Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Eunice and Ernie

If you look at it from a certain angle, Rock Hudson came out at a press conference for Doris Day's TV show on the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Elizabeth Taylor's recent death and the resultant focus on her work to fund AIDS research, work which began near the time of--and was galvanized by--Hudson's death from the disease in 1985, has made me think about it, as has Day's recent birthday. Day has never involved herself in the politics of AIDS, but she was there at a crucial moment.

Just as people don't know what to make of Day in general--in the (wonderful) New York Times piece by Manohla Dargis about Elizabeth Taylor (which began with "the last movie star died Wednesday"), Dargis referred to Day in the #1 easy Day diss as a "professional virgin"--I have a sense that people don't always recognize Day's role in how AIDS walked up to the camera to be seen.

Day's personal politics (which I don't agree with, as far as I understand them) make it easier for people to cast her, as James Wolcott wrote in his amazing Vanity Fair article about the Day/Hudson pairing, as a "counterrevolutionary," but regardless, her friendship with and loyalty to Hudson, and his in return, meant that at a crucial moment in his life and a crucial changing point in modern American history, they stood together. That seems terribly important, looking back.

Day asked Hudson to be the first guest on her TV show. Hudson was ill, emaciated. No one knew what he "had," although there was much harsh speculation, and nobody knew Hudson was gay (although apparently everyone in Hollywood and the gay world knew). This man had been keeping secrets all his life, and instead of clutching them tighter, he suddenly, in a moment of grace, let them go in the most unlikely and public of places.

From the Wolcott piece:
In 1985, Hudson accepted an invitation to take part in the promotional launch of Doris Day’s Best Friends, an animal show she was doing for the Christian Broadcasting Network. A gesture of friendship, it proved to be a tragic folly. “Here was a man with only ten weeks to live,” note the authors of [Hudson biography] Idol, “a man who had successfully hidden the secret of his terrible disease for over a year, who had kept the secret of his homosexuality from the world for a lifetime--about to allow it all to disintegrate by appearing at a routine news conference to announce a minor cable-TV show.” The press conference took place in Carmel, California, at a lodge near Day’s home. A still-perky Day vamped as the reporters and film crews awaited Hudson’s arrival. He ran so late that some of the crews packed up their equipment and departed, while other reporters stayed behind in a state of extreme huff. “Their get-tough attitude soon changed. There was an audible, collective gasp--and then a hush--as Rock, his face a virtual death-mask, his body gaunt and hollow under baggy pants and jacket, was ushered into the room.” As stunned as everyone else, Day, barely missing a beat, embraced her former co-star.
Hudson filmed the show, although he was so weak they had to stop several times. Day asked him to stay in Carmel, with hopes of nursing him to health, but Hudson got on a plane to Paris for treatment, collapsing en route. It was while in Carmel that Hudson (according to the 2008 Day biography by David Kaufman) finally told his publicist he had AIDS. In Paris Hudson made the announcement of his illness.

In two months he was dead at the age of 59, and eleven days later the episode of Day's show with Hudson aired, with a tribute to Hudson (begins at 1:48):

There is something, looking back, about the way that Day was so physically affectionate and loving with Hudson that brings comfort to us watching, especially when Hudson seems so terribly vulnerable; to the public eye, from the harsh, speculative news reports--but also with Day. It's almost as if he was throwing himself on people's mercy as a result of a kind of blind loyalty to her. He wasn't there to come out, but that's what he did. It's heartbreaking to see now--maybe it was a folly--but also, strangely, sweet. He had to know how shocking people would find his appearance, although it's not easy to know how much he knew or cared at that moment, but he showed up for her, and the two of them went through with their goofy show-biz obligation like the troopers they were.

Day's version of the Gus Kahn song "My Buddy" that played during Hudson segment of her show ultimately became "something of a standard at AIDS memorials." And Day ends her tribute to Hudson with the words: "I know that something good is going to come from this experience." I honestly think (stay with me -- I'm not totally sure how to explain this) that there was something saintly in Hudson's death. Not that he ever should have died fighting so much prejudice or so desperate for treatment he couldn't get, or that he deserved anything that happened to him, or that there was anything noble about the lack of response to the AIDS epidemic. Every bit of that was wrong. I just--can't think of a public person who was as much of a pivot for so many larger ideas, who was so boxed in so hard by the extremes of circumstance and timing and cultural mores. He had the tiniest of ground to stand on, but it changed because he stood on it.

There are Callas people and Tebaldi people; Sarah Vaughan people and Ella Fitzgerald people; and, seemingly, Doris Day people and everybody else. People love to write her off, dismiss her as the meaningless, tasteless vanilla center of pop culture, but she was, and remains, a much more complicated person--and movie star--than that. I adored Elizabeth Taylor, even for some of the exact reasons that she was different than Day, but I love Doris Day too. Her role in this event in Hudson's life was accidental, ultimately--Hudson was the one risking so much, and it was his honesty and bravery that began transforming people's attitude toward the disease--but the way she handled it makes me love her. Looking back at the sometimes ghoulish footage from the event, made all the more so by the two principals perhaps not knowing what it all meant, what shines through more than 25 years later is their affection for each other.

("Eunice" and "Ernie" are what Day and Hudson, whose real names were Doris Kappelhoff and Roy Scherer, called each other.)


sbfren said...

Very nicely said.

Elizabeth M. Tamny said...

thank you!

Paul said...

I was there that day and "in person" it was even sweeter and more poignant and spoke volumes about the deep meaning of true friendship.