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‘Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed’ review: Living a double life

Rock Hudson in 1954. In the documentary “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed,” lovers, co-stars and friends give details on the closeted actor’s biography.

By Calum Marsh

“Rock Hudson’s Home Movies,” director Mark Rappaport’s landmark 1992 video essay about the life and death of the famous gay actor, is a playful, provocative and singular meditation on celebrity, homosexuality and the nature of truth on-screen. Through a combination of archival footage from Hudson’s filmography and invented narration by an actor playing Hudson, the movie offers a speculative, pseudobiographical portrait of Hudson’s innermost thoughts, using what we know about him now to imagine what he might have been thinking then.

More than 30 years later, Stephen Kijak’s “Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed” is a more straightforward account of Hudson’s life and death, centering on the details of his biography and the testimony of those who knew him. We hear from lovers, co-stars and friends about how hard it was for Hudson to live as a closeted gay man in Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s while representing the movie industry’s platonic ideal of the straight romantic lead, forced by circumstance to live a double life and publicly repress his true desires and needs.

But like Rappaport, Kijak seems keenly interested in the ways in which Hudson’s sexuality manifested itself, largely unintentionally, in his movies — coded but legible on the surface of the image. Rappaport demonstrated this wittily, by taking gestures and stray lines of dialogue from various Hudson films out of context and emphasizing their gay connotations and undertones, and by skewering the actual gay innuendo rampant in Hudson’s films with Doris Day and Tony Randall as screamingly obvious. This device is so effective, in fact, that Kijak borrows it wholesale, repeatedly interposing these moments of gay serendipity, many of them identical to those in “Home Movies.”

Kijak thanks Rappaport in the credits, so we can charitably describe this as homage rather than plagiarism. But the comparison to Rappaport’s superior film does “All That Heaven Allowed” no favors. The historical context it provides for Hudson’s rise through the studio system in the early 1950s is thin and superficial, leaning on several rather broad pronouncements about the trends of the era from experts such as the film scholar David Thomson; while its efforts to shape a coherent narrative out of Hudson’s career lead to a number of dubious claims Kijak makes very little effort to actually support, including the specious characterization of Anthony Mann’s great Western “Winchester ’73” as a “cheap adventure film” and the flippant, totally unfair dismissal of Douglas Sirk’s delightful 1952 comedy “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” as having been somehow “beneath” Hudson’s standards.

The latter half of the film shifts its focus from Hudson’s life of deception as a closeted movie star and toward his declining status, deteriorating health and his eventual death from an AIDS-related illness in 1985. The movie is clearer and more persuasive about this chapter of Hudson’s story, adopting a more plaintive tone as it explores an atmosphere of disdainful hysteria that prevailed at that time.

Kijak threads together interviews, archival footage and tabloid news headlines to show how Hudson’s fame helped bring the AIDS crisis into the (straight) public consciousness — and how the society that had embraced him as a heterosexual matinee idol swiftly abandoned him in his time of need. (The film is justly, satisfyingly hard on Nancy Reagan, who curtly rejected Hudson’s pleas for help as he was dying.) In the end, with only Hudson to deal with, Kijak gets the big picture.

‘Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed’

Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. Watch on HBO platforms.

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