washingtonpost.com
The Celluloid Closet
Recalling an era when teen idols had to give up their real names and hide their sexuality.

Reviewed by Louis Bayard
Sunday, October 9, 2005

THE MAN WHO INVENTED ROCK HUDSON

The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson

By Robert Hofler

Carroll & Graf. 468 pp. $26.95

TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL

The Making of a Movie Star

By Tab Hunter with Eddie Muller

Algonquin. 378 pp. $24.95

Here's one sure sign that the old Hollywood is dead: Actors get to keep their names. If a Billy Crudup or Leonardo DiCaprio or Liev Schreiber had walked into an agent's office in the 1950s, he would have emerged 10 minutes later with a gleaming Anglo-Saxon cognomen. Something like Guy Madison or Troy Donahue or Nick Adams or even Rock Hudson -- the kind of über-Wasp name that, half-a-century later, makes you scratch your head and ask: "Who the hell came up with that?"

One man, actually: Henry Willson, who did for handsome boys what Ziegfeld did for pretty girls: defined them, deified them, exploited and loved and lost them. As one of the most powerful Hollywood agents of the postwar era, this "beefy, tough-talking, chronically phobic, archconservative homosexual" -- "the ultimate manizer ," according to his biographer, Robert Hofler -- helped set standards of male beauty that continue to ripple through the pages of Abercrombie & Fitch catalogues. Long before straight movie execs figured it out, Willson understood that men on screen could be desired in the same way as female stars and could be transformed, as a direct result, into sexual commodities, abstract and interchangeable -- and discardable, as Willson himself proved to be in the end.

His was a sad, sordid, thrillingly low kind of life, a worthy theme for Hofler's acerbic and ultimately repellent book. Forget, for now, the dangled bait of the title. The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson is mainly about the self-invention of Henry Willson, who descended on Hollywood in the early 1930s and displayed an uncanny knack for getting his clients -- and himself -- in the papers. Working first as a 10-percenter with the Zeppo Marx Agency, then as head of talent for producer David O. Selznick, Willson whittled his starmaking ethic down to a single premise: "The acting can be added later." Or, as he told the Fox exec who belittled one of his clients, a curvy Hollywood High student named Judy Turner: "I didn't say she could act. I said she could be a movie star!" (Rechristened Lana, she proved him right.)

Willson had other female clients -- ranging from Natalie Wood to Marx Brothers dowager Margaret Dumont -- but for better or worse, he became known as the doyen of "Henry's boys," robust, chisel-cheeked Ganymedes whom he spotted in public venues and reeled in with hastily scratched notes: "If you are interested in getting into the movies, I can help you. Henry Willson. Agent." They were interested. Roy Fitzgerald, a 21-year-old truck driver from Winnetka, Ill., blew into Hollywood in 1947, seeking fame. Like most of Willson's favored clients, he was beautiful, uncouth and fatherless. Willson fixed his teeth and his grammar, showed him which fork to use, how to walk and talk and dress. And once Roy Fitzgerald had taken on the name Rock Hudson and become the world's top box-office attraction, Willson happily pimped for him and did whatever it took to keep Hudson's sex life out of the tabloids -- even, according to one witness, taking out a Mob hit on two blackmailers.

This was full-service agentry. Some flourished under it; many loathed it. Roddy McDowall (not a client) said Willson was "like the slime that oozed out from under a rock you did not want to turn over." James Darren (né James Ercolani) compared his onetime champion to "the guy who had the corner bar or grocery store. You'd go in and talk with him and he'd give you advice and help you out, if you were in a bad way." Willson often supplemented his clients' income until they got work, and he gave them the approval their fathers (living or dead) never did. And yes, he extracted sex from many of them -- even as he forbade them to cohabitate with other men. Intensely closeted, he covered his own tracks by announcing "engagements" to, variously, actress Diana Lynn and First Daughter Margaret Truman.

His career effectively ended in 1966, when Hudson dropped him. By this time, Hofler writes, Willson's "taste in leading men was suddenly worse than notorious in Hollywood. It was obsolete." Paranoid and bankrupt, he finished out his days in the Motion Picture Home and died in 1978 without enough money for a headstone.

Hofler, a Variety editor and reporter, is well matched to this shark-tank of a life. The only thing he can't do is swim above it. He writes with a bright sneer, as though he were competing with his own subjects. Former sailor Guy Madison (named after the Dolly Madison Bakery) is dismissed in one line: "His beauty came undiluted by talent." Hudson's performance in "Taza, Son of Cochise" is described thus: "Rock kept his voice low, his pecs high." Those are funny lines, if you can ignore the bitchy after-reek and the relish with which Hofler pounces on every human failing. Willson, of course, comes in for his share of aspersion--"a sniveling mollycoddle," "a truly homely adult," "master of the meretricious" -- but so does anyone who has the temerity to aspire. Read this book, with its endless betrayals and its grimy bacchanals, all delivered in the same gloating tone, and you'll need more than a shower; you'll need a nightcap of human kindness.

Seeking a more generous tour of the same era, we turn to one of Willson's best-known clients -- and most handicapped. For of all the names that Willson bequeathed to the ages (Rhonda Fleming, Rory Calhoun, Chad Everett), none was as disabling as "Tab Hunter." With its overtone of ersatz preppiness, it practically barred the shy California boy formerly known as Art Gelien from leaving an enduring film legacy. (Then again, with the exception of Hudson, which of "Henry's boys" did?) Someone named Tab Hunter might be allowed to croon musical mush like "Young Love," a No. 1 hit in 1957, and he might acquit himself honorably as Joe Hardy, the Faustian baseball hero in "Damn Yankees," but mostly he will be called on to enact pubescent fantasies.

And to this grim task Hunter was almost industrially suited. With that golden hair and torso, the scrubbed skin and the jaw that could open cans, he was a whole Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue rolled into one package -- except this package had a secret compartment. Like Hudson, Montgomery Clift and Sal Mineo, Hunter depended on what he calls the "gentleman's agreement in the Hollywood ranks, a 'live and let live' attitude about homosexuality. In private and around other like-minded people, you didn't have to pretend. In public, however, you were always careful."

It led to a bifurcated existence, as Hunter's wry and unblinkered memoir makes all too clear. While sleeping with a young actor named Scott Marlowe, he was also being photographed around town on the arm of Natalie Wood and getting valentines from 62,000 female admirers. Such a system would permit him a dalliance with Anthony Perkins but only under cover of double dates with willing "beards." The same system would send in a horde of lawyers and publicists when Hunter was outed by Confidential magazine. (Hofler's book claims the source of the leak was Henry Willson, avenging himself on Hunter for firing him.)

Tab's star had mostly flickered out by the early '60s, and the rest of his book is a Bunyan-esque progression of spiritual trials: bad surfer movie; worse sci-fi movie; even worse spaghetti Western; a flirtation with the European beau monde (including chastely described flings with Helmut Berger and Rudolf Nureyev); and a vast slough of dinner-theater despond. Our pilgrim survives a heart attack and a stroke, enjoys a brief renaissance at the hands of John Waters and Divine (in the deliriously tasteless "Polyester") and somehow emerges on the other side as a low-impact film producer, cautiously waiting for his next ship to come in.

With a devoted young partner at his side, he tells us he is "happy to be 'forgotten.' I can go anywhere and for the first time in my adult life be unrecognized." It's a part he's played before: Shoeless Joe Hardy, now a chastened old man, escaping homeward to his loyal helpmeet -- while that devil Fame does her Rumpelstiltskin fury-dance.

So when we look back at all the packaging that Henry Willson and others put into "Tab Hunter," does anything pure and true emerge? I think of that moment from Hunter's breakout 1954 film "Battle Cry," when his young Marine recruit is embarking on a midnight swim with an officer's wife, played by Dorothy Malone. (That's how affairs were consummated in '50s movies: swimming.) He's wearing her husband's bathing trunks, and he gives the waistband a tug to show how much slimmer he is than his rival, and a wolfish grin lights up his face. He is, in that moment, sensationally attractive. And he is every young man -- animal and innocent -- striding toward sexual conquest. It's a glimmer, yes, no more than a couple of seconds, but not to be forgotten. Even Henry Willson can't take it away. ·

Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer of books and movies.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company