“Never mind that Hudson was a gay man playing a straight man playing a gay man in love with a man who was really a woman.”
Universal Studio, never in the vanguard for DVD releases, has dug into its vaults to offer up a box set of five Rock Hudson dust collectors. These lesser titles span his career from supporting hunk (1952’s Has Anybody Seen My Gal) to seedy man about town (1965’s A Very Special Favor). Gal is a velvety piece of Americana directed by Douglas Sirk, who became Hudson’s Pygmalion by later using him to fine advantage in Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, and Tarnished Angels.
Among the offerings here (additionally The Golden Blade, The Last Sunset, and The Spiral Road), it is A Very Special Favor that holds key interest. This little sex comedy makes twisted use of Hudson, an actor whose career has inspired mountains of revisionist history due to his longstanding allied occupation of the Hollywood Closet. He plays jet-setting businessman playboy Paul Chadwick who is spared a legal jam through the graces of Michel Boullard (Charles Boyer). Michel’s daughter Lauren (Leslie Caron) is an overly starched psychologist, and father despairs when she misdirects her wan affections onto henpecked (read: gay) fiancé Arnold Plum (Dick Shawn). Since Paul owes him one, Michel asks Paul to woo Lauren and deliver her from the horrible fate of wearing the pants in her marriage. Logic dictates that once she has a taste of the Rock, she’ll be a complete woman.
Favor tries to appear adult with its buckets of champagne, gowns by Yves Saint Laurent, and one fantasy paragon of Latin virility named “El Magnifico.” In meeting the expectations of bedroom farce, one or another character is forever engaged in deception and counter-deception. The conceits zoom to the heights of surreality in the film’s final act, when Paul pretends to be gay to appeal to Lauren’s savior complex. He finds a “boyfriend” to abet the ruse, but this being 1965, the love interest is not a man, but a woman in drag. Lauren bursts in on them accidentally on purpose, ostensibly saving Paul from a lifetime of sodomitical misery. It ends with a flash forward, with Paul and Lauren the happy parents of what appears to be an entire daycare center.
A Very Special Favor strained to capitalize on recent success: director Michael Gordon also made Pillow Talk, that 1959 supernova that began the Rock Hudson-Doris Day industry. It was less obviously inspired by Father Goose, a 1964 hit comedy in which Caron similarly played a stern and sexless schoolmarm deinhibited by the winning combination of alcohol, a remote tropical island, and Cary Grant. Caron and Boyer appeared together flatteringly in 1961’s Fanny, and Dick Shawn was then establishing himself as a unique if perverse talent best consumed in small portions. Even the cartoon credits seemed recycled, as they were designed by Pacific Title, the very company that opened the Hudson-Day flicks Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers.
The gay undertones of A Very Special Favor are as layered as a Dagwood sandwich. Hudson was so presumptively straight that the screenwriters could pull off his character’s insecurities without suspicion. Shawn’s Arnold Plum never pretends anything, and emerges as the most honorable character in the film. Never mind that Shawn made a career of playing oddballs and outcasts but was the married father of four in his private life. Never mind that Hudson was a gay man playing a straight man playing a gay man in love with a man who was really a woman. Never mind that Caron was coming off a career triumph with The L-Shaped Room, in which she played an unwed mother who befriends a dotty old lesbian and a sensitive black gay man. In contrast to that British kitchen sink drama, this froth from Universal required a giant step backward into the muck of encoded cinematic shorthand that reviled homosexuality while using it to get a convoluted plot off life-support.
Despite its reapplication of proven formulas, A Very Special Favor limped out of theaters in short order, winning neither critical laurels nor audience affection. Make no mistake: this article is not meant to recast it as some shamefully neglected lost jewel. It was a bad movie in 1965, and it’s a bad movie in 2007. But time has blessed it with unintended dimension. Through its lack of artistic virtue, A Very Special Favor is now pop culture obscura that casts a light on a bygone America’s devolved sexual politics. Here is a veritable inventory of assumptions, innuendoes, stereotypes, and lies about sexuality and gender that were used to vault a cynical piece of mainstream entertainment into wished-for box-office heaven. But this time the laughs weren’t there, timed as they were only four years before Stonewall. That failure may be attributed to changing attitudes, but more likely it was because the movie simply had no wings.
A Very Special Favor reminds us that movies may not coincide with social history, but they are dynamite for revealing social attitudes. One can only imagine Hudson’s self-justifications when he read the script. In 1965, he still had 20 years of a secret life to live, before HIV thrust him into the most challenging role of his career. When a gravely ill Hudson appeared before the media in 1985, neither Hollywood’s fantasy machine nor an airtight closet diminished the public’s apprehension and rue. We never really knew Rock Hudson, and now it was too late.