Film Review: Doc Talk at the 2023 Provincetown International Film Festival
By Peter Keough
Two documentaries at PIFF show how we got to where we are now.
True to its reputation of being on the edge — in spirit as well as geographically — the Provincetown International Film Festival (through June 18), now celebrating its 25th year, has consistently programmed documentaries that probe urgent, essential, and provocative topics. Here are two of them that take on cultural figures who, decades ago, provoked debates over issues of gender, sexuality, power, and freedom that are even more relevant and enlightening today.
In his Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed (2023; screens June 16 at 1:30 p.m. and June 18 at 11 a.m. at Art House), Stephen Kijak searches for the true identity of the Hollywood heartthrob who shocked the world — or at least that part of it easily gulled by hype and canny image-making — when he died of AIDS in 1985 at 59.
Born Ray Fitzgerald in Winnetka, Illinois, Hudson was a shy kid who headed to Hollywood to become a movie star. He found a savvy agent in Henry Willson, who gave him a new name and who, as he did with a number of clients, gay and straight, including Tab Hunter, Nick Adams, and Rory Calhoun, instructed him in how to assume the postwar image of a macho man (the process sounds kind of like Robin Williams teaching Nathan Lane how to walk like John Wayne in The Bird Cage).
After a series of films in which he was typecast as an action hero or a goofy comic foil, Hudson established himself as a legitimate actor and a matinee idol in Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955), and in George Stevens’s Giant (1956), for which he won a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Meanwhile, Hudson was living a secret (to everyone outside of Hollywood, that is) life as a gay man with robust appetites. Kijak interviews several of those in the know, friends, lovers and acquaintances, including Armistead Maupin, who couldn’t get it up in their sole engagement because he was too starstruck but remained an intimate and supporter until the end, and Joe Carberry who declined because “Rock had a sizable dick, but he tried to put that thing up my ass, and I couldn’t do it.” Then there are recollections from some of Hudson’s more significant relationships whose love endured decades though it never dared utter its name. The film illustrates the tension between the performer’s screen image and his true nature through frequent clips from Hudson’s movies that play like sometimes glib double entendres — a technique that Mark Rappaport used to much cheekier and more insightful effect in Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992).
Hudson maintained his hetero facade to the bitter end until, his health ravaged by AIDS, his publicists had no choice but to admit his illness. The reaction was at first nasty and hypocritical — many were horrified that he had kissed co-star Linda Evans in an episode of Dynasty. Evans herself was shunned by some who feared she had contracted the disease. But then there were others, such as Elizabeth Taylor, his co-star in Giant and a close friend, who were motivated to do something about the epidemic, which until then had been criminally neglected because it was deemed a disease that only gay people need worry about. Ironically, Hudson’s celebrity, maintained at the cost of his true identity, served to initiate a change in attitudes that would not likely have been the case had he just been Ray Fitzgerald, a naive gay guy from Winnetka.
In a sense, Shere Hite’s fate was the opposite of Rock Hudson’s: she never repressed her real identity and didn’t keep silent about what was wrong and unjust and pernicious about America’s sexual pathology and oppressiveness. However, as seen in Nicole Newnham’s illuminating and infuriating The Disappearance of Shere Hite (2022; screens June 17 at 9 p.m. at the Waters Edge), she paid for her courage and outspokenness with exile, silence, and obscurity. Whether her sacrifice resulted in meaningful, lasting change remains to be seen.
Hite, who died in 2020 at 77, first encountered systemic misogyny and the intransigence of class prejudice as a graduate student at Columbia University when she presented her master’s thesis to renowned historian Jacques Barzun. He dismissed it, saying that he didn’t believe she wrote it, or that the library of a plebeian, provincial school like the University of Florida where she got her degree would have the erudite books she referenced. Faced with such frustrations and with no source of income, Hite took the advice of those who said she should trade on her good looks and become a model. By posing for cover illustrations of pulp paperbacks (she was the model for two women draped over 007 in a no doubt now-collectible edition of Diamonds Are Forever) and similar work, she made enough to pay for her roach-infested basement apartment.
She was surviving but she felt she was wasting her life, which she believed should be dedicated to the cause of equality and improving the human condition. Among her modeling gigs was a commercial in which she portrayed an “Olivetti girl,” an especially demeaning female stereotype which implied that the typewriter had the brains the secretary lacked. The ad stirred up a protest from the National Organization for Women and, out of curiosity, Hite attended one of their meetings. There she found her calling and a community in which she felt at home and that inspired her.
Combining her feminism and academic background, her first project involved sending out thousands of questionnaires to women around the country asking them about sex. She found that few experienced an orgasm from intercourse but did so from clitoral stimulation and masturbation. Published in the best-selling The Hite Report: A National Study of Female Sexuality (1976), these findings confirmed the insights of the Master and Johnson’s study the decade before (though, succumbing to cultural pressure, they upheld the primacy of intercourse).
A controversial blockbuster, the book aroused male skepticism and discomfort as well as salacious reactions. This can be seen in an clip in which a reporter must interrupt the interview with Hite and tell the offscreen cameraman to stop snickering when Hite is talking about masturbation and “thrusting.” More subversive than the titillation of such details, however, was the implication that, in order for women to achieve sexual satisfaction, men were superfluous.
She met with more hostility after publishing The Hite Report on Men and Male Sexuality (1981), in which her thousands of questionnaires revealed that men in America suffered from loneliness, emotional suppression, and empty relationships — 70 percent of those responding said they had engaged in an adulterous affair within two years of getting married. In one of the increasingly dispiriting and abusive discussions in which Hite participates to promote her books (the one on Oprah with an all-male audience is a doozy), a male panelist who had himself been married for two years scoffs at such nonsense.
Though the books sold well, critics outnumbered supporters. They questioned the scientific validity of her research methodology, but what they really objected to was its underlying premise, which questioned traditional sexual mores, gender roles, and patriarchal authority. The backlash against feminism that began in the ’80s, compounded by the rise of the evangelical right, made it impossible for Hite to find an American publisher. She emigrated to Europe. Hite did not totally disappear — she looks radiant and indomitable in a clip of her appearance on the Stephen Colbert show in 2006 — but her legacy, like so many other progressive values, remains in doubt.
Another Arts Fuse review of The Disappearance of Shere Hite.
Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).