mercredi 7 novembre 2012

The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson

His business card read: "If you're interested in getting into the movies, I can help you. Henry Willson. Agent." And he could. He steered actresses through Hollywood's career hoops, like Lana Turner, Rhonda Fleming, and Gena Rowlands, but Willson earned his sobriquet of "fairy godfather of Hollywood" through his single-minded focus on newly arrived young hunks on the Sunset Strip, with whispered enticements like, "You could be a star... You're better looking than any movie actor here." Moving closer, to advance the intimacy, he would confide: "You are a star. Now it's up to me to let Hollywood know." What red-blooded college quarterback or figure skater or sailor on leave could resist such a pitch? Willson was for a time one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood. He rechristened handsome, strapping young men, with some preposterously butch moniker. Few exemples ? When he came out of the navy in 1946, Roy Scherer was taken up by talent scout Henry Willson and offered to David Selznick. Selznick saw only a truck-driver hunk with the unlikely new name of Rock Hudson (1925-1985) - a combination of the Rock of Gibraltar and Hudson River.

Arthur Andrew Kelm joined the Coast Guard at the age of fifteen by lying about his age. After his service, the extraordinarily handsome found an agent who "tabbed" him to be an actor, and changed his name to Tab Hunter (b. 1931) when he signed a contract with Warner Brothers Studios. Ex-telephone lineman Robert Moseley became Guy Madison (1922-1996). He was serving his country in the Navy at the time he made his screen debut as an extra, and inspired a journalist to coin the term "beefcake". Born Merle Johnson Jr., Troy Donahue (1936-2001) was initially a journalism student at Columbia University. Willson saw Carmine Orrico 's picture on the cover of a detective magazine and immediately contacted the 16-year-old boy's family in Brooklyn, bringing him to Hollywood and renamed him John Saxon (b. 1936). Francis Durgin (he was born McGown but used the name of his stepfather when his mother remarried) was discovered at a party; christened in Rory Calhoun (1922-1999), he made his first appearance in the film capital as Lana Turner's escort to the premiere of Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945). Willson even renamed a pair of twins, discovered when they were still children by Loretta Young, Dirk (1941-1967) and Dack Rambo (1941-1994).

Acting ability wasn't required, conventional good looks were a must and willingness to have sex with the ferret-faced Willson. Some of the would-be actors Willson represented were heterosexual, among others Robert Wagner (b. 1930), but a disproportionate number were homosexual, bisexual , or "cooperated" with Willson "to get gigs," in the observation of Natalie Wood's costar Bobby Hyatt... If a young, handsome actor had Henry Willson for an agent, "it was almost assumed he was gay, like it was written across his forehead," recalls Ann Doran, one of Willson's few female clients. The man was the face of a cynical system, supported by an unseen infrastructure of fixers and studio connections who enabled the mythmaking. Manufacturing male pin-ups was part of a fresh marketing opportunity, an attempt to rescue the business by selling to the newly identified youth market, first called "bobbysoxers," then "teentimers," and finally "teenagers."The studios constructed an American mythology that modeled tamed young adult males - the "good boys".

These Adonises were "free, white, and 21," Typically stragglers from the postwar parade of homecoming GIs, the ones who didn't care to return to the farm or the family hardware store. Henry Willson made himself a key player by implementing the business model of agent and career coach, investing thousands in living expenses, cosmetic makeovers, fashion guidance, and acting lessons for his hopeful wannabes. Willson, who made a point of never living with another man, was strict in enforcing the same rule with his clients. He was known to drive past a young actor's house in the dead of night to make sure another man's car wasn't parked out front. Those who disobeyed soon saw their acting roles dry up; Willson didn't want to invest too much effort in a wannabe star who wouldn't play by the rules. Although he regularly took specimens from his stable of pretty boys to clubs and restaurants, he was never seen with less than two at a time. As he saw it "three men always translated as a night out with the boys, two men read as a date."

Rock Hudson was anything but discreet. A source remembers meeting the star at L.A.'s Farmer's Market at 2 a.m., openly cruising for men. "Henry had his standards," said Willson's assistant, "but Rock would sleep with anyone." Hudson seems to have tried to accomplish just that, demanding sexual favors from Willson clients who had landed minor roles in his films, and turning up in search of fresh "talent" for threesomes at Willson's infamously frisky pool parties during the late '50s and early '60s. "Rock's sex drive was enormous." As a result, Willson had his hands full fending off blackmailers and spurned lovers once Hudson became a big name. The "dirty deals" of Hofler's title for the most part all trace back to Rock's high jinks. There are the off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officers whom Willson and his on-retainer private detectives hired to rough up the guy with the photos of Hudson in flagrante delicto and the boyfriend who threatened to go public unless he was allowed to sit next to Hudson at events. Yet another client insists that he heard Willson call in a bunch of favors from the Mob (he'd provided stars for the opening nights of Las Vegas clubs) to get two of Hudson's blackmailers "rubbed out." The granddaddy of tell-all tabloids, Confidential magazine constituted the biggest threat to the dreamboat myth. Although Robert Mitchum's 1949 arrest and jail time for marijuana possession had prophesied the end of his nascent film career, his unflappable public response ("Booze, broads, it's all true... Make up more if you want") actually increased his popularity, but no one was willing to risk revelations of man-on-man activity.

Confidential had a standing offer for dirt on Hudson, and two of the star's ex-lovers had turned down $10,000 offers to tell their stories. It was only a matter of time until the magazine got something juicy on Hudson. With its gaudy yellow, blue, and red covers, Confidential was the scourge of Hollywood. For years the motion-picture industry had controlled the flow of information about the stars by officially accrediting journalists. Confidential challenged all that. Bearing a tantalizing subtitle ("Tells the Facts and Names the Names"), Confidential specialized in Hollywood peccadilloes-in promiscuity, in bad behavior, in miscegenation (at a time when that was considered taboo), and, perhaps above all, in outing homosexual stars decades before there was even such a term as "outing." "Confidential really started a reign of terror," Leo Guild, a press agent at the time, once claimed. Rock Hudson best friend, actor George Nader (1921-2002), confessed that "every month when Confidential came out, our stomachs began to turn. Which of us would be in it?"

At one point Confidential began preparing a story about a wild party at the home of Rock Hudson's agent, Henry Willson-who happened to be gay. Because the piece was going to implicate Hudson as a guest, both the agent and the star went to see Hollywood attorney Jerry Giesler to try to stop it. Giesler said there was nothing he could do until publication. Not long after that, Hudson headed off the story, in part, by marrying Willson's unwitting secretary, Phyllis Gates, though Hudson would tell her that he had quashed it by hiring a gangster and having him threaten Confidential's editor.

But one of the dirtiest deals of Willson's career happened soon after in 1955 : In a bargain move to save Rock Hudson from new predations of Confidential, he exposed Rory Calhoun as a veteran of stints in several federal pens, including maximum security at San Quentin (his background included armed robberies when he was thirteen years old). The disclosure had no negative effect on Calhoun's career and only served to solidify his bad boy image. Confidential revealed that Tab Hunter, whom Willson had never forgiven for firing him and signing on with his archirival (agent Dick Clayton), was arrested when police raided an all-male party in 1950.

As a result of a similar deal, Confidential agreed to ruin George Nader's career by outing his homosexuality. Despite the fact that Nader was forced to sacrifice his career for the sake of Rock Hudson, the two remained great friends and, in fact, Nader's lifelong companion, Mark Miller, was Hudson's private secretary. Such was the bond between the two beefcakes that Nader was mentioned in Hudson's will. In his later years, the fairy godfather lost his footing and slid downhill from a drunk driving arrest to electroshock treatment in a psych ward. He struggled with drug addiction, alcoholism, paranoia, and weight problems. Because his own homosexuality had become public knowledge, many of his clients, both gay and straight (including Robert Wagner), distanced themselves from him for fear of being branded the same. In 1974, the unemployed and destitute agent entered the Motion Picture Country Home as a charity case, where cirrhosis of the liver finally finished him off in 1978. At the funeral, Rory Calhoun served as a pallbearer, but Rock only sent flowers and Tab Hunter skipped the event. He was interred in an unmarked grave, in Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery, in North Hollywood.

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2 commentaires:

AndyMac a dit…

Merci pour cette histoire tres interessant. Vous avez ponsee longuement sur le suject, et j'aime bien votre style d'ecriture du blog - erudit mais aussi divertissant.

normal a dit…
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