ROCK STANDS TALL by Peter Nolan Smith

In August 1984 ACTUEL sent a Californian-born photographer and me to cover the Deauville Film Festival. This was my second journalism gig for the esoteric French magazine and I hoped that writing a good article might open the path to another profession than being a doorman at La Balajo. The Deauville Film Festival was not Cannes, however the organizers were honoring GIANT and I arranged an interview with Rock Hudson, whose performance opposite James Dean in the 1956 George Stevens’ epic tale of Texas oil had been nominated for an Oscar.

“Rock Hudson est tres passe,” commented the editor.

“He’s still a TV star in America.” The matinee idol was a star. “And I’ve seen plenty of French people watching DYNASTY, plus I’m basing the article on whether Rock Hudson or James Dean was a better dinner companion.

“James Dean was James Dean.” Randy came from Los Angeles.

“He died and left a good-looking corpse. That’s it,” sneered the editor, since there was nothing better for a Parisian than to criticize the dead. “Something tells me Mssr. Dean didn’t have good table manners.”

“Me too, but we’re going to Deauville to speak with the living about the dead.” James Dean had fallen out of my favor, although I wished he had been in EASY RIDER instead of Jack Nicholson.

“Allez, les gars.” The editor waved us from his office. He had a magazine to run.

Randy and I took the train to the Normandy beach resort and booked into a hotel in Trouville.

We were issued passes to all the films.

After the screening of GIANT at the beachside casino Rock Hudson recounted to the audience, “You know James Dean was a wonderful actor. He had studied method acting under the legendary Lee Strasberg and had the gift of touching the pain and joy deep inside him. Every scene in GIANT confronted Dean with this conflict and I was in awe of his struggle to reach his character Jett Rink. My drama school was Universal International, where I learned all the Hollywood skills; acting, singing, dancing, fencing, and horseback riding and that riding came in handy on more than one occasion in my career.”

His words were translated to the French audience and they laughed at his joke, but the handsome movie star went on to reveal doubts about his talent.

“I just showed up on set and recited my lines. George Stevens, the director, nodded and said fine after one take, but if it was a scene between me and Dean, then he would go into conference with Dean after each take. I couldn’t hear their conversation and I once went up to the director and asked, if I should do anything different like Dean. George repeated that I was doing fine and returned to Dean for what seemed like hours. I didn’t understand his difficulty. Acting to me was reading your lines and acting like you’re supposed to act, but what do I know? I’m just Rock Hudson. Thank you for going to my movies.”

The audience rose to their feet and applauded his graciousness.

Outside in the theater’s foyer I was introduced to Rock by his Paris publicist. The film star greeted Randy and me with a firm handshake. My friend mentioned his father’s bar in Hollywood. It was supposed to be a dive.

“I went there once.”

His blue oxford shirt helped his eyes shine with a fond memory.

“I had a good time, but it’s even better to hear Americans in France.” The movie actor gave us a huge smile. “There’s only so much French speaking I can take in one day. Do you speak French?”

“Sort of.” My Boston accent struggled with the Gallic rolling Rs.

“Then you can order lunch.” Rock was nearing 60, which was almost twice my age, but he was better looking than any man at the festival, including Ryan O’Neal, who was promoting a new film about divorce.

“Rock, a moment.” Randy stopped at the entrance to the Hotel Deauville and snapped several shots.

“You can shoot more after lunch.” Rock led us into the dining room.

The maitre de sat us by the window. Sunbathers stretched out on the broad strand. A man strolling on the balcony waved to Rock.

“Doesn’t look like Malibu,” I said sitting at the table, surprised to find a British tabloid reporter next me.

“I supposed nothing looks like Malibu.” The snarky reporter in his 40s was clinging to the polyester style of the 70s. His name was Bill. He placed a tape recorder on the table and smirked, “But then not all of us are movie stars, are we?”

“No, we’re not.” I was annoyed at his piggy-backing on my interview and the publicist explained in French that there had been a time conflict as well as his newspaper had a readership of one million.

Randy melted into the background.

“Everything hunky-dory?” Bill pushed down the ‘record’ button. “Mind if we get right to it?”

“Not at all.” Rock lit a cigarette. He could have been a Marlboro Man in his youth.

Bill dominated the flow of talk and his course had an unmistakable destination.

Rock ordered a bottle of crisp Meursault to accompany our Sole Meunière. I admired his styled skill of avoiding the hack’s trapdoors and waited for my chance to ask him about manners.

“You spent a lot of time with James Dean on the set of GIANT.” The Brit reporter was setting up our host. Rumors about his sexuality had been murmured from coast to coast in the gay community. Millions of them thought that he was one of them.

“Not that much. He was getting into character, so he hated me. I knew it was Jett speaking instead of James, so I didn’t let it bother me.”

“Did he have any women on the film?”

“You mean have sex? I didn’t ask.” Rock was no snitch and I respected his discretion about a long-dead star.

“Some people say that he didn’t have sex with a woman after that Italian actress dumped him for that Tony Bennett wanna-be Vic Damone.”

“I don’t know anything about it and____”

Bill didn’t let Rock finish his answer and asked Rock about Jim Nabors, “After all these years isn’t it time you let the world know about you and Gomer Pyle?”

“Know what?”

“That you and Jim were lovers. That you shared a place in Hawaii?” The reporter spat out his queries without losing a beat.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about?” Rock sipped his white wine. This rumor had been bouncing around gay clubs for ages.

“C’mon, the young boys of our readership are dying to hear the truth.”

“You mind leaving the man alone?” I wasn’t gay, but I had danced with a few men at 1270 and my younger brother was a queer.

“I’m just trying to write a story, so piss off.”

The thick-skinned reporter demanded to know who was king and queen in the Nabors-Hudson arrangement.

“More like tar and feather Mr. Hudson.” My mother had taught her children the importance of good etiquette, but sometimes good manners aren’t as useful as bad manners.

“What are you going to do about it?”

“Slice your nose.” I had loved the scene in CHINATOWN where Polanski cuts Nicholson.

I brandished the silver knife.

“You can’t threaten me like that.” The reporter recognized the intent in my eyes.

“Gentlemen, no fists or knives.” Rock lifted his hands.

“I’m not saying another word.” I put down the knife.

“Faggots.”

Randy shook his head

“You say it with a smile.” I was itching for a fight. It was my forte.

“Or else what?”

“Or else he’ll break your nose.” Randy had seen me fight more than once.

“You’re joking.”

“No, my friend has a really good left.”

“Fuck you both.” The reporter stormed out of the dining room.

“Sorry about that.”

“It’s not your fault. I’ve been dealing with his kind for years.” Rock thanked me and ordered a brilliant Riesling to complement the remainder of our Atlantique Sole.

We spoke about his work with Douglas Sirk in WRITTEN ON THE WIND and his movies with Doris Day. He signaled the waiter for another bottle of wine. His publicist looked alarmed, but he patted her hand, “Darling, no one lives forever and I want to feel good. That’s the true sign of a gentleman. The ability to make everyone feel comfortable.”

I wrote down what he said for the lead into my article.

Lunch lasted an hour more than scheduled and after the publicist paid the bill, we walked out onto the terrace. The sun was strong and the wind of the sea was scented with seaweed. Rock lifted his head and then turned to me, motioning to Randy to stop taking photos. He looked like he needed a nap.

“Off the record I’d like to say something about me and Jim,” he whispered over my shoulder. “It’s not true. Someone made a joke about us getting married and then it became the truth. Jim and I are friends. Nothing more and nothing less.”

“Thanks.” I hadn’t asked for this admission and shook his hand.

“Nice man.” Randy shot his departure. “So who wins? James Dean or Rock Hudson for dinner guest?”

“I loved the sole.”

That evening we met Russ Meyer, the director of FASTER PUSSYCAT KILL KILL. I had seen the sexually charged film at the Neponset Drive-In and asked him about his influence of the fantasies of young boys.

“I was a young man in Hollywood in the 50s. No one was doing what I was doing. I wasn’t even sure of what I was doing, but I liked women and there was no place better to like women than Hollywood.” The mustached director had hundreds of stories. He told a few of them.

“Did you ever meet Rock Hudson?”

“Old Rock. He was a good man.”

“My thoughts too.”

In my hotel room overlooking the Atlantic I wrote about Rock Hudson’s manners and the pleasure of dining with him.

I avoided any negative comments about James Dean.

Dead man are better left dead.

The French magazine placed my Rock Hudson article in the next issue accompanied by Randy’s photos.

The editor was happy with my writing, but I didn’t receive another assignment.

A London newspaper had reported on my behavior at lunch with Rock. They had complained about me and ACTUEL didn’t need any trouble from the UK.

I went back to the door of La Balajo and refrained from bad behavior.

Through the autumn of 1984 I spotted Rock Hudson at restaurants and galleries opening in Paris. He seemed to enjoy the City of Light. He waved once. Everyone looked at me. He seemed a little thin, but he was still the most handsome man in the room and Paris was a good place for a gentleman no matter what his age.

And it still is.

Foto by Randall Koral

Except for this one.

2 Comments

  1. samantha buck
    Posted May 24, 2014 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    That is an amazing story and reporting.. that why I love the man. I met him once and that s just the way he was..and the most handsome man around..

  2. Posted May 24, 2014 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    a true gentleman

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*