Norma Desmond, the fictitious aged vamp of "Sunset Boulevard," said she was still "big"; it was the pictures that got smaller. Rock Hudson came out of a Hollywood devoted to the larger-than-life, and to the better-than-life. He was one of its creations. One of its prize creations.
However he would have died, whether of injury or infirmity, it would have been hard to take, because even though Rock Hudson eventually scaled himself down to television proportions, there was always that old-fashioned, big-screen enormity about him. His invented name had the ring of a hallowed Hollywood trademark, like CinemaScope or Technicolor, and in his movie heyday, he could bring off the comic-book gallantry and the grand gesture without at all appearing to strain.
He was one of the last of the living dreams to be merchandised by the movies' founding dream merchants.
In the whole idea of stardom there is an implicit defiance of reality, and of mortality, too. Yesterday in Hollywood, for Rock Hudson and for his public, that defiance ended.
He will be remembered as a deserving star, the kind on whom stardom seemed confirmed almost as a birthright, not as a reward for acting abilities or breadth of artistic vision. Much will be made now, and has been made during the long months of Hudson's very public illness, of the dichotomy between what is real and what is paraded across the screen -- the unseen private citizen vs. the heroic character in a nation's fantasy life -- as if Hudson were the first actor ever to be something other than what he had seemed.
And yet from available reports, whatever disparities there were between Hudson and his screen image, Rock Hudson was still, in many ways, the person we saw in the movies and television shows.
That is: A big man. A gracious man. An affable, unassuming and attractive man.
A real man.
Real men do things that take guts to do. It took guts for Rock Hudson to make known the fact that he suffered from what society considers an abhorrent disease. But then, it had taken guts decades earlier when the towering kid with the all-American good looks went to Hollywood to become a movie star. He knew he couldn't act then, and admitted it. He learned enough to get by, and was cast in movies that certainly never outclassed him.
Eventually he proved himself not only an impressive and charismatic figure, but an actor, too, in movies like "Giant," where he held his own with the even more glamorous Elizabeth Taylor and the scene-stealing twitches of a young James Dean, and in a haunting sci-fi thriller called "Seconds," about a mysterious firm that takes dumpy, dissatisfied, middle-aged men and turns them into remodeled, handsome, younger ones, sending them off into a prefabricated new life with a prefabricated new identity.
In some ways, that company was like Hollywood.
When Hudson spent a brief season on the TV series "Dynasty" last year, he was giving his screen career a certain symmetry. Although he got his start as the baritone hero of action pictures, he made his first real splash as the dashing love interest in weepy melodramas like "Magnificent Obsession," "All That Heaven Allows" and "Written on the Wind," the "Dynastys" of their day. He made a conscientious effort at playing a Hemingway hero in Charles Vidor's 1958 film version of "A Farewell to Arms," then reverted, or graduated, to puppy-dog parts in a series of sexy comedies with Doris Day.
His last television appearance was with Day for her new series "Doris Day's Best Friends," about stars and their pets. It was earlier this year, when Hudson made a photo-opportunity appearance with Day to plug the show, that the fact of his ill health became evident. There have since been published rumors that the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), which will premiere the series Sunday, had indefinitely shelved the Hudson segment because of the nature of Hudson's illness. But yesterday a spokesman for CBN Cable Network said from Virginia Beach that the Rock Hudson appearance will be seen as the second show in the series, on Sunday night, Oct. 13, at 7.
Hudson survived the death of the old Hollywood and the birth of the new by entering television at just the right moment, when most industry observers thought that for a big star, it was still a demeaning, probably irreversible, step down. With "McMillan and Wife," on NBC from 1971 to 1977, he added new life to a career that, given changes in the makeup of motion picture audiences, might otherwise have ended. Yesterday, upon learning of his death, his longtime costar in the series, Susan Saint James, said, "I was one of the few who knew him well, but only one of the millions who will miss him."
Hudson's other TV appearances showed him able to emerge with his dignity from potentially embarrassing predicaments -- a short-lived NBC crime series, "The Devlin Connection," in 1982, and, in an earlier era (1959), as glittery, jittery guest host of an ill-fated catastrophe called "The Big Party," which lasted half a season. Still earlier, Hudson good-naturedly -- and, typically for him, self-effacingly -- played himself on an episode of "I Love Lucy" originally telecast in 1955. He was always adept at kidding and spoofing his screen image. We may see that spoofing in another light now, as born of something deeper than mere bemusement, but it was still a class act.
And the dignity that survived the occasional screen calamity would be put to its greatest test later, when his illness became headline news in proper journals and lurid tabloids alike. There was no studio system now to protect him, and the kinds of things that once were never spoken of in public now blared from radios and TV sets. For all that, there seemed enough residual dignity there to see him through.
One other fabled TV appearance, fabled because it was a fiasco he loved to joke about in later years, was at an early '50s Oscar telecast on which Hudson appeared with another exaggerated screen sex symbol, Mae West. Hudson said later he was at first barred from entering the hall for the show because he was wearing jeans and had forgotten his pass. Then when he finally made it to the stage, he discovered that West had arranged the couch on which they would sing their duet so that only West's face would be visible to the camera. He picked up the couch and turned it around in time for the rising of the curtain.
The song they sang was, "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
In 1974, as they prepared for a stage tour of the musical "I Do, I Do," Hudson and his old friend Carol Burnett were interviewed jointly. At lunch in Burnett's dressing room at CBS Television City in Hollywood, Hudson kept leaping up to launch into anecdotes and stories, like someone who had long been trapped in a shell of decorum and was growing increasingly uncomfortable with its strictures.
Burnett explained the phrase "going up" on stage, which means an actor has forgotten his lines, something Hudson confessed he had done once as a guest on her weekly variety show. "Sometimes you go up and you don't even know where you are," Burnett said. "Like at rehearsal the other day, Rock. I didn't think you'd said your line, and you had. And I'm just sitting there thinking, 'Poor Rock. He's gone up.' "
Asked then why he had swallowed some pride, left the movies and gone into television a few years earlier, Hudson smiled and said, "Well, it was a job." He seemed unpretentious, and genuine. He seemed like a guy who had done more than most people do with what they have. And when he would stand up at the table to do an impression or tell a story or illustrate a joke, he seemed gigantic. Towering. Immense. Larger-than-life size.
He was still big.
The pictures got smaller.
Everything got smaller.