Sunday, August 30, 2009

Rock Hudson's Home Movies

In Rock Hudson's Home Movies, filmmaker Mark Rappaport conducts a revisionist analysis of the famed Hollywood actor's cinematic career, with Hudson's films revisited with the hindsight knowledge that he was gay and would eventually die of AIDS. It's an essay-film that consists almost entirely of clips from Hudson's films, crudely recorded with videos, often from TV, giving them a raw, overexposed, desaturated appearance. This strips aesthetics out of the equation, shifting the focus entirely onto the dialogue, the situations, and the unspoken subtext underlying Hudson's screen persona. The film is, by turns, fascinating, provocative, amusing, and very often deeply silly and misguided, as Rappaport's quest to read gay subtext into seemingly everything Hudson did onscreen yields both clever insights and obvious stretching.

The film is on its strongest ground in the examination of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies of the late 50s and 60s, films like Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, where the plot would often center around Hudson assuming dual identities, one a sexually voracious macho man and the other a prancing wimp. Obviously, Rappaport finds these films rich in subtext about questions of gay identity, and it's not hard to see why. By deftly editing together scenes and chopping up the dialogue, he even manages to suggest that the "gay" onscreen Hudson found himself admiring the more "macho" Hudson. These films, under Rappaport's dissection, seem to toy with Hudson's sexuality, creating densely layered meta-situations where, as Rappaport's onscreen narrator Eric Farr points out, a gay man passing for straight is asked to play a straight man who pretends to be gay. It creates a twisted, hall of mirrors situation that the film compares to the funhouse conclusion of Welles' The Lady From Shanghai, with Hudson essentially having an onscreen affair with himself — or at least finding himself in situations where Doris Day suspects him of it.

Though Rappaport makes some interesting points along these lines, the film is continually mired down in the filmmaker's insistence on finding gay subtext everywhere he looks. At times, it's blatantly obvious that he's taking lines out of context even when one doesn't know the original films he's referencing. Two cowboys staring each other down for a shootout becomes gay cruising for Rappaport. Hudson's interrogation of his nervous son-in-law in Giant: likewise. Even the pronouncement that "Hamburg is the gayest city in Germany" gets edited into the film as though it's more evidence of Rappaport's thesis, even though he later somewhat sheepishly has to admit that the more innocent usage of the word was still the dominant one at the time of these films. Nothing escapes Rappaport's revisionism. When, in what is obviously a clip from early in Hudson's career, a man in a skeleton mask and black cloak bursts into the room as Hudson kisses a girl, Rappaport takes it as foreshadowing of the actor's eventual death from a sexually transmitted disease. It would be laughable if moments like this weren't in such outrageously poor taste, and of such dubious value as a form of film analysis. It's bad enough when Rappaport tries to read psychology into the characters Hudson played onscreen, characters who Hudson himself had no real hand in creating. Much worse are the moments when the film treats Hudson's cinematic legacy as a prediction of his eventual death, as though that revealed anything beyond Rappaport's own morbid fascinations.

In fact, much of what Rappaport reads in terms of gay subtext could be much more persuasively explained as more general expressions of sexual morality in the movies. One of the film's most tightly edited montages is a selection of Hudson's onscreen kisses with his leading ladies, and Rappaport points out that nearly every one is interrupted in some way, cut off by one partner or the other or else disrupted by some intrusion. For Rappaport, this is confirmation of Hudson's homosexuality written into his films — how, who knows, since as the narrator acknowledges, Hudson had nothing to do with any of the actual content of his movies. These kisses suggest a discomfort with heterosexuality, a perfunctory stab at playing an expected role by a man who must hide his true self. At least for Rappaport they do.

But such tropes are to be found everywhere in the cinema, particularly in the classic Hollywood era, and they're hardly restricted to gay actors. What Rappaport goofily calls "kisses interruptus" have always been a common device for both comedies and dramas — in the former, the break-off of the passionate moment is played for humor, while indecision about romance, characterized by moments of giving into passion and moments of regret, has always been a central theme in melodramatic works. One can easily imagine a montage of similar incomplete kisses with completely straight actors: it's such a common narrative element that reading it as having anything to say about Hudson's homosexuality is ludicrous. Rappaport is so intent on seeing gay meaning in everything that he often seems blind to alternative possibilities, to other readings, simply forcing everything to fit into his reductive schema. Many of the continuities he detects could be explored in terms of genre, or along auteurist lines, or as storytelling clichés, but Rappaport isn't interested in broader criticism, only in proving his pet theories.

In analyzing Howard Hawks' Man's Favorite Sport?, Rappaport emphasizes how Hudson's character is continually humiliated for not being a manly man, for not knowing "how to fish," which is an obvious euphemism for being sexually inexperienced — and, Rappaport believes, also a euphemism for Hudson's sexuality. In some ways, he's got a point, as there's a thin line between making a film about a man who's sexually inexperienced and one about a man who's simply sexually inexperienced with women. But Rappaport goes further, suggesting that Hawks (no stranger to homoerotic subtexts) and his screenwriters, like many others in Hollywood, had it in for Hudson, that they were purposefully mocking his sexuality in this film and others like it. This thesis quickly gets tied up in knots trying to justify itself when dealing with the question of Hawks' comparable films with Cary Grant, many of them comedies of humiliation like I Was a Male War Bride and Bringing Up Baby. The latter is cited for Grant's famous "I just went gay" exclamation, while the former becomes a prime example of how Grant, when cast in these films, somehow avoided being too humiliated or debased, while Hudson (who was literally replacing Grant in Man's Favorite Sport?, a film originally intended for the older man) looks like "a sissy."

Rappaport asserts, somewhat lamely, that Grant, despite persistent rumors about his own sexuality, came off better because he was married multiple times, while Hudson only married once. It's a weak justification, and in fact Hudson's character comes off no more ineffectual in his Hawks appearance than Grant did in most of his comedies with the director — except in the sense that Grant was a far better comedic actor. Rappaport seems blind to (or indifferent to) the continuities between these films and others not starring Hudson. Instead, looking at Hudson's oeuvre in isolation, he treats it as though the actor had any control over the lines he said and things he did, as though there were not more important considerations affecting these films than the sexuality of the actors, and as though the threads he identifies here as gay subtexts were not running through all sorts of unrelated movies regardless of the sexuality of individual stars.

The film is further dragged down by the amateurish, stilted performance of Eric Farr, supposedly playing Hudson speaking from beyond the grave, narrating his own life story through the movies he starred in. Farr's awkward line readings only distract from any point Rappaport's trying to make, as does the whole conceit of a younger version of Hudson supposedly speaking in the first person about his sexuality like this. Farr seems to be there primarily because he's handsome, not that he actually looks anything like Hudson or has any actual acting talent. In any event, Farr, though distracting, winds up being the least of the film's problems. Rappaport ultimately buries his most interesting points about gay identity and gay cinematic representation beneath a smug insistence on seeing every onscreen male friendship as a latent gay relationship. The film often adopts an insufferable wink-wink tone not far from adolescent toilet humor, delighting in the discovery of "naughty" interpretations for everything from two soldiers discussing traumatic wartime experiences to a deadbeat father reuniting with his son. Worse, there's a kind of barely restrained contempt for women flowing through this film's own subtext. Rappaport's text frequently treats the women in Hudson's movies as empty-headed predators, and cruelly gives Cyd Charisse the introduction that "she had seen better days," calling her "Ms. Dracula on a talent search" when she snares Hudson for a passionate kiss. It's this kind of catty commentary, along with the film's obliviousness to anything beyond its narrow interpretative rubric, that prevents Rock Hudson's Home Movies from being the truly incisive Godardian essay it aspires to be.


The Film Doctor said...

I haven't seen Rock Hudson's Home Movies, but I admire your analysis of the weaknesses of Rappaport's approach, which appears to be compromised by its overly personal and slanted interpretation. It seems like a basic challenge for us all in the film blogosphere especially--keeping one's biases out of one's ideas.

I finally saw Pillow Talk recently, in part because of Godard's raves of that film, and I was really impressed by it. One can see why films like My Best Friend's Wedding stole so much from it. Rock Hudson comes off as a bit Cary Grant-like in the way he's not a sexual threat to Doris Day in either of the two characters he plays. His humorous Texan persona reminded me a little of Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday

Chuck W said...

I just recently watched this film, and agree with you completely about Rappaport's bungled misreadings of the various subtexts that recurred throughout Rock Hudson's films. If anything, his approach in some ways nullifies some of the cracks and contradictions that could make for a much richer reading of Hudson's screen persona; instead, Rappaport takes a more monolithic approach, all gay subtext all the time, with no room for the ambiguity that, it could be said, defined Hudson as a cinema icon. In all, it's an interesting film, but fundamentally flawed.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks FilmDr, I agree that the things I identify in Rappaport's film are pretty common in criticism in general (I probably have stumbled into the same traps at times). It's a challenge to look at a film in an open way, to approach it on its own terms rather than bringing one's own philosophical, political and critical baggage along for the ride. I just wish Rappaport had been more successful in getting beyond his own biases, because he does have some interesting points to make.

I'd like to actually see Pillow Talk now, too, it seems interesting. Im curious: since you presumably saw it before hearing about Rappaport's analysis of it, did you think of the gay interpretation?

Chuck, like you I think there are hints throughout Rappaport's film of a much more nuanced and open-minded analysis of Hudson's screen persona. It would, to start with, have to be more open to the ways in which different directors used the actor (Rappaport hints at this with his discussion of the mentor relationship he had with Sirk) and how his screen persona related to the various genre archetypes he was playing in different films. Definitely an interesting film, anyway, but sadly inadequate to the daunting critical task it poses for itself.

Tony Dayoub said...

I have always been fascinated by Rock Hudson's double life. Having grown up watching him in McMillan & Wife in the seventies, I was dumbfounded when he was outed. Back then, it was an unusual invasion of privacy, and shocking due to the customary pre-Internet restraint when it came to gossip from Entertainment Tonight, not yet the TMZ of its time.

I tried watching this film but was disgusted at the reduction of a man's career to such simplistic speculation used to explain what must have been a very complex set of circumstances. It's all a little too pat.

In any case, I'd much rather watch Frankenheimer's Seconds, and infer how his double life may have helped inform one of his best performances.

The Film Doctor said...


In Pillow Talk Hudson plays a smoothy womanizing songwriter/piano player and a Texan cowboy-type, so I didn't see the dichotomy between the "macho man and the prancing wimp." Both of his personae seem pretty confident and assured around Doris Day as she suffers the marriage proposals of Tony Randall's rich character and the crass maneuvers of a college kid. I would sooner look to Randall's character, perhaps, as someone with gay connotations instead of Hudson.

Sam Juliano said...

"Though Rappaport makes some interesting points along these lines, the film is continually mired down in the filmmaker's insistence on finding gay subtext everywhere he looks. At times, it's blatantly obvious that he's taking lines out of context even when one doesn't know the original films he's referencing."

Yep, this is a major problem here, as is the bad taste and amateurish acting that's on display, not to mention the stereotyping. THE CELLULOID CLOSET handles this material far more compellingly, even if there are a few issues there which I won't get into at length here.

I agree with Tony Dayoub that Hudson's double life has always been most fascinating, but what with dire films like this and the never-ending stream of tasteless jokes, he's been the poster boy for homophobic derision.

PILLOW TALK on the other hand in a bonafide minor classic. If reading this rightfully negative review brings on a viewing of that, I think the end result is quite nice.

Jeremy Nyhuis said...

Couldn't have said it better myself, Ed. Rappaport's film might have been better--or at least more honest--if he had cast himself (rather than a bad Hudson imitator) at the forefront and been more open about his personal fascination with Hudson, as Chris Marker marvelously did only a year later with Alexander Medvedkin in The Last Bolshevik. As it stands, I find Rappaport's essay to be just a bad, embarrassing example of film criticism, particularly in its manipulative, out-of-context editing, as you point out. Nice review, though.

Ed Howard said...

Tony, very good points. I found Rappaport's attempts to get inside Hudson's psychology very simplistic -- not to mention misguided since we can't possibly know what Hudson himself thought about any of this stuff.

FilmDr, thanks for expanding on Hudson's dual role in Pillow Talk. That's an interesting alternative explanation to Rappaport's analysis. I'll have to watch that film now and see what I think. The Day/Hudson portion of this film was one part I found fairly convincing, but then I haven't seen any of those films; it'd be interesting to find that Rappaport had twisted their meaning as well.

Sam, I agree that in many ways this film, despite being from a gay perspective, makes quite a few tasteless jokes at Hudson's expense. It's surprising; you'd expect a gay filmmaker/critic to have more sympathy for this particular subject.

J, I remember you poking a bit of fun at Rappaport when I reviewed Man's Favorite Sport?, and now I see what you mean. Heh...

Sean said...

The short film on the DVD, "Blue Streak," is probably more interesting.

Rappaport had a long career as an independent film maker before he made this. I had seen some of his earlier films before this, so I was more inclined to find ways to understand the film as more nuanced than it might at first appear. I certainly wouldn't put it past him to deliberately cast someone who doesn't look like Hudson or deliberately cast a not-very-good actor.

I was also inclined to look at the overbaked interpretations as part of the joke and part of the point. There's a need at times to look for subtext even when it's "not really there."

Further, the narrator is "Rock Hudson," so the misogynistic cracks are part of the "Rock Hudson" character, not necessarily some pre-approved statement of the film's or director's view of the world. (The review seems to imply that the filmmaker hired the "Rock Hudson" narrator because he was handsome, and it further seems to imply that the misogyny in the film is the filmmaker's worldview. I'm not sure that going there is the best, or fairest, move.)

This is not to say that the movie was successful. The earlier poster's point that our time is better spent watching "Seconds" again is a good one, and there's a good chance I'm being too generous to Rappaport because of my appreciation of his dedication to independent film (and, of course, because I spent lots of money on old VHS tapes because Ray Carney told me he was awesome).

Ed Howard said...

Sean, thanks for the interesting perspective on this film in light of Rappaport's other work. Without that context, I could only evaluate what I saw in this film; it's true that knowing more about a director's work can lead one to give them the benefit of the doubt more often, but I'm not sure anything could really make me appreciate this film more. As for the undercurrent of misogyny I detected, I saw the Rock Hudson character as pretty much Rappaport's mouthpiece in other ways, expressing ideas that had much more to do with his modern outlook on this stuff than with the real Hudson, so I assumed that the misogynistic jokes were also coming from the director. That's how it played for me, anyway; if that wasn't the intention then the intent didn't come across. If the character was sometimes expressing the director's ideas and sometimes simply ranting as a character, that blurs the line a bit too much.

Anyway, I haven't given up Rappaport quite yet. As a big Seberg fan, I'm curious about From the Journals of Jean Seberg, which I've wanted to see ever since hearing about it through Jonathan Rosenbaum's advocacy of it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I don't know what you mean by the film "not being more sympathetic." What Mark is dealing with isn't real life but the series fo highly constructed images through which the myth of "Rock Hudson" has been disseminated. By overdetermining Teh Ghey Mark is making up for the massive overdetermination of straight the Hetersexual Dictatorship (Christopher Isherwood's highly apt term) demands.

Ed Howard said...

That's an interesting read on what Rappaport's up to here, David. I see your point, but I'm not sure the best way to respond to the admitted dominance of heterosexual archetypes and cliches is to create corresponding gay cliches by reading homosexual subtext into everything, whether it warrants it or not.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It's one glass of water vs. an ocean.

Mark's film is also referencing the lie that "nobody knew" that Rock Hudson was gay prior to the announcement just before his death.

I knew Rock Hudson was gay before I knew that I was! It was commoneveryday widely disseminated gossip in the 1950's. The whole reasons for the marraige (to his gay agent's lesbain secretary) was to stifle it.