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Book Review

Writers Paint Different Portraits of Hudson

July 31, 1986|DAVID FREEMAN | Freeman is a screenwriter and the author of "A Hollywood Education" (Putnam's), published last month. and

Rock Hudson: His Story by Rock Hudson and Sara Davidson (Morrow: $16.95)

Idol: Rock Hudson, the True Story of an American Film Hero by Jerry Oppenheimer and Jack Vitek (Villard: $16.95)

Rock Hudson always seemed the least mysterious of movie stars. The shy, small-town boy who became a Hollywood god, appeared emotionally accessible and uncomplicated, a man's man, which is to say, a ladies' man. He was the idealized dream of American manhood, embodying the Zeitgeist of the '50s as surely as Ike, Edsels and the Cold War. But as every sentient person in the Western world must know, Hudson was living a lie. His secret life has been held up to unrelenting scrutiny.

Secrets are an old Hollywood problem. Once alcoholism and drug abuse were taboo--they still are, but now that vulnerability is in fashion, they are the subjects of press releases. Today, it's questionable that acknowledgement of homosexuality would wreck an actor's career. It might harm it in some quarters, but it would probably help in others. In the past, such secrets, whatever their power, were kept in cahoots with the press. In Hudson's case, his homosexuality was well known to his colleagues and the media for years.

This sort of gentleman's agreement is hardly unique to Hollywood. In Washington, every journalist and aide knows which officials are drunks, which are gay and which sleep around. But no one tells the public--oh, there are code words that pop up--"with his good friend" usually means mistress or lover, "looking exhausted and run down" means drunk as a skunk. In Hollywood, the traditional view has been that what the public doesn't know won't hurt you. But now that secrecy is impossible, the goal of movie star publicity is to present the unhideable as sympathetically as possible.

A generation ago, the publicist's goal was to create idealized images and keep secrets; Hudson bought the line completely and hid the central truth about himself. He masqueraded all his adult life as a sort of sexy, straight-ahead guy who liked to overcook his steaks, play practical jokes and drink too much with his below-the-line pals. The psychic steam that must have been gathering inside him was ventilated only in his work. The rest of the time, on the evidence here, he lived a passive, unexamined life.

But it was not a life without interest. Born Roy Scherer Jr. (later, Roy Fitzgerald), he grew up poor in a rich town (Winnetka, Ill.) without a father. After the Navy, he went to Hollywood. He was a contract player at Universal and he learned what he knew of life and art in his classes at the studio. From a big, handsome bumpkin, he developed into an affecting dramatic actor and engaging light comedian. When the fact of his illness became known, he gave AIDS a face, and his deepest secrets absorbed the international media for weeks.

If any one event made the tragedy of AIDS seem real to Americans, it was the publication of the now-famous photo of a haggard Hudson in a reunion with his old sparring partner, Doris Day. It mattered less that he was homosexual than that he was dying. Very few people--and certainly not Hudson or those close to him--would have predicted such sympathy and generosity of spirit from the public.

The journalistic frenzy that followed Hudson's acknowledgment of his disease was at once fascinating and appalling. The world seemed to be conducting a death watch, with no detail too trivial or too intimate to warrant space on the magazine racks or time on the evening news. These books, "Rock Hudson His Story" and "Idol," are part of that frenzy, rushed to completion while the memory of the man and the publicity was fresh. Both books are at the mercy of their sources, which is the burden of journalism.

Sara Davidson's, the so-called authorized version, has fewer but better sources and she has tried to put Hudson's life into a meaningful perspective. Her book is more engaging than "Idol" and more revealing of its subject. Yet, despite friends' testimony that he was a great guy capable of extravagant kindness, who wrapped all his own Christmas presents, the Hudson who emerges from her pages is an unpleasant, high-handed fellow who, for the most part, was not very likable. That portrait could not have been Hudson's intent in "authorizing" Davidson; it is, however, the result.

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