Doris Day, Rock Hudson, and the Queering of the Romantic Comedy
Doris Day was one of the last living stars of the Hollywood studio system, a factory that manufactured celebrity and sold fantasy to America in the first half of the 20th century. The big studios plucked no-names from obscurity and gifted, and often cursed them, with a new name, a new life, and the adoration of millions.
Day (née Doris Von Kappelhoff) and Rock Hudson (née Roy Harold Scherer Jr.) were two of its most successful products, and together they helped define one of the most enduring (for better and for worse) cinematic genres, the romantic comedy.
Their first pairing, 1959's Pillow Talk, was an Oscar-winning, box office smash, and paved the way for two more outings, 1961's Lover Come Back and 1964's Send Me No Flowers. They presented a sanitized, yet exaggerated depiction of sex while still promoting female virtue—different rules applied to the men—and the sanctity of marriage. With some naughty (by post-war American standards) fun along the way.
But those movies, innocent as they may seem now, reinforced traditional gender roles while reflecting how they were changing, and in modern readings reveal a queer subtext made all the more ironic considering what was happening behind the scenes.
The Beefcake Learns to Laugh
(Original Caption) The magnificent Rock Hudson on horseback.
Until Pillow Talk, Rock Hudson was known mostly for big-budget melodramas from the master of the genre, Douglas Sirk, who placed Hudson in three of his best: 1954's Magnificent Obsession, 1955's All That Heaven Allows, and 1956's Written on the Wind.
Sirk made the best of this matinee idol writ large—6'5", devastatingly handsome with an overgrown Boy Scout charm, Hudson was born to play a leading man. But he had been playing that role for much of his life as a closeted homosexual.
The son of an auto mechanic father who abandoned his family during the Great Depression and an abusive mother, who in turn remarried an abusive second husband, Hudson left Winnetka, Illinois to join the Navy in 1943. After his service ended, he moved to Los Angeles, performing odd jobs to make ends meet with dreams of becoming an actor. Those dreams became reality when he sent his picture into famed talent scout and general sleazeball Henry Willson.
Willson cultivated a stable of beefcake pin-ups, whom he discovered and christened with names dripping with all-American desire: Tab Hunter, Guy Madison, Ty Hardin, Chad Everett, Troy Donahue. Named after the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson River, Rock Hudson became his prize stud.
Willson's homosexuality was such an open secret in Hollywood that many assumed his clients were also gay. Some of them, like Hudson and Hunter, were, but that didn't stop Willson from coercing his beefcakes, gay and straight, into sexual relationships to advance their careers.
The casting couch was routine for many an aspiring starlet, but for their male counterparts, revelation of homosexual dalliances would prove career-ending. That's where the studio star system came in especially handy—burying stories, bribing gossip columnists, bailing stars out of jail. Before Twitter and Instagram, celebrities were getting away with murder—literally and figuratively.
So Hudson was especially guarded. And especially insecure. He had garnered his first and only Academy Award nomination for 1956's Giant, where he had clashed with James Dean. Rumor had it Dean (who was probably bisexual) had turned down a pass from Hudson, but Dean, a student of Method Acting, and Hudson, Hollywood golden boy, reportedly didn't respect each other's approach to acting.
Both Hudson and director George Stevens resented Dean's style and on-set behavior, though Stevens begrudgingly admired Dean's talent. Maybe, then, Hudson's resentment was in part fueled by jealousy and insecurity of his own abilities.
From left, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean in Giant
Dean and Hudson's Giant co-star Elizabeth Taylor befriended them both and proved loyal to Hudson through his AIDS diagnosis and death years later, as did Day. Like with Taylor, Hudson struck up a fast and easy friendship with Day on the set of Pillow Talk.
He initially didn't want to take the role, not sure that comedy was his thing, but Day, director Michael Gordon, and producer Ross Hunter convinced him to give it a shot. Gordon extolled to him the most important comedic rule: "Comedy is no laughing matter"—you have to play it seriously.
Once filming began, Hudson just took notes from Day, an experienced comedic actor in her own right. Of his co-star he said, "Her sense of timing, her instincts—I just kept my eyes open and copied her."
Private Lives and Alter Egos
He was smart to follow her lead, as Pillow Talk gave Day her first and only Oscar nomination. And Hudson, for his part, proves a natural comedic leading man, delivering one of his best performances.
Both Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back have similar storylines. Doris Day is a plucky career girl. Rock Hudson is a nogoodnik playboy. They hate each other. He pretends to be someone else to woo her. They end up getting married and living happily ever after despite a series of deceptions that would make trusting someone in dating let alone marriage next to impossible in real life. But that's the essence of the rom-com: love conquering all when it really shouldn't.
In Pillow Talk, Doris Day is New York interior decorator Jan Morrow. She's an independent woman equally fond of a skirt-suit and not messing around with fuckboys. Enter noted fuckboy Brad Allen, a songwriter with a bachelor pad that's itching to get slapped with a sexual harassment lawsuit.
Jan and Brad share a party line—that is, a shared service telephone line, which were cheaper and often more readily available than a private line back in the day. They've never met but she's hip to all his tricks, having unintentionally heard them over the telephone. Tony Randall plays third wheel Jonathan Forbes, a meek millionaire in love with Jan who tries to leverage their working relationship into a romantic one. Jonathan is also, conveniently, Brad's best friend. This, however, doesn't stop Brad from pursuing Jan—but how's he going to get this bad bitch to fall for his shenanigans? Why, more shenanigans, of course.
One night at a club, Jan is being manhandled by a tipsy Harvard undergrad and Brad steps in to save her—that's probably the least problematic point of this movie—pretending to be a sensitive Texan tourist named Rex Stetson. Brad, as Rex, plays against type; instead of being suave and sophisticated, he's shy and folksy; instead of slipping his way into Jan's skirt-suit, he plays coy and innocent. Jan is impressed by Rex's gentlemanly composure. He doesn't make any moves on her—which soon becomes a problem.
Brad, as Brad, goads Jan into thinking that "Rex" lacks passion because he is one of those men who is "very devoted" to his mother; "the type who likes to collect cooking recipes, or exchange bits of gossip." Of course you couldn't say "gay" in 1959 if you didn't mean "happy," but audiences caught Brad's drift, particularly when "Rex" plays into the stereotypes.
So here we have a gay man, playing a straight man, pretending to be a gay man—it's like a meta queer turducken.
Lover Come Back recycles that charade, with an added soupçon of queer-baiting. Day is Carol Templeton, a no-nonsense ad woman equally fond of a statement cape and not fucking with scrubs. Enter scrub Jerry Webster, a boozy playboy at a rival agency who makes Don Draper look like a Gregorian monk. Tony Randall is along for the ride again, this time stealing the show as Pete Ramsay, a neurotic millionaire and Jerry's best friend.
Pete, however, has no interest in Carol; if anyone, Pete's in love with Jerry, but in a very bro-y way. They spend two weeks alone in a cabin growing beards. It's that kind of love: Pure, hirsute, and in a canoe.
When Carol reports Jerry to the Ad Council for his untoward methods for securing clients—lots of booze, booty, and boobs—the shenanigans really kick into high gear. Jerry had promised one of his showgirl client-trappers a big campaign and to deter her from defecting to Carol's side and testifying against him to the Ad Council, he shoots a series of commercials with no intent to use them.
Pete, however, has been trying to be more assertive and make a decision for once in his life, so mistaking the commercials for an actual ad campaign, he releases them—only thing is, there's no product. Jerry then employs the help of a kooky chemist to make said product, "Vip," only for Carol to mistake Jerry for the chemist.
Confused? Of course you are. In love nothing makes sense. But once again, Jerry's alter ego, Dr. Linus Tyler, is another virginal innocent, leaving it up to Carol to do all the seducing. She, however, doesn't mistake him for being gay—this time around she's got a gay stock character of her own: Leonard, an ad man with a lilac kitchen floor.
Aside from Leonard and Pete, Jerry bears the brunt of the queer bait. In a truly bizarre running gag, Jerry ducks into an obstetrician's office to avoid running into Carol and is mistaken for the world's first pregnant man. And in yet another knowing nod to Rock Hudson's sexuality, Jerry has to sneak into his hotel wearing a mink coat.
The entire film, Jerry's womanizing ways have been observed by a pair of envious out-of-towners who lament his gift with the fairer sex. But when they see him in that mink, clutching it closed with sincere modesty, the other gay shoe finally drops.
As a top box office draw and quintessential leading man, Rock Hudson, too, was the last guy in the world many would've figured was gay, but the truth found its way out of the closet some 20 years later.
The Final Act
Doris Day and Rock Hudson did one more rom-com together after Lover Come Back, 1964's Send Me No Flowers, generally considered the weakest of their trilogy. They would continue to make romantic comedies with other stars, with Day putting in an unhappy five years on her own sitcom. Retiring in 1973, she devoted most of her time to animal activism.
Hudson also found renewed productivity on television with the police procedural McMillan & Wife from 1971 to 1977. During this time, Hudson became a fixture on the gay cruising scene. According to Patrick Gale's biography of Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin (via a 2000 Vanity Fair article by James Wolcott), Hudson was spotted in a San Francisco leather bar wearing an alpaca sweater:
... “looking like a tourist from the Midwest.” During a make-out session with Rock, Maupin was amazed when Hudson pulled out a popper case initialed R.H. “He had a personalized Rock Hudson popper case! And I completely lost my hard-on.”
Hudson did his best to remain publicly closeted, but that became more difficult after he was diagnosed with HIV in 1984. A recurring appearance on Dynasty, the 80s soap behemoth that specialized in the kind of melodrama that had shot Hudson to stardom, raised concern and rumors about his health. His physical deterioration and troubled speech belied his 59 years.
In 1985, Hudson agreed to appear with Day on her new animal TV show, Doris Day's Best Friends, on the cable channel, Christian Broadcasting Network. He was late to the press conference announcing their collaboration, and when he did arrive, his gaunt appearance shocked the journalists in attendance, and Day herself.
“I hardly knew him,” Day told People in 2015. “He was very sick. But I just brushed that off and I came out and put my arms around him and said ‘Am I glad to see you.'”
Rock Hudson died just 10 weeks later.
“They had a small plane to get him to the airport,” Day said of their final moments together. “We kissed goodbye and he gave me a big hug and he held onto me. I was in tears. That was the last time I saw him—but he’s in heaven now.”
Doris Day died on May 13, 2019 at 97, but films like Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back will keep her legacy alive. And I can't recommend them enough—sure, they're problematic AF and offer a reductive view on gender and coupling, but they're also just great fun to watch. Day sings a bunch of songs in them and the chemistry between her and Rock Hudson is a delight—as is Tony Randall.
For a more knowing and modern take on the Day-Hudson romantic comedy, check out the equally delightful Down with Love starring Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor with great supporting work from Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce taking up the Randall mantle.