Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms has always been one of my favorite novels. I’ve read it 9 times, twice on a Greyhound bus going across country from New York to Seattle. I’ve listened to two different audio book versions, twice. I’ve see the film made in 1932 with Adolph Menjou and Gary Cooper. I can quote long passages from the text from memory, especially the last 100 pages, which might be the greatest sustained, poetic narrative in American fiction.
Until I saw the “faux autobiography” Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, it never occurred to me that A Farewell to Arms had a gay subtext. Now that I’ve watched Mark Rappaport’s analysis of the 1957 film, which starred Rock Hudson as Lieutenant Henry, and Vittorio De Sica as Major Rinaldi, it seems obvious, almost as inevitable as the ending of a great mystery novel. Of course Rinaldi was nursing a homosexual crush on Lieutenant Henry. Of course their frat boy banter had a gay subtext. How could I have been so blind?
There are two explanations. The first one is that I’m a moron. While that’s certainly reasonable, and I’ve been called a moron many times over the course of my life, I think Mark Rappaport hits on a better one. Americans, especially straight American men, have taught themselves not to see the obvious. Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, which stars Eric Farr, who, not incidentally, looks nothing like Rock Hudson, puts us squarely into the mind of a closeted gay man. We see the world as Rock Hudson, or any pre-Stonewall gay man, would have seen it. We examine Hudson’s films, the interaction between Hudson and his co-stars, looking for subtle clues that there might be something going on beneath the surface, learning the signals that closeted gay men used to send each other to indicate they were part of the same club.
Some actors, and their characters, are more deeply buried in the closet than others.
Even as a child, for example, I knew that there was a gay subtext to most of Tony Randall’s performances. That Randall himself was straight takes nothing away from the idea that the classic TV show The Odd Couple was about a gay couple. Looking at Rappaport’s fictionalized Rock Hudson go over one after another of his films with Randall as his co-star is an education about how gay men were represented on TV, and in the movies.
Then there were Hudson’s performances opposite more stereotypically “manly” actors.
It never would have occurred to me that Hudson probably saw the 1969 film The Undefeated as an opportunity to hit on, and simultaneously mock, the cartoonishly heterosexual John Wayne. Rappaport is such a close observer of Hudson’s films, the body language between their characters, the glances held just a bit too long, the double entendres, that he makes the buried subtext obvious. He lets us in on the jokes that Hudson played on his audiences, even as he hated himself for not coming out of the closet until the very end.
If it only stopped there, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies would be film criticism, not art. I think it goes further. I don’t know if the narration that Rappaport gives Eric Farr is based on anything Hudson actually wrote, or if it’s purely fictional. The effect, however, is to seduce the viewer, not only into looking for clues closeted gay men used to send one another, but into seeing the world as a gay man. The young Rock Hudson was so ridiculously good-looking, Rappaport’s film almost makes me sorry that I’m straight. No woman could have had that kind of godlike physical beauty, certainly not any of Hudson’s female co-stars.
Most importantly, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies conjures up the innocence of boyhood. Listening to Hudson talk about his early gay crush on the actor Jon Hall in the 1937 film The Hurricane, his initial motivation to become an actor, and then recount his disillusionment as Hall loses the beauty of his youth in his later films, is heartbreaking. What would we all be like, both gay and straight, if society didn’t warp us, didn’t make us feel ashamed of our sexuality at such an early age?