“Henry Willson was the most powerful agent in Hollywood. Henry loved Hollywood more than anyone.”
By the time of Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS-related complications in 1985, the popular screen icon had spent more than a year traveling the world looking for a cure. His public relations team at the time explained that the actor had been diagnosed with a serious liver disease, while they tried to avoid rumors about his HIV status and his until-then-alleged homosexuality.
It was only after his death that it became widely known that the actor had in fact always been gay and had romanced many of his male co-stars. Indeed, the surge of AIDS related deaths in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s opened up a vault of secrets that Hollywood had fought to keep silent since its very inception; some of the most popular screen actors who seduced women and made female fans faint from excitement had all along been homosexuals.
There was one man in particular who not only discovered and nurtured actors like Rock Hudson and Guy Madison, but who turned being gay into a secret lifestyle that included some of the most powerful men in the industry. Such men were behind some of the most renowned pictures of Hollywood’s Golden Era. The man was Henry Willson and his name would probably remain unknown if it were not for Robert Hofler’s incisive biography, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson, which follows him from his early years as a rich New Yorker and then across the country as he realized early on that there was a whole future meant just for him in California.
Aided by his father’s resources, the young Willson traveled to Los Angeles shortly after the Great Depression and decided to use his talents to create his very own star machine. He had a natural eye for what exactly it was that created “magic” onscreen and as such ended up discovering Hudson, Madison, Rory Calhoun, Clint Walker Clint Ritchie, Craig Stevens, Chad Everett, john Saxon, Mike ‘Touch’ Connors, John Derek, John Smith, Nick Adams, Keith Andes, Dack Rambo, Guy Williams, Grant Williams, Van Williams, Robert Wagner, Nick Nolte, John Gavin and Alain Delon. And that’s just the boys! He also nurtured the careers of Jennifer Jones (he was her date the night she won the Oscar for The Song of Bernadette), Lana Turner (“I didn’t say she could act. I said she could be a movie star” was how he pitched her) and Natalie Wood!
As gossipy and juicy as the book could’ve been (and it does make for a delicious, sinful read) Hofler’s major achievement is his ability to contextualize everything we’re reading. Beyond tales of who slept with whom and who wrecked whose marriage, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson is at its center a unique character study of a man who was a genius in his own right. Described as “the original queer eye for the straight guy”, Willson was able to use his sexual orientation to get ahead in a conservative industry where he would eventually be deemed a threat (according to Senator Joseph McCarthy).
Willson turned himself into friend and confidante for men like David O. Selznick, who at one point was undoubtedly the most powerful man in the industry. Keeping tabs on their mistresses, affairs and expenses, Willson made himself indispensable, to the point where he was accused or praised of creating and destroying careers.
Hofler’s version of private Willson is that of a man who knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. In his relationships with his clients, who he loved as sons even after sleeping with them, we discover a man who was in tune with other people’s needs, sometimes more than he was with his own. “Henry believed in his boys more than they did in themselves,” explains the author, while acknowledging how despite his own physical shortcomings (he is described as “chin-less” often) Willson liked being surrounded by beautiful people and beautiful objects.
It was his own confidence and poise that made him sexually desirable to the point where he had to turn down young sailors who threw themselves at him in the hopes he would turn them into stars. He used sex as a currency and seemed to be leading precisely the kind of life he always wanted. “Probably sex was love for Henry. Big cocks were love. Success was love. The one thing he could not tolerate was loneliness. He had to have someone in his life always,” explains one former associate.
Beyond the sexual hunger we also see a man who knew how to manipulate the industry by giving people exactly what they needed. After World War II depleted Hollywood of its old idea of what it was to be a dashing leading man, Willson saw the opportunity to turn real life sailors and workers into movie stars with a rougher edge. A one-man-star-factory, he used extreme methods to turn smalltown boys into shining leading men. He was well known for the names he gave them, all of which now sound like frat-boy jokes, but back then spelled virility and desire. Trying to come up with a name for one his new stars, he exclaimed “it’s got to be as sexy as an erection!”, the result was Ty Hardin.
His methods weren’t always the “best”. In order to give Hudson his voice, he had a vocal trainer give him a throat infection “then instructed him to scream for hours. When his vocal chords later healed, they miraculously accommodated a deeper, more seductive speaking voice.” The book is revelatory when it comes to the practices being used back then to make films. Everything from blackmail, to sexual agreements, to sham marriages, it makes for one of those times where truth was infinitely more fascinating than fiction.
The book will certainly satisfy the minds of those wondering what were Hudson’s favored sexual practices, but on a deeper level it’s as honest a portrait of the film industry as there’s ever been. Its coda, all the more effective because it reminds us of the brutality of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, making us for once grateful that we’re not movie stars.