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Movie stars no longer “own” Hollywood, we are told, but two hallowed brand names owned much of the media space this week.
At age 80, Harrison Ford is soldiering through the interview circuit to energize his balky Indy numbers. And an HBO doc about Rock Hudson this week reminded viewers of an era when stardom was as much manufactured as earned.
Both Ford and Hudson coveted their celebrity, which now borders on the mythic. But early in their careers, both struggled through identity crises, trying to define a persona they could comfortably live with.
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The young Hudson was so gawky and naïve that he required emergency coaching on both his speech and sexuality from his ambitious manager, Henry Willson. Neither Willson nor his protégé imagined that Hudson would become a superstar both in cult movies, like Pillow Talk, and in classics, like Giant. Who else could hold his own opposite both Doris Day and Elizabeth Taylor?
Ford was an ambitious yet grumpy young actor struggling through minor TV gigs on The Mod Squad or Ironside. Yet wherever he turned, cinema magic seemed to be happening: George Lucas was making American Graffiti, Francis Coppola was shooting The Conversation, unknowns were being cast in Star Wars.
The media doubted Ford was destined for stardom. Yet his films have grossed almost $10 billion worldwide. And Hudson would have been thrilled to attend the lavish Cannes opening of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny with its standing ovations and packed parties. Even the normally stolid Ford seemed caught up in the festival frenzy.
In the HBO doc Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed, Hudson is depicted as a troubled, even tortured actor trying to live a double life. He was the ultimate closeted romantic star, “married” to a woman he barely knew and haunted by potential exposure in Confidential or the gossip columns.
The doc cleverly offers clips from movies with double entendres –- some of his movies carried suggestive titles like Strange Bedfellows and Man’s Favorite Sport. It also presents photos of a skimpily clad Hudson partying with male friends, as did an early 1990s biopic Rock Hudson’s Home Movies.
These depictions, to be sure, are at odds with off-camera accounts from Hudson friends and co-stars who found the actor to be convivial and oblivious to his perils. Full disclosure: As both a film executive and a newsman, I often encountered Hudson and found him smart and candid.
Hudson freely confessed his absence of chemistry with co-star Julie Andrews on the 1970 flop Darling Lili but diligently labored through their love scenes. Their mutual disdain was not evident either on the set or on the screen. “It was combat duty,” Hudson would confide to me. “She’s usually both late and frosty.” (Julie’s only comment: “I was lucky to be married to the director, Blake Edwards.”)
Hudson was even more candid in discussing his relationship with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, valuing their close friendship but angered by Reagan’s oblivious attitude toward the gay community.
Hudson liked talking politics with me, knowing that, prior to my Paramount responsibilities, I had written extensively for the New York Times about Reagan’s political rise. Reagan’s tilt to the hard right troubled Hudson; he sensed that his warm relations with the Reagans would end in a difficult third act.
As his health faded, Hudson appealed to Nancy Reagan for help in gaining admission to an Air Force hospital in France that could help treat his symptoms. As the doc correctly reports, she turned him down.
Two years later, Reagan and his wife would come out in support of funding for AIDS research.
Ford is still generating a payday of $20 million per picture and future mega-budget movies await. Hudson devastated Hollywood when he died of AIDS in 1985 at age 58.
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