Presented at SCMS 2013, The Drake, Chicago, IL 9th March
Tall, dark and handsome, during the 1950s and 1960s Rock Hudson was the quintessential Hollywood ideal of American masculinity; an ideal that was to be questioned and ultimately undermined during the years to follow.
The often lurid posthumous accounts of his private life and the circumstances surrounding his death from AIDS related illness have tended to overshadow consideration of his career as an actor. Consequently Hudson has eluded the critical attention afforded to many of his contemporaries.
I’m writing a book for the new BFI series of studies of major film stars. My aim is to reassess Rock Hudson and to identify the specific iconographic qualities and the nature of his performances that together made him one of the most popular and successful film stars of his generation.
Hudson is not usually regarded as a ‘great actor’ in the generally understood sense, i.e. that he conspicuously demonstrated a virtuoso technique (even though he received an Oscar nomination for Giant in 1956.) He is however an important figure in cinema history for several reasons principally that his construction as a star, his performances and his career reveal a great deal about the nature of American popular culture and attitudes towards gender and sexuality during the 1950s, 60s and beyond. With his hysterically concocted screen name redolent with connotations of solidity and permanence and his equally scrupulously designed professional image Hudson seems like the supreme example of the manufactured Hollywood star from the era where the studio system was in rapid and terminal decline. It has become a commonplace to suggest that he is the epitome (alongside actors like Charlton Heston) of a moribund masculinity in the face of a more questioning model presented by James Dean, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift and (of course) Brando. I am trying to interrogate and question some of these assumptions and to recuperate Hudson as a star who embodies the period of transition between the old Hollywood and the new and an actor whose signification reveals levels of representational and cultural complexity that is richer than the orthodox popular account of the period suggests.
It is certainly true to say that Hudson more than almost any other actor of his generation was presented as the paradigmatic example of the all American heterosexual male; handsome, athletic, impeccably groomed, solid and dependable, a strong deep voice and a performance style that embodies stoicism, he was all things that men were expected to aspire to and women it was assumed adored. The perceived disparity between his public persona and what was later revealed to be his ‘true’ nature as a promiscuous homosexual male and the first Hollywood star to succumb to AIDS is a subject that my book will engage with and explore. My final aim is to interrogate the extent to which Hudson’s radically altered signification and the process by which he was claimed as a text for analysis by queer theorists offers new understandings of his meaning and the construction of masculinity.