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New book pulls
back veil on 1950s gay Hollywood

New book pulls
back veil on 1950s gay Hollywood

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 1950s. "It is not allowed. You'll ruin it all if you live with this other man."

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 Mocambo, was far more rigid and closeted. It was hardly straitlaced, 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, hypermasculine stars who appealed to the bobby-soxers who drove the box office.

He also became a controversial figure. When the gossip magazine Confidential threatened to expose Hudson, Willson fended off the scandal, possibly working through intermediaries, by feeding the magazine information about Rory Calhoun's criminal record and Hunter's attendance at an all-male "pajama party." 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 "fiance." 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. (Gregg Kilday, via Reuters)

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