranged for Hudson to marry his secretary, Phyllis Gates, who divorced the actor after three years.
Hudson wouldn't be able to get rid of Willson until 1966, when his agent's alcoholism started to hurt the actor's career. Before Willson's death, Hudson reportedly sent him $20,000 as less of a "thank you," and more of a "good riddance." Jim Parsons, who plays Willson on Hollywood, told Vanity Fair that Hudson allegedly told a friend after sending the money, ‘That’s it. I don’t owe Henry anything anymore.”
The real Hudson did have secret boyfriends including Lee Garlington, a now-retired stockbroker, who he dated from 1962 to 1965. The two would attend premieres together, but they never walked the red carpet together. Instead, they would bring their own dates so no one would get suspicious.
At the time, the undercover relationship worked, mostly because Hudson and Garlington had no other choice but to hide their love. It wasn't until after Garlington read Hudson's biography, which was published after his passing, that he understood what he meant to the actor. “When I later read in his biography that he called me his ‘true love,’ I broke down and cried," Garlington told People in 2015. "He said his mother and I were the only people he ever loved. I lost it. I had no idea I meant that much to him.”
The real Rock Hudson lived a closeted life up until the last days of his life. When tabloids threatened to out him after it was reported he was HIV positive, he still didn't come out officially. His French press aide Yanou Collart was the one who wrote the statement disclosing his diagnosis weeks before his death on Oct. 2, 1985. “I read him the statement. He was too weak to make a decision. I was crying,” Collart told People in 2015. “All he said was, ‘That’s what they want. Go and give it to the dogs.’”
Hudson died of AIDS-related causes in 1985 at the age of 59. His death became a turning point in how the public saw the disease, which few knew much about at the time. “From an AIDS-activist viewpoint, Hudson’s announcement was the best thing that had happened since AIDS started,” Bill Misenhimer, the former executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), told Vanity Fair in 2014, “because, finally, people could connect a name to AIDS.”
Hudson's doctor Dr. Michael Gottlieb, who is an HIV specialist, told People in 2015 that Hudson "was well aware of the publicity,” that his statement had gotten. “He expressed he was glad he had gone public, that it was having an impact," Dr. Gottlieb said.
While Hollywood offers Hudson a different legacy, one that could have changed Hollywood forever for the LGBTQ+ community. Hudson was able to have a lasting effect on the world. According to Hudson's business manager, Wallace Sheft, an overpriced airline ticket to get Hudson back to LA in his final days led to the launch of amfAR, a foundation for AIDS research.
“I was really pissed at the airline for charging $250,000 so when I saw Rock, I said ‘We are going to set up the Rock Hudson Memorial Fund for AIDS Research. I think the world wants to know what kind of guy you are and find a way to eliminate this disease,'” Sheft told People in 2015. “He said ‘Go ahead.’ It was $250,000, the same amount the goddamn airline had charged him.”