Rock Hudson: Dark and Handsome Stranger -- Film Review

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BERLIN -- It should be impossible to make a dull film about Rock Hudson, the 1950s beefcake star who decades later became AIDS' first high-profile victim, thus revealing his promiscuous but carefully concealed homosexuality. But "Rock Hudson: Dark and Handsome Stranger" comes pretty darn close.

It's a slapdash surface-skim through selected chapters of a unique career, never getting to grips with Hudson's complex psychology or cultural relevance. A cheap-looking TV project whose deficiencies are all too evident on the big screen, this opportunistic enterprise -- arriving 25 years after Hudson's sensational demise -- will find festival play based on his enduring fame/notoriety. In terms of quality, however, it's much more "tarnished" than "magnificent."

Anyone seeking a balanced, informative overview of Hudson's life, achievements and deceptions should look elsewhere. Writer-directors Andrew Davies and Andre Schafer deliver minimal biographical info -- they don't even mention Hudson's birth name (LeRoy Scherer), instead giving only Hudson's pre-Hollywood moniker (Roy Fitzgerald). There's no reference to his high-profile spell on mega-hit soap "Dynasty," and seminal collaborations with melodrama-auteur Douglas Sirk get only fleeting acknowledgement: a minute or two on weepy "Magnificent Obsession"; a token name-check of classics "Written on the Wind," and "All That Heaven Allows"; and zip on "The Tarnished Angels" (regarded by many as Hudson's finest hour).

Davies and Schafer are much more interested in the gossipy, salacious side of things. But while we hear again and again (and again) about Hudson's "double life," many crucial details of that life -- including his eventful, stormy relationships with long-term lovers Marc Christian and Tom Clark -- are left discreetly unexplored.

Seeking testimony from a small number of commentators and associates -- some much better value than others (one of them bafflingly describes Hudson as "the George Washington of the AIDS epidemic") -- the directors give a patchy survey of Hudson's onscreen and offscreen escapades, the former's impact severely hamstrung by the cost-cutting use of clips from trailers rather than from the films themselves. The directors do excerpt a couple of illuminating archival interviews with Hudson but pad out the footage with blurry, repetitive, pointless images of California surfers and Hollywood boulevards.

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Minor, distracting flubs of factual detail (someone refers to a Life magazine article that actually appeared in Look; a film's title is given as "The Mirror Cracked" rather than "Crack'd") and editing are less troubling than the near-incessant blaring lounge-muzak that comprises Ritchie Staringer's score. Another low-point is an interview with giggling actress Salome Jens, Hudson's co-star in 1966 sci-fi thriller "Seconds" -- as grating here as she was in that overambitious flop.

A sloppily structured chronological and thematic jumble, the oddly titled "Rock Hudson: Dark and Handsome Stranger" (at 6'5" Hudson was as tall as he was dark and handsome) feels thrown together with minimum planning. What to make of a bio-doc in which the subject's death is relayed as an almost parenthetical aside -- first mentioned during a supposedly hilarious story involving the removal of his corpse ("It's the worst day, and it's the funniest day")?

Among Hudson's many hits was the 1964 Doris Day comedy "Send Me No Flowers": Davies and Schafer likewise deserve more brickbats than bouquets.
 
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival
Production company: Florianfilm, Cologne, Germany
Directors: Andrew Davies and Andre Schafer
Screenwriters: Andrew Davies and Andre Schafer.
Producers: Rieke Brendel, Anna Steuber, Heike Lettau, Cecile Thomas
Director of photography: Tom Kaiser
Music: Ritchie Staringer
Editor: Martin Schomers
Sales: SND, Amsterdam
No rating, 96 minutes
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