'Home Movies': Reading between the lines of Rock Hudson's films

June 04, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

As an exercise in gay iconography, "Rock Hudson's Home Movies" is a fascinating, frequently hilarious document.

Essentially a revisionist reading of the Rock Hudson filmography, it loots the strapping actor's 30-odd years of screen appearances for bits of secret gay coding, which it revels in deciphering. The result is eye-opening when it's not patently absurd.

The movie, which opens the Charles' Gay and Lesbian Film Festival today, takes off from an audacious conceit: Suppose the Rockster himself, that hulking chunk of boymeat who stood for the '50s ideal of studhood while secretly living a passionately homosexual life, came defiantly out of the closet before he died of AIDS and then proceeded to comment acidly from the gay perspective on the work he'd done over the years.

Of course it's pure fancy. Hudson was not exactly an intellectual, just as he was not really a Rock or a Hudson; he was pure Roy Fitzgerald, truck driver from Wilmette, Ill., who got into movies not by studying acting but by hanging out at the Universal gate in the late '40s until he got noticed by an agent. He became a star years before he learned how to act, if he ever really did.

I'm not sure the film helps itself by personifying Rock Hudson in the face and body of actor Eric Farr, who then proceeds to narrate it in the dislocating voice of the postmortem first person, often projected eerily against stills or footage of the real Rock in the background. It's as though a mock-Rock is addressing us from heaven, but it jars and it irritates.

More important, the insights Farr delivers from writer-director Mark Rappaport's brilliant script would have been just as provocative delivered without the gimmick. They carry the film, not the impersonation.

Still, it's quite fascinating. Rappaport is certainly right in picking up the way in which the big guy's directors seemed almost to acknowledge and even play with Hudson's secret self. He uncovers a surprisingly rich mother lode of material that lends itself to homoerotic interpretation, particularly as it relates to the legendary series of Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedies of the early '60s, which always featured a third curious figure, a fussy, prissy bachelor type played by Tony Randall.

Rappaport dissects the Randall-Hudson byplay -- off what appears to be umpteenth-generation pirated video, the quality is so low -- for hallmarks of gay culture, like flirting and cruising. Although the bits bereft of context could represent anything, it's still amazing how much more alive Hudson seemed with a guy to play against than with a woman.

The true astonishment is a couple of films where, in order to "get the girl," Rock pretended to be a homosexual. Talk about a baffling choreography of ironies! A gay actor pretending to be a straight actor pretending to be a gay man in order to get in bed with America's oldest virgin!

But the movie also illustrates the secret ways of prejudice, in which even the most mundane material becomes charged with secret meaning when the issue of forbidden sexuality is brought into play.

Thus, in a bit taken from the undistinguished western "The Undefeated," where Rock, in a flouncy hat and puffy hairdo, and John Wayne appear to exchange "knowing" looks, it can appear that the Rock and the Duke were setting up a tryst! I mean, really. And a long mentoring sequence from one of Hudson's doctor movies (he played a whole flock of young medical idealists in the early '50s), where a wiser, older man (Otto Kruger) pointed him in the right direction, becomes a hilarious example of what Rappaport calls "pedagogical eros."

All in all, it suggests that poor Rock lived in a difficult place.

"Rock Hudson's Home Movies"

Starring Rock Hudson and Eric Farr

Directed by Mark Rappaport

Released by Couch Potato Productions

Unrated

***

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