Posted by Greg Ferrara on July 31, 2013
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 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).
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.
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