Playing Rock Hudson

Director Cameron Lukey
(Photographer: Pia Johnson)

From mid-November to early December this year, seasoned performer Cameron Lukey will be in the wings of Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre for his directorial debut, Playing Rock Hudson. Originally from Perth, and having grown up in Sydney, Lukey relocated to Melbourne to study at the Victorian College of the Arts. He began writing scripts for short films at age 11, before forging a career as a singer with Opera Australia, Oz Opera and a number of other companies. Last year, Lukey returned to a lingering ambition to write and direct his first full length play. Lukey was initially drawn to the story of Hollywood screen legend Rock Hudson during high school, whilst reading about the drama surrounding the actor’s death. The aspiring scriptwriter knew Hudson’s life would make a compelling film or play, but to do it justice, conceded that the research required would be overwhelming. So, the idea was shelved for ten years. “I got caught up in the idea of a life lived in secret,” says Lukey. “I developed my own idea of Rock and became quite attached to that, and I think that’s why I’ve seen it through. Yes it’s an interesting story, but beyond that, it’s about a real person who lived an incredible life. In the end, it’s all about image. It’s about how we construct an idea of a person, and how far removed that is from reality. We do it now, we do it all the time in the way that media personalities are portrayed. I think this play looks at the truth behind that.”

Playing Rock Hudson began as a one-off reading at the Midsumma Festival’s Playing in the Raw series, held at Chapel off Chapel last February. This time around, Lukey has enriched the production with genuine news footage and photographs surrounding Hudson’s death and its aftermath. Being careful to remain as unbiased and factual as possible, Lukey prepared a script that presents a historically-accurate story, without intention to modernise. The production blends courtroom drama with biography, exploring both the creation of an image and its subsequent destruction. Rock Hudson passed away in 1985, a year after being diagnosed with an AIDS defining illness, and was one of the earliest public figures to die during the AIDS epidemic. Hudson’s death inspired a Hollywood movement to support awareness of HIV and AIDS led by close friend Elizabeth Taylor. As Lukey describes, Hollywood was “its own little world, and when one of their own went down, they all stepped up to the plate.” Several days after Hudson’s death, the US Congress announced millions of dollars in funding for an AIDS cure, whilst a legion of celebrities got on board to show their support in tackling HIV. Three years later, however, Hudson’s former partner Marc Christian sued the late actor’s estate and personal secretary on the grounds of reckless endangerment. Though Christian never tested HIV-positive, he claimed that Hudson had put his life at risk by not disclosing the true nature of his illness for the last year of their relationship. Their lawsuit sparked a contentious debate over legal obligation and moral responsibility in relation to HIV disclosure. Part of Christian’s case was based on the fear that none of the HIV tests he received could be guaranteed to return a one hundred percent accurate negative result, based on an argument that the virus may be lying dormant for several years.

Bart Walsh as Hudson with Shane Savage as Christian
(Photographer: Pia Johnson)

Through assigning several actors to play multiple characters each, Playing Rock Hudson illuminates the court case in which intimate details of Hudson’s personal life were dredged up into the public spotlight. Lukey finds that the discrepancies in the cases of both sides make the story particularly riveting: “I don’t think either side was telling the truth. None of it adds up, that’s why I love it. That’s why it’s so intriguing!” For example, according to Lukey, during the time Hudson’s estate claimed the actor and Christian were no longer in contact, the pair attended the Academy Awards together. With this balance in mind, Lukey chose a particularly fitting title for a play about a court case; one that recognises two opposing sides. “Playing Rock Hudson is a double-edged sword,” explains Lukey. “The name Rock was given to him, and it became a part that he played. In a sense, I kind of thought of it as Roy Fitzgerald playing Rock Hudson. But then on the other hand I also thought of it as Marc Christian playing Rock Hudson for all that he was worth. I like the fact that it has meaning on both sides.”

A particularly significant, influential and iconic role of Hudson’s career was in fact played off the silver screen. It was his role in gay history. “Back in 1985 when his story came out, there was no one else,” says Lukey. “He really put a face to the gay movement and the AIDS epidemic that was so needed. If there’s a silver lining to his tragedy, and it’s an awful thing to say, his ‘outing’ was an enormous step forward.” Hollywood has traditionally portrayed gay men in a “very stereotypical, sexless kind of way,” explains Lukey. “They’re not sexual identities, they’re guys who an audience would never imagine having sex, so there’s no threat. They’re just Nancys.”  A reevaluation of programmed understandings on sexuality, according to Lukey, started in the minds of Hudson’s core fans (who he likens to a “50s housewife stereotype”), and then filtered through into a broader societal consciousness. Lukey hopes his play will remind people that Hudson was a turning point in the history of the gay movement, something that is ongoing – “as far as we’ve come, there is still a real issue in coming out in certain professions.” Lukey says the influence that this largely female fan base had was profound. “You convert their way of thinking, and what kind of an influence does that then have on their children, and their husbands and their friends? You get to the mother of the house, you get to that role, and the power in that is enormous.”

When it comes to raising awareness of HIV, and in turn its associated misconceptions, stereotypes and stigmas, Lukey is confident Hudson’s story challenged the thinking of many. “Only certain kinds of men were gay, and only gay men got AIDS,” says Lukey. “So for men like Rock Hudson it didn’t happen. Men like Rock Hudson weren’t gay. And so that challenged people’s idea of ‘it could be my neighbour, it could be my son’.” While experiences of HIV are by no means limited to the gay community, Hudson’s life story caused people to question their preconceived notions of sexual identity and their ideas attached to HIV. “First and foremost it opened people’s eyes to sexuality, to the stigma, clichés and stereotypes attached to it. By doing that, it inadvertently opened their eyes to the stigma attached to HIV,” says Lukey.

When Hudson’s diagnosis was made public, it was announced that he contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. Whilst acknowledging that the way Hudson was exposed to the virus will never be known, Lukey considers this announcement a strategy, which was a product of the time in which Hudson lived, used to mitigate both the gay rumours and the stigma connected to being HIV-positive. It was, according to Lukey, a “way of making him seem like the victim”, something Lukey feels is sad. “If Rock had contracted HIV through having sex, why does that make him any less a victim? Why is he then a villain for having unprotected sex at a time when people did. There was no reason not to have unprotected sex!” In Hudson’s time, Lukey explains, there wasn’t the level of education that exists now in regards to safer sexual practices. “Before HIV, before AIDS, guys were just thinking along the lines of ‘well, I can’t impregnate this guy, so screw it! What does it matter?’”

In writing his play, Lukey began to think about HIV-related stigma, something audiences in turn are inspired to reflect on. “I started thinking about what it would be like to have to ‘come out’ as HIV-positive every time you meet someone,” says Lukey. “For the rest of your life, or until there is a cure, you will always have to have that conversation with people, and take that risk that they will walk away. You could fall in love, and say to this person “oh, but I’m HIV-positive’, and then it’s over. For some reason, that had never really occurred to me until writing this play, and just speaking to people.” The stigma associated with being HIV positive during the 1980s is something Lukey still thinks has relevance, and is therefore something to be addressed. Playing Rock Hudson sheds light on the way a positive status has historically affected the way people have been viewed, and in turn encourages audiences to consider experiences of stigma today.

In addition to providing food for thought, Lukey is confident Playing Rock Hudson will offer audiences a compelling story. However, entertainment value aside, he hopes his play will pay homage to the stories of people whose lives touched many. “Hopefully,” says Lukey, “it’s a tribute to an era and a person who meant a lot to a lot of people, Elizabeth as well, not just Rock.” Lukey has completed comprehensive research to ensure Playing Rock Hudson has been kept authentic and historically accurate. By translating this hard work into a dramatic production, Lukey will share an important story with audiences regardless of their familiarity with the Hollywood legend. “I think most people in the audience, no matter how much they know about that time, and about these people, will walk away with some new information, and having learnt something,” says Lukey.

Playing Rock Hudson is set to be a gripping, informative and entertaining dramatic performance for a diverse audience. An understanding of the past, to better appreciate today is something Lukey hopes his production will provide. “I hope it will be moving. I hope it will be thought-provoking, and I hope it will be gratifying to think ‘things have changed.’”

Performances of Playing Rock Hudson will be held at the Malthouse Theatre, Tower Theatre space, from 21 November to 4 December, 2013. For booking information, visit playingrockhudson.wordpress.com/ or phone 03 9685 5111.

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