Behind ‘Rock and Doris and Elizabeth’

17 Jun

Guest Blogger: Tracy-Ann Oberman

Tracy-Ann Oberman is an actor, playwright, columnist and broadcaster. Her many theatre credits include the RSC and Royal National Theatre as well as countless appearances in TV drama and comedy. She is widely recognised for murdering her on screen husband Dirty Den in Eastenders and fighting the Cybermen in Dr Who. She has appeared in over 600 BBC radio plays, sketch shows & comedies and has written two radio plays for BBC R4 ‘Bette and Joan and Baby Jane‘ and ‘Rock and Doris and Elizabeth‘. Both are available to download on AudioGO. 

The Liberace biopic tells how a famous Hollywood entertainer went to extraordinary lengths to conceal his sexuality. My play Rock and Doris and Elizabeth shines the light on another world famous performer who could not ‘be himself”.

Rock Hudson was the ultimate Hollywood leading man. Handsome, suave, romantic and macho, he embodied the Dreamboat Hunk. Rock fought tooth and nail to reinvent himself from his humble beginnings as Roy Harold Scherer to become the 1950’s number one box office icon “Rock Hudson” as created by his predatory and manipulative agent Henry Wilson. Wilson controlled every aspect of Rock’s life, including a fake marriage to his own unsuspecting secretary. Wilson kept Hudson’s sexuality out of the papers by trading scandals on other clients. Rock could have gone to his death bed without the public ever knowing his secret.

After the success of my first radio play “Bette and Joan and Baby Jane” (also available on AudioGO) BBC R4 asked me to look for another Hollywood story. I’d always been fascinated by beefcake Hudson and virginal Doris Day and their dominance as America’s Sweethearts. On screen theirs was a magical, wholesome marriage, behind the scenes he was an active homosexual in fear of being caught out, she was trapped in a third hideous marriage mentally and physically abused. Her relationship with her son Terry was complicated and co-dependent, and this also added a piquancy to her hidden history. I then wondered if I added Rock’s great friendship with the sensual Elizabeth Taylor, did I have a ménage à trois with Rock  caught between his pure on-screen “wife” Doris, and his accepting, sensual “mistress”, Elizabeth. But whenever I mentioned Rock to anyone the response has was always: “Rock Hudson. The one who died of Aids?”

I vividly remember that moment in 1985 when Hudson’s Aids “scandal” hit the headlines. But what I didn’t realise was how closely Doris herself was tied up with this event. And subsequently Elizabeth too. Rock had agreed to appear on Day’s anodyne, pet-care show Doris Day’s Best Friends for the Christian Broadcast Network.

In the 1980s, Doris had retreated from Hollywood to devote herself to caring for the hundreds of rescue animals that she kept on her ranch in Carmel, California. She was loathe to go back to showbiz but was persuaded by her son, Terry Melcher, who needed to revitalise his own flagging career, to host a programme about pets. It was thought that a weekly human guest would help and that Hudson would be the perfect person to boost the opening show. Even though they hadn’t seen each other for nearly a decade, Hudson didn’t hesitate to say yes.

Rock and Doris and Elizabeth

Frances Barber, Jonathan Hyde and Tracy-Ann Oberman as Doris,Rock and Elizabeth. c.IanJohnsonPublicity

The press turned up in their droves .When Rock arrived, gaunt, covered in sarcomas and visibly shaking, there was a collective gasp. This was not Rock Hudson. Press speculation went into overdrive. Cancer? Anorexia? Heart disease? What was it?

The play then crystallised itself for me. Why? Why did Hudson, weeks away from death, bother to come on this little cable show when he could have died quietly, away from the public glare, his sexuality and secrets intact? I imagined the  tussle  happening between Elizabeth Taylor – whom I could see calling Hudson, offering him the love and support to come out and give a face to Aids – and Day, whom I imagined desperately trying to keep him back in that closet.

I don’t know if Taylor ever made these phone calls to Hudson but I believe it’s credible that she might have done. My Doris loved her Rock for the glorious romance that they created on screen; her real life was unbearable. In my play she says to him: “You were the greatest love I never had.” Hudson knew that by coming on the show, he was sending a visual message that he was not the myth that Hollywood created.

And Rock’s Aids revelation gave Taylor her future meaning in life as the leading AIDS activist. Rock and Doris unwittingly changed the nature of Hollywood. If it was all truly one big lie then nothing could ever be taken at face value again.

Liberace went to his death bed fiercely guarding his secrets. As a writer and actor who always tries to find truth in characters, I applaud my hero Rock Hudson for having the courage, at the end, to reveal who he really was.

Tracy-Ann Oberman

Buy ‘Rock and Doris and Elizabeth‘ from AudioGO

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