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Old Hollywood's gay Pygmalion

Tale of agent for Hudson both uneven and engaging

The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson
By Robert Hofler
Carroll & Graf, 480 pp., illustrated, $26

Time and again during his Hollywood heyday, Rock Hudson was threatened with exposure. Despite his carefully nurtured public image, everyone in town knew Hudson was gay, and every now and then a former lover, a scandal-mongering publisher, or a blackmail artist came close to telling the rest of the world.

Henry Willson always saved the day. Hudson's agent would keep his biggest star's secret even if doing so required throwing another client or two to the wolves or paying hired muscle to rough somebody up. To quash speculation about Hudson's extended bachelorhood, Willson even got his beautiful young secretary to marry his top-grossing heartthrob. It wasn't until the 1980s, when Hudson was dying of AIDS, that the public at large learned that the quintessentially handsome star was gay.

By then Willson was gone, but not before leaving his greasy thumbprints all over the history of American cinema. As Robert Hofler tells us in his dishy book, ''The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson," Willson not only discovered Hudson but also created him, reinventing the former sailor and delivery-truck driver known as Roy Fitzgerald into the matinee idol of millions. With his unerring sense of what women wanted in a screen idol, Willson created a whole genre of bankable cinematic hunks, all of whom he gave equally generic names. These included Tab Hunter, John Saxon, Clint Walker, Rory Calhoun, and Chad Everett, as well as such lesser lights as Trax Colton, Chance Gentry, and Cal Bolder. Willson actually tried the name Troy Donahue on three guys (the third time was the charm).

Willson could spot talent in women as well -- his clients at times included Natalie Wood and Lana Turner, and in his youth he excelled at procuring attractive young actresses for his womanizing boss, producer David O. Selznick -- but his stock in trade was men, and all Hollywood knew it. From the 1930s right up through the '50s, Willson's office brings to mind the title of the 1960 spring-break classic, ''Where the Boys Are."

The difference was that the film was so much more innocent. According to Hofler, if you wanted Willson to make you a star -- and legions of young men did -- chances were that you had to provide sex. Even in Willson's overweight, alcoholic later years, his appetite for handsome young men was legendary, and countless aspirants, well aware of the seemingly talentless pretty boys who had blossomed under Willson's touch, submitted to his advances. Many, of course, found that it got them nowhere, although one of these discards, who later became a Beverly Hills cop, got his revenge one night when the drunken driver he pulled over turned out to be none other than Willson himself.

Like its simultaneously odious and engaging subject, ''The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson" is bloated, disheveled, oddly lacking in perspective, and altogether fascinating, if only for the remorseless accretion of detail with which the author brings alive a time too many of us are too eager to sentimentalize. Readers of this newspaper, who mostly live in a state that has extended the right of legal matrimony to gay men and lesbians, may find it useful to be reminded what the world was like for homosexuals in the middle of the 20th century, particularly for homosexuals who were famous for being attractive to women.

Willson, for instance, had an iron rule for his clients: No matter how much gay sex they had, cohabitation was out. Willson's policy was simple pragmatism. While Cary Grant and Randolph Scott lived openly together for a while in an arrangement portrayed publicly as bachelors sharing a pad, public sentiment and Hollywood policy soon turned against any hint of same-sex relations, and in 1934 the two separated and Grant got married. Although Hofler doesn't dwell on it, there was also the question of whether, even in a world more accepting of homosexuals, ticket buyers could stand the illusion-shattering experience of knowing some of the handsomest men in Hollywood had more chemistry with one another than with Audrey Hepburn or Doris Day.

On the other hand, the author doesn't fail to put Willson and his ways in Hollywood perspective. The casting couch was a well-established springboard for women wanting film roles, and Willson's version had the same function even if his preferences were different. He was, in other words, just part of the same oppressive sexual order. Willson's rise and fall also reflect the changing business, and legal and social landscape, in which he operated. Although the breakup of the studio system benefited agents like Willson, he couldn't keep up when the world changed and suddenly movie audiences preferred short ethnic guys like Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman to the homogenized Stepford hunks he was so expert at promoting. Even hunks grew wary; people knew about Willson and assumed male clients slept with him even if they hadn't. Of course, not all did, and few who did admitted it.

Willson's end certainly casts no doubt on the cliche ''the bigger they are, the harder they fall." When Hudson finally left him, Hollywood's gay Pygmalion went to pieces. After a hospital stay and shock treatments, he saw his agency fall apart and his free-spending ways bankrupt him financially as well as emotionally. When the end came -- in 1978, from cirrhosis -- he had been living on an allowance of a dollar a day as a charity case at the motion picture rest home in the San Fernando Valley. In death he was laid out in a Styrofoam casket with a nylon lining. Willson was just 67.

He was buried in a cemetery known as Valhalla, but in a twist worthy of Billy Wilder, Willson's final poverty was such that there was no money for a headstone, and so the man who gave names to so many was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.

Daniel Akst is the author of the novels ''The Webster Chronicle" and ''St. Burl's Obituary."

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