Justice for Rock Hudson

Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood is a fantasy that tugs at the heartstrings, but it doesn’t quite do right by its real-life characters.

There is a charm to Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood. It’s a fantasy, yes, a picture of 1940s Hollywood in which a “sea change” happens by sheer force of will. There’s sexism, racism and homophobia in this world, but with the exception of a montage of burning crosses and periodic references, we don’t really see or feel it. Our dreamers simply find a way: They overcome the obstacles, they thrive and win Oscars — they simply get their pictures made. Hollywood’s “dreamers” are simply the change they want to see in the world.

Hollywood shouldn’t work, and truthfully, most of the time it doesn’t really, but there are moments still when it moves you anyways. When you can’t help me but get tear-eyed at the sight of couples holding hands in the face of hate, of a black woman winning Best Actress in 1948. But the way it weaves real characters into the narrative leaves a bad taste. What is, one hopes, an effort to give these legends their retroactive due lands rather like an exploitation and disregard of what they were able to accomplish in their hard-won reality.

To be clear, the vast majority of Hollywood‘s characters are fictitious creations. Even those drawing inspiration from the time — Ernie, Avis, Dick — don’t share the names or identities of real people. But there are a few that do and none has a bigger role in Ryan Murphy’s narrative than Rock Hudson.

In Murphy’s telling, Hudson is indeed a Midwest hayseed who lands in Hollywood, but before he becomes a star, he finds his way to Ernie’s gas station and consequently into the arms of screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope). He becomes a part of the Meg team, despite tanking his screen test, and his storyline thenceforth is distinctly disconnected from his legacy. Rock Hudson, a megastar of the Golden Age of Hollywood, is not a star in Hollywood — he is an example of the kind of kid that could be taken advantage of by agents and studios, but in the right circle, his spirit finds a way.

Ultimately, Hudson’s role is mostly related to his relationship with Archie and even that — their willingness to be out and its career repercussions — is driven primarily by Archie’s relative fame. Hudson, an actor who can’t act, doesn’t necessarily have a more ton to lose. This works in the context of the show, but it’s a distinct discredit to Hudson’s memory.

Rock Hudson is a Hollywood legend. That bad acting? That may be somewhat true — apparently it did require 38 takes for him to nail his two lines in his 1948 screen debut — but he did learn and left behind a legacy of 30+ years of acclaimed performances. Including him at all as a minor character — again, an actor who can’t act, one of the dreamers who doesn’t have “it” —  in fictional hetero Jack‘s ascendancy feels like an exploitative excuse to name-check an actual gay actor of the time. Similarly, using him — again, with so little interest in his actual life or story — as someone to imagine a world were a writer and actor might not only be out as a gay couple, but a gay interracial couple in 1948 feels like a blatant disregard of the choices Hudson weighed during his life.

Hudson is the quintessential example of the closeted gay star of Golden Age era Hollywood. In the ’50s and ’60s, when he came to peak stardom, he was the exemplar of a leading man: a heartthrob, a beefcake, all-American. His sexuality was largely kept a secret — thanks in part to the machinations of his agent Henry Willson (played in Murphy’s story by Jim Parsons) — until his death in the ’80s, from AIDS-related complications. Still, it was something of an open-secret in Hollywood, many co-stars reportedly knew, but it was simply something everyone agreed was best not addressed out of affection for Rock himself.

“He was so kind to everyone that he worked with, whether that was the leading lady or the gaffer or the editor, that everyone sort of kept this secret for him,” Mark Griffin, a Hudson biographer, told NPR’s Terri Gross in 2018. “It is sort of a conspiracy of silence. But it’s interesting that they’re doing this because they really love this person that they’re working with and feel protective of him.”

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There is considerable depth and pain, sentimentality and success, in Rock Hudson’s story, but none of that appears in Hollywood. The limited series simply offers an early-era Rock and imagines what if he came out before he was a star? What if he just…did that? Hollywood‘s Rock is stripped of his (future) power, his struggle and his real-life legacy. Hollywood’s Rock is simply a name — a trivia answer, knee-jerk association of gay and Golden Age to weave into Murphy’s fantasy.

This happens, as well, to a degree with Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) and Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah). Both are Hollywood legends, as much for their talent as the way the industry ignored, exploited and type-cast them in grossly stereotypical roles. McDaniel is written as living vicariously through Camille’s success; Anna is given the role, Oscar nomination and win that she never received in life.

In combination with Hudson’s story, it’s easy to read this as Murphy offering three actors recognition and acceptance of their full identities, their full selves, that the industry and world did not offer or afford them at the time. And as adjacent characters, Anna and Hattie’s treatment is somewhat more acceptable — there is little harm in giving Wong the Oscar she no doubt deserved, in letting Hattie into the room where the awards are given.

But it’s Hudson’s story with which it is hard to make peace. He appears in nearly every episode, but as so much an accessory that it strips his revisionist history of all the depth and nuance that Hudson’s life and what he might have gone through.

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