Tuesday, January 15, 2013

ROCK STANDS TALL by Peter Nolan Smith

In August 1984 ACTUEL sent a photographer and me to cover the Deauville Film Festival. This was my second journalism gig for the French magazine and I hoped that writing a good article might pave a path to another profession other than being a doorman at La Balajo.

The festival organizers were honoring GIANT and I had arranged an interview with Rock Hudson, whose performance in the 1956 George Stevens' epic tale of Texas oil had been nominated for an Oscar. After the screening the handsome movie star spoke about acting with James Dean, "You know James Dean was a wonderful actor. He had the gift of touching the pain and joy deep inside him. Every scene in GIANT confronted Dean with this conflict and I was in awe of his struggle to reach his character Jett Rink. Dean had studied method acting under the legendary Lee Strasberg. My drama school was Universal International, where I learned all the Hollywood skills; acting, singing, dancing, fencing, and horseback riding and that riding came in handy on more than one occasion in my career." His words were translated to the French audience and they laughed at his joke, but Rock Hudson went on to reveal doubts about his talent. "I just showed up on set and recited my lines. George Stevens, the director, would nodded and say fine after one take, but if it was a scene between me and Dean, then he go into conference with Dean after each take. I couldn't fathom what they were talking about and I once went up to him and asked, if I should do anything different like Dean. George repeated that I was doing fine and return to Dean for what seemed like hours. I didn't understand his difficulty. Acting to me was read your lines and act like your supposed to act, but what do I know. I'm just Rock Hudson. Thank you for going to my movies." The audience rose to their feet and applauded his graciousness. Outside in the theater's foyer I was introduced to Rock by his Paris publicist. The film star greeted my Californian photographer and me with a firm handshake. His blue oxford shirt helped his eyes shine with welcome. "Good to hear Americans in France." The movie actor gave us a huge smile. His teeth beamed white and his face glowed with a Riviera tan. The lines on his face vanished with a smile. He was almost 60, which was almost twice my age, but better looking than any man in the casino, including Ryan O'Neal who was promoting a new film.

"We speak it better than we speak French." Randy snapped shots of Rock, as we walked into the elegant dining room of the Hotel Deauville. The maitre de sat us by the window. Sunbathers stretched out on the broad strand. "Doesn't look like Malibu," I said sitting at the table, surprised to find a British tabloid reporter opposite me. "I supposed nothing looks like Malibu." The reporter was in his 40s and hanging onto the styles of the 70s. His name was Bill. He placed a tape recorder on the table and smirked, "But then not all of us are movie stars, are we?" "No, we're not." I was annoyed at his piggy-backing on my interview and the publicist explained in French that there had been a time conflict as well as his newspaper had a readership of one million. "Everything hunky-dory?" Bill pushed down the 'record' button. "Mind if we get right to it?" "Not at all." Rock lit a cigarette. He could have been a Marlboro Man in his youth. He dominated the flow of conversation and his course had an unmistakable destination. Rock ordered a bottle of crisp Meursault to accompany our Sole Meunière. I admired his styled skill of avoiding the hack's trapdoors, waiting for my chance to ask him about manners, since my article was delving into the question of who would be a better dinner guest; Rock Hudson or James Dean. "You spent a lot of time with James Dean on the set of GIANT." The Brit reporter was setting up our host. Rumors about his sexuality had been murmured from coast to coast in the gay community. Millions of them thought that he was one of them. "Not that much. He was getting into character, so he hated me. I knew it was Jett speaking instead of James, so I didn't let it bother me." "Did he have any women on the film?" Bill was angling to out Rock's sexuality. "You mean have sex? I didn't ask." Rock was no snitch and I respected him for his discretion about a long-dead star. Being different was not easy in America and even harder in Hollywood. "Some people say that he didn't have sex with a woman after that Italian actress dumped him for that Tony Bennett wanna-be Vic Damone." "I don't know anything about it and____"

Bill didn't let Rock finish his answer and asked Rock about Jim Nabors, "After all these years isn't it time you let the world know about you and Gomer Pyle?"

"Know what?" Rock had been fending off any allegations about his sexual leanings since before I was born and he ignored the question.

"That you and Jim were lovers. That you shared a place in Hawaii?" The reporter spat out his queries without losing a beat. His notebook was filled with them.

"I don't know what you're talking about?" Rock took a sip of white wine. This rumor had been bouncing around gay clubs for ages.

"C'mon, the young boys of our readership are dying to hear the truth."

"You mind leaving the man alone?" I wasn't gay, but I had danced with a few men at 1270 and my younger brother was gay.

"I'm just trying to write a story, so piss off." The thick-skinned reporter wanted to know who was king and queen in the Nabors-Hudson arrangement.

"More like tar and feather Mr. Hudson." I was more than ready to knuckle the reporter.

"Gentlemen, no fists or knives."Rock lifted his hands. He had beaten the pulp out of Robert Stack INHERIT THE WIND.

I brandished the silver knife in my hand.

"You can't threaten me like that." The reporter had seen the intent in my eyes.

"I'm not saying another word." I put down the knife.

"Faggots."

Randy shook his head. He had been brought up above the bar that his father owned on Sunset, but his old man had taught him about good manners.

"You say it with a smile." I was itching for a fight. It was my forte.

"Or else what?"

"Or else he'll break your nose." Randy had seen me fight more than once. I had a good left.

"You're joking."

"Not at all."

"Fuck you both." The reporter stood up and stormed out of the dining room.

"Don't worry about him. I've been dealing with his kind for years." Rock thanked me for my not making a scene and he ordered a brilliant Riesling to finish off our Atlantique Sole.

We spoke about his work with Douglas Sirk in WRITTEN ON THE WIND and his movies with Doris Day. He signaled the waiter for another wine. His publicist looked alarmed, but he patted her hand, "Darling, no one lives forever and I want to feel good. That's the true sign of a gentleman. The ability to make everyone feel comfortable."

I wrote down what he said for the lead into my article.

Lunch lasted an hour more than originally scheduled and after the publicist paid the bill, we walked out onto the terrace. The sun was strong and the wind of the sea was scented with seaweed. Rock lifted his head and then turned to me, motioning to Randy to stop taking photos. He looked like he need a nap.

"Off the record I'd like to say something about me and Jim," he whispered over my shoulder. "It's not true. Someone made a joke about us getting married and then it became the truth. Jim and I are friends. More more and nothing less."

"Thanks." I hadn't asked for this admission and shook his hand.

We parted into different worlds.

"Nice man." Randy shoot a final shot of his departure.

"My feelings exactly." The two of us returned to the hotel in the afternoon light.

Tomorrow we were meeting Russ Meyer, the director of FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL. I had seen the sexually charged film at the Neponset Drive-In and wanted to ask him about his influence of the fantasies of young boys.

That evening in my hotel room overlooking the Atlantic I wrote an article about Rock Hudson's manners and the pleasure of dining with him. I avoided any negative comments about James Dean. Dead man are better left dead.

The French magazine placed my Rock Hudson article in the next issue along with Randy's photos. The editors were happy with my writing, but I didn't receive another assignment. A London newspaper had reported on my behavior at lunch with Rock. I went back to the door of La Balajo and refrained from bad behavior. It wasn't easy in the Bastille.

Through the autumn of 1984 I spotted Rock Hudson at restaurants and galleries opening in Paris. He seemed to enjoy the City of Light. I was a good place for a gentleman to be no matter what his age.

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