Like a Rock

There are plenty of actors throughout Hollywood history that are better known for their celebrity than their acting chops.  Many of them are fine actors, too, it’s just that their celebrity got noticed more than their acting.    Many of these actors rarely get the recognition they deserve for that very reason.  Well, checking out tonight’s listing for TCM and seeing Douglas Sirk’s 1954 classic, Magnificent Obsession, in the line up, I started thinking about Rock Hudson and how perfectly he fits the mold.

Rock Written on the Wind

Rock Hudson never had a wide range of styles or a delivery filled with angst.  He was, for the most part, solid, dependable and natural.  No histrionics, no wild accents, no hammed up performances.  I’d go so far as to call him downright bland most of the time.   And, frankly, I liked him very much.

Being blandly handsome was what Rock Hudson did best and that’s not to be underestimated.  After all, there have been plenty of blandly handsome actors who never, ever, became stars or even successful actors.  Hudson had a charm and charisma about him that operated on the perfect level of light drama and romantic comedy.  By the sixties, he was using it more expansively but in the fifties he used his gifts to the perfect degree.

After a lot of parts in a lot of movies that didn’t get him noticed at all, he got Magnificent Obsession, with Jane Wyman.  Playing a carefree playboy who carelessly carouses through life unaware of the damage he does to others was the perfect role for him.  His looks, his charm, his deep voice, all of it, made him the perfectly bland playboy causing trouble.  And when he has his moment of truth, confronting a death he’s indirectly responsible for, he responds stoically, another quality Hudson could pull off with ease.

Hudson worked with Sirk on eight different films but only a handful are blockbuster famous with the biggest three being Magnificent Obssession, All the Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind and it’s that last one that really puts Rock’s bland persona to the full test.   What’s so challenging is the fact that Rock’s bland persona (he’s successful geologist, Mitch Wayne, who never causes trouble and plays things by the book) is played off of the immensely entertaining charms of Robert Stack in an uproarious performance as damaged playboy Kyle Hadley.  Stack and Dorothy Malone, as his sister Mary-Lee (she won the Oscar for her performance), clearly and easily steal the whole show but what matters is that Rock is necessary all the same.  He truly anchors the movie.  Mitch Wayne is the bland gluten that holds the antics of everyone else together and Hudson does the job perfectly.   Honestly, that took a lot of guts on Hudson’s part, knowingly playing the boring role against a performance like Stack’s and yet he did it and did it well.

In 1956 he took that responsibility to soaring levels in George Stevens’ Giant, playing against the almost inhumanly affected James Dean as Jett Rink.    I’ll be frank: When Dean prances around covered in oil saying things like, “I’m a rich’un!” I just giggle with delight.   Dean was many things but an actor of under the radar subtlety was not one of them.   While some folks recoil at his overly pained performances, practically dripping in angst and anguish, I rejoice in them, or at least, in this one.  His Jett Rink is a one of a kind piece of work, both as a character and a performance.   Edna Ferber may have written the character first but Dean created it, if that makes any sense.  And it would simply be too much to bear without Rock Hudson’s Jordan “Bick” Benedict, Jr.  acting as a calm counterpoint.  Seriously, can you imagine three plus hours of Jett Rink?  I don’t think I want to.  Bick balances the whole thing and makes Rink’s antics all the more entertaining.

Outside of the melodramas, Hudson found great success in romantic comedy, especially with his three time co-star Doris Day.  In their first and most successful outing, Pillow Talk, Rock and Doris play Brad and Jan, neighbors who share a party line which he takes advantage of by pretending to be someone else.  It’s the definition of silly and I must say, despite not being much of a Doris Day romcom fan, this is my second favorite romcom of hers and a large part of that is due to Rock.  (my favorite romcom of hers is The Glass Bottom Boat but that is almost entirely due to the incomparable Paul Lynde, who basically makes the whole movie for me).

Rock Pillow Talk

After the melodramas and romcoms went away, Rock Hudson shifted to a different kind of movie, the action adventure movie.  From 1967, with Tobruk, through 1970, with Hornet’s Nest, Hudson made six consecutive movies where his character was a military or commando figure.  Six in a row.  Talk about complete reinvention.  My favorite of these is Ice Station Zebra, a movie that became a comfort movie in childhood, playing on weekend afternoon television with alarming regularity.    It seemed like every Saturday, one of my local tv stations ran it when they didn’t have a copy of The Guns of Navarone to show.

Shortly before that transformation into the tough commando type, Hudson stepped outside of all his personas and took on what is easily the most interesting role of his career, Tony Wilson, in Seconds.    And he was good, very good.  It’s the story of a man in advanced middle age, as they say, getting his life erased and reborn in a younger, more handsome self, played by Rock Hudson.  He pays a company to fake his death and restructure his face, giving him a new name and life.  Along the way, he realizes he sold his soul and tries desperately to regain balance and find meaning.  Hudson really does an excellent job and the scene where he returns to his wife, who thinks he’s someone else thanks to the plastic surgery, is heart-breaking precisely because Hudson looks so defeated, so torn down by his looks that now make him anonymous to the world and define who he is to strangers.  It was a role that let Hudson finally show something more of what he could do as an actor but was not a success and action adventure beckoned.

After the movie roles thinned Hudson reinvented himself yet again on television in the hit series McMillan and Wife, with Susan Saint James and John Schuck.  In the eighties, he had another tv success on the series Dynasty before succumbing to complications from AIDS in 1985 at the age of 59.  His death from AIDS brought public awareness of it to new heights and gave a very public, All-American face to the deadly disease.    Rock Hudson became a bigger name in a more important way then he ever had before.

Looking back, Hudson had a very average, non-controversial career.  It encompassed melodrama, romantic comedy and action adventure.  Occasionally, most notably on Seconds, he played a character of tremendous depth with great personal demons, but mostly, he played the bland, handsome type.  Maybe a playboy, maybe a neighbor, maybe a leader.  He wasn’t Marlon Brando or James Dean and didn’t bring a lot of emotional baggage to his performances.  What he mostly brought was Rock Hudson and, really, that was enough.

28 Responses Like a Rock
Posted By avmckee : July 31, 2013 10:08 am

Loved “Seconds”! Thanks!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 31, 2013 10:10 am

He does a great job in it.

Posted By celluloidcouture : July 31, 2013 11:54 am

“Pillow Talk” is a favorite, but like you, I feel “Glass Bottom” is the best simply because of the supporting cast – Paul Lynde, Dom DeLuise, Dick Martin, the uber-hunk Rod Taylor and last, but not least, George Tobias & Alice Pearce as the “Fenimores” – next door neighbors who were *obviously Abner & Gladys Kravitz in the witness protection program.

One part of “Pillow Talk” has always made me sad. While Rock’s character is pretending to be “Rex Stetson” (lol) the cowboy, it’s implied that he’s well…um…very close to his mother (if you know what I mean, and I think you do) I’ve always wondered what kinda guts it took for Rock to play that.

Great piece – thanks!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 31, 2013 11:55 am

I’ve always wondered that, too. He basically makes fun of gay men to Doris Day and it’s hard to watch it and not wonder what was going on in his head while reading those lines. Rock did a lot of things without complaint and looking back, I’ve got a lot of admiration for the guy.

Posted By Medusa Morlock : July 31, 2013 12:05 pm

There was always something affable about Hudson, non-tempermental, capable. His appearance in the Palm Springs episode of “I Love Lucy” shows what a good sport he was.

In terms of another fun comedy, “Man’s Favorite Sport?” with Paula Prentiss is also very entertaining. (I also love “The Glass Bottom Boat” and I’ll bet you have that theme song playing in your mind right now!:-) )

I love “Seconds” also — he is marvelous and anything with Salome Jens is fascinating! I will never forget that creepy tracking shot in the opening moments.

So nice to have some attention paid to this solid American fellow who obviously was much more than he often showed on-screen, and whose passing gave him a notoriety that should lead people back to his movies for a long time to come.

Terrific article, Greg!

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 31, 2013 12:37 pm

Thanks! Like I said in my previous comment, there’s a lot to admire with Rock. But also, there’s a lot to admire about so many actors who don’t go balls to the wall with every character they play but simply get the job done. Hollywood history has had plenty of them and they’re an absolutely necessary tonic sometimes to the hysterics otherwise dominating the movie. Hudson always did a good job of being solid. His name was quite fitting.

Posted By swac44 : July 31, 2013 1:08 pm

Unfortunately, I have Bob Seger playing in my head. Thanks a *lot*, Greg!

Rock’s most out-there movie role has to be the student-seducing coach in Pretty Maids All in a Row, directed by Roger Vadim. I think it was considered a camp classic pretty much from the get-go, although it vanished from view for a number of years, too racy for network TV, even in edited form, and kept off home video for any number of reasons.

Funny you noticed the constant airings of Ice Station Zebra, you didn’t happen to grow up anywhere near Howard Hughes, by any chance?

Also, for a look back at Hudson’s career from a gay perspective, there’s the fairly rough documentary Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, which looks for hidden meaning in film clips, plus adds some unconvincing “dramatic recreation” scenes. It’s a bit heavy handed, and stretches its case somewhat, but it has some interesting moments and observations along the way. I think you can see the whole thing online, in the US anyway.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 31, 2013 1:22 pm

Unfortunately, I have Bob Seger playing in my head. Thanks a *lot*, Greg!

Sorry about that swac but that Rock Hudson was the kind of guy who moved against the wind, always willing to turn the page when necessary.

I have to see Pretty Little Maids again, or period. I think I’ve only ever seen clips from it, frankly. I’ll have to see if it’s available.

Posted By Doug : July 31, 2013 5:09 pm

In my memory, Rock took over the Cary Grant roles when Cary started going gray. I mostly knew Hudson from MacMillan and Wife and the Doris Day films.
Would it be a fair assessment to say that Rock Hudson had character actor sensibilities with leading man looks?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : July 31, 2013 6:39 pm

That’s a great way to put it. His looks put him in the lead but he could have easily been a supporting actor most of the time. He had a definite charm about him though that did come through and he never seemed lacking confidence in his lead roles.

Posted By Christine in GA : July 31, 2013 6:53 pm

I like Doug saying Rock had “character actor sensibilities with leading man looks” and appreciate Greg’s citation of Rock’s performance in SECONDS. SECONDS is a very under-the-radar movie but it is quite good and gives one a lot to think about. I heartily recommend it to fans of Rock and/or speculative fiction.

Posted By Kingrat : July 31, 2013 7:13 pm

Great piece on Rock Hudson, Greg. It’s worth noting that the 1930s MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION made Robert Taylor a star in the same role. This material had tremendous appeal to women. Robert Taylor made a somewhat comparable transition from rather bland but pretty object of women’s desire to a more rugged and darker persona.

If you ever get the chance to see SECONDS on the big screen, don’t miss it. Frankenheimer’s direction is fabulous, Rock Hudson gives the role everything he’s got, and the scene where he goes back to see his wife is indeed heartbreaking.

You make an excellent point that there are many other actors of Rock Hudson’s type, but few of them had his success. The 1930s, for instance, has many pleasant-looking leading men, sensitive rather than macho types, but most of these actors are not very memorable. You could also compare Rock with Troy Donahue, a flash in the pan without much acting talent, and Tab Hunter, who could act, but didn’t have as big a career as Rock.

Posted By Gene : July 31, 2013 9:33 pm

I grew up on McMillan & Wife, and every Rock Hudson/Doris Day movie out there – thanks to my Mom who idolized Day and swooned over Hudson. So, when I grew up and saw Frankenheimer’s Seconds I was stunned to see Hudson in such a non-characteristic role. I wish he had had more opportunities such as that one. And I’m very glad people out there like The Glass Bottom Boat. My three favorite films as a child were that, The Birds, and The Time Machine. I kinda doubt it had anything to do with Rod Taylor but I always thought that was a funny coincidence. As to Paul Lynde, he indeed made TGBB what it is as he did with everything he was in.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : July 31, 2013 10:00 pm

I was another who first knew him from McMillan and Wife and didn’t really discover Hudson’s other movie work until I was in high school and college. Love Pillow Talk and thought Hudson did a great job with comedy. In watching the TCM Carson interviews, last night’s with William Holden, he was saying he didn’t do comedy, it wasn’t his strong suit, as dramas were. Your list shows that he could act in either comedy or drama. I set the dvr for Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind, as I saw them when I was in college and now I want to resee them with my middle aged eyes!

Posted By Jennifer : August 1, 2013 1:04 am

I love love love Rock Hudson. I think that part of the issue with the roles he got was that his career started in the 1950′s. I feel like his roles would have been more Cary Grant-like or possibly Gary Cooper-like, had he been around in the late 30′s and 40′s. He would probably have had more opportunity for comedy, and maybe some light slapstick, given his athletic abilities.

I have always loved Giant because of him. As a fellow Texan though, I take issue with his accent. I will never know why Stevens made him speak with a generic southern accent instead of letting his Texan show.

I suppose my first genuine exposure to him was also MacMillan and Wife, but honestly, the only show I liked when that was on the air was Matchgame, so I didn’t watch it. Or The Rookies, Or SWAT, or Marcus Welby, or The Streets of San Francisco. Though I did catch the occasional Mannix when I was allowed to stay up past 7:30. Oh, and Rockford Files. Now THAT was a show.

Sorry, what was the question?

Posted By Emgee : August 1, 2013 4:53 am

It’s now for me hard to watch any movie with Rock as a romantic lead without wondering “did they know…..?”
Not that it really matters, but as a constant undercurrent it gives those movies a certain extra layer, at least to me.
So, Doris, ‘fess up, girl!

Posted By Jennifer : August 1, 2013 8:36 am

His homosexuality was not a career-shaking deal. A lot of celebrities were gay. I’m guessing by the comments here that many people would be astounded to know who or how many. The studio system handled these people’s public personas (with arranged marriages and publicity damage control) but most of the Hollywood insiders knew. There were those who shirked the studios’ “protection” and had very minor careers because they were openly gay. I doubt the scene in Pillow Talk, in which Hudson was trying to convince Day that the man she was interested in was “close to his mother”, really had the impact on him that people are wondering. Sure it was difficult for him to be gay in those days, but not as hard as one might think. Yes, he did have problems- most recently it has been revealed that the woman he married was trying to get him to admit to her that he was gay and he wouldn’t specifically say so, but the main reason people nowadays are really concerned about Hudson’s homosexuality is because of his very tragic and public death.

Posted By Marco : August 1, 2013 11:26 am

When I was growing up in Moab, Utah Rock Hudson made a movie called ” Taza, Son of Cochise” and all the women in town were absolutely captivated by Hudson, because he was so gracious and friendly. All the men were very excited about Barbara Rush being in town, and Jeff Chandler was considered to be one of the guys. I remember watching the movie when it came to town, and several people remarking on Taza’s blue eyes. Every woman in the audience thought he was the most handsome Indian any of them had ever seen. For my money, I think his best Douglas Sirk movie role is his portrayal of Burke Devlin in “The Tarnished Angels.” Rock Hudson was also very good in “The Spiral Road” and “Something of Value.” In this one, Hudson doesn’t seem too much like an English settler in Kenya when everyone in his film family speaks with an authentic accent, but it is still a powerful movie because of the humanity Hudson brings to the role. Hudson may have been a different man off the screen, but he was sure a perfect gentleman in real life.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 1, 2013 11:29 am

From what I can gather, parts of Pretty Maids All in a Row are up on Youtube. This flick also starred Angie Dickinson and was directed by Roger Vadim.

Posted By swac44 : August 1, 2013 2:23 pm

Pretty Maids is available in a widescreen DVD from Warner Archive, which would be the way to go since it couldn’t go up on YouTube in its uncut form. I also forgot to mention that its screenplay comes from none other than Gene “Star Trek” Roddenberry, and the cast includes James “Scotty” Doohan as a police detective (plus Telly Savalas and Roddy McDowall).

Posted By Bill : August 1, 2013 2:43 pm

The last Day/Hudson movie,Send Me No Flowers,takes on special resonance. Hudson thinks he’s dying of a mysterious disease, and buys his own burial plot-from feneral diector Paul Lynde.

Posted By Bill : August 1, 2013 2:47 pm

The last Day/Hudson movie,Send Me No Flowers,takes on special resonance. Hudson thinks he’s dying of a mysterious disease, and buys his own burial plot-from feneral diector Paul Lynde.In one of the other Day/Hudson’s, Rock carries a drunken Tony Randall in his arms, saying “I’m taking you to your hotel room”. Onlooker Jack Albertson says “He’s the last guy I would’ve suspected”. That’s how secure his image was.

Posted By floydrturbo : August 1, 2013 3:55 pm

“Seconds” is incredible, Frankenheimer was on quite a roll in the 1960s. Hudson’s closing scene was chilling. That movie is like a great book that one recommends to all his friends, family, coworkers, etc. I recommend “Seconds” to everyone I know loves great movies.

Great post.

Posted By Doug : August 1, 2013 11:11 pm

miss your commercials, floyd!

Posted By jim` : August 2, 2013 12:40 pm

I’ll second SECONDS. It’s one movie I think could be remade today and do well. Don’t know how I’d cast it, any ideas? Will Geer turns out a helluva performance in it too.

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 3, 2013 7:06 pm

Another actor who probably gives his best performance in SECONDS: Richard Anderson. He’s downright chilling.

Managed to see PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW when Showtime ran it in their glory days…back in the 80′s, showing all kinds of Eurotrash they’d surely never touch now. (They also ran terrific short subjects between features…everything from UN CHIEN ANDALOU and ALL BOYS ARE CALLED PATRICK to PEOPLE SOUP and KING OF THE Z’s instead of promos for their shows like they do now.) It was another example of Rock’s eagerness to show his range.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 5, 2013 1:05 pm

I just want to say how good it makes me feel to find so many people with an appreciation of Rock Hudson. He’s one of those actors that I felt wouldn’t get much of a response if I posted on him and I’m thrilled to know I was wrong.

And yes, to all the people here mentioning Seconds, it is fantastic and contains so many good performances. Aside from those mentioned so far I would add John Randolph as the pre-Hudson character and Murray Hamilton, always good in everything, period.

Posted By Cj : August 14, 2013 11:01 pm

Hudson’s comedic timing was excellent. He and Tony Randall made a great team in the Dayhudson romps..

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