He was the blandest of superstars. Onscreen he was just a big, deep-voiced, good-looking guy who always got the girl because—well, because he was a big, deep-voiced, good-looking guy. In person, he was a friendly, considerate man with a graceful sense of humor and the good judgment to keep his private life private. In 37 years of celebrity nothing Rock Hudson said or did rattled a single chandelier. And then, 10 weeks before his death, he sent a shock around the world with three words: “I have AIDS.”
Hudson was the first public figure to admit he had been hit by the lethal virus, and his words released social avalanches that are still rolling strong. Until he spoke AIDS was a subject most people chose to avoid, a scary infection associated mainly with a controversial minority. Then all at once the disease was linked with someone everybody knew and accepted as practically a member of the family. Almost overnight, stimulated by massive media coverage, the U.S. came to a consensus: AIDS was a grave danger to the national health, and something had to be done about it—fast. Since Hudson made his announcement, more than $1.8 million in private contributions (more than double the amount collected in 1984) has been raised to support AIDS research and to care for AIDS victims (5,523 reported in 1985 alone). A few days after Hudson died, at 59, on Oct. 2, 1985, Congress set aside $221 million to develop a cure for AIDS.
In Hollywood, the most sybaritic of communities, Hudson’s death brought on a panic attack of puritanism. Casual sex, social kissing, circulating joints and even finger food were suddenly no-nos. Actresses agonized over the tongue-tangling kisses most love scenes currently require. Noting that the AIDS virus had been found in human saliva, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has warned against the exchange of saliva with members of high-risk groups. But many leading men in the movies and a startling number of those long-lashed lover-boys in the soap operas are known to be gay. What should an actress do? One wiseguy proposed tongue condoms, but nobody laughed.
Flooded with protests from its members, the Screen Actors Guild announced that open-mouthed kissing was “a possible health hazard” and informed producers that actors must be notified when they are hired if the role will require such an act. AFTRA told its members they have “the right to refuse contact with anyone they believe may have a communicable disease.” Charlton Heston stated categorically that “a member of a high-risk group has an obligation to refuse to do a kissing scene.” Hudson himself came under attack for having played a number of kissing scenes on Dynasty with his co-star Linda Evans long after his disease was diagnosed. Was a “gaycott” taking form? Fearing that they had become too hot to hire, many gay actors bought wedding rings and wore them to auditions.
As hysteria mounted, moviemakers came under pressure from actors to limit or eliminate intimate contact in love scenes. Many gay actors agreed. Chris Uszler, president of the Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Artists, proposed a return to the tight-lipped “dry kiss” ordained by the priggish Production Code during the ’30s. So far producers and studios have publicly refused to be stampeded by what one director called “the oral hygiene lobby.” Privately many admit they would face serious legal problems if an actress with AIDS could prove she had contracted the disease while playing a love scene. Until a cure for AIDS is discovered, the soul kiss, it would seem, is no longer a cost-effective means of arousing an audience, and by degrees it will probably be abandoned. Diversionary methods will be found, but the impetus for ever greater sexual explicitness in motion pictures appears to have been blunted.
Meanwhile, a more immediate legal issue has been generated by the Hudson tragedy. Hudson’s last lover, Marc Christian, recently sued his patron’s estate for $10 million. His claim: that Hudson had sex with him on many occasions during the last 13 months of his life but never admitted he had AIDS. Failure to disclose this fateful detail, says Christian’s attorney, Marvin Mitchelson, amounted to attempted murder. Whether or not Christian’s allegations are true, many legislators agree with Mitchelson’s argument that a new statute is needed to cover such situations. A Rock Hudson Law may soon be on the books.
Death, in short, has not been kind to the ex-postman from Winnetka, III. It has transformed him from the most reticent into the most famous of homosexuals. It has questioned his honor when he is no longer able to defend it. Finally, ironically, it may immortalize this romantic hero as the man who tainted that most ancient and tender expression of romantic love: the kiss.