New bio spills code of gay ’50s Hollywood
By Gregg Kilday
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – Henry Willson, the agent
who masterminded Rock Hudson’s career along with those of such
other Hollywood hunks — straight and gay — as Troy Donohue
and Tab Hunter, had rules for his gay clients.
“No two men can live together and have a career in
Hollywood,” he advised one of his actors in the ’50s. “It is
not allowed. You’ll ruin it all if you live with this other
If Willson, who died in 1978, were still alive, Hollywood’s
changing attitudes toward homosexuality would probably leave
him at a rare loss for words. Although no A-list star has yet
emerged to challenge Willson’s long-held belief that the public
will not accept an openly gay leading man, in most other
respects the scene has changed dramatically.
Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain,” a tale of two men
struggling with their attraction for each other, already is
positioned as one of this year’s major awards contenders.
Performances like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the
title character in “Capote” and Cillian Murphy’s turn as a
cross-dresser in “Breakfast on Pluto” are drawing raves. And
though they haven’t crossed over into the territory of romantic
leading men, openly gay actors Nathan Lane and Anthony Rapp are
headlining the films “The Producers” and “Rent,” with both
Broadway-trained actors playing thoroughly hetero characters.
By contrast, the ’50s, when Hudson reigned as the country’s
top box office draw and Willson, one of Hollywood’s leading
agents, commanded the best tables at Ciro’s and the Macombo,
was far more rigid and closeted. It was hardly straight-laced,
though, because the decade also harbored a subterranean gay
culture with its own elaborate codes and customs.
In the newly published “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson:
The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson,” Robert
Hofler offers a fascinating, compulsively readable account of
an era that contrasts starkly to our own.
Willson, born in Lansdown, Pa., the son of an East Coast
record company executive, migrated to Hollywood in the ’30s,
first working as a fan magazine writer chronicling the
migration of Broadway talent attracted by the talkies. By the
’40s, he had become producer David O. Selznick’s head of
talent, where his duties included squiring Selznick’s star and
paramour Jennifer Jones around town. By the ’50s, Willson had
gone into business for himself, representing a growing stable
of clean-cut, hyper-masculine stars who appealed to the
bobbysoxers who drove the box office.
He also became a controversial figure. When the gossip
magazine Confidential threatened to expose Hudson, Willson,
possibly working through intermediaries, fended off the scandal
by feeding the magazine information about Rory Calhoun’s
criminal record and Hunter’s attendance at an all-male “pajama
Willson, gay but homophobic and politically conservative,
maintained a straight persona — President Truman’s daughter
Margaret was just one of several dates he claimed was his
“fianc©e.” But his lecherous reputation was an open secret in
Hollywood. So much so that in later years, many of his clients,
both straight and gay, would deny he ever represented them.
Nevertheless, Hoffler makes a compelling argument that
Willson, though hardly laudable, served an important function.
Such womanizing moguls as Selznick, Darryl Zanuck and Harry
Cohn might have had an eye for identifying female stars. But at
a time when female executives didn’t exist, Willson and other
gay agents and managers took on the job of identifying and
grooming many of the male stars who brought in female
ticket-buyers. In short, they turned matinee idols into gold.