Building my Movie Posters Puzzle: Pillow Talk
In late June I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.
Despite its frothy reputation, there’s a reason that Pillow Talk, starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day, was both hugely successful at the box office and the recipient of some awards season love. That reason was rather accurately identified by the Academy when they awarded the film with 1959’s Oscar for Original Screenplay. The admittedly antiquated storyline and plot devices are clever nonetheless, and the dialogue is straight out smart and funny. For example, in response to Hudson’s character thinking her new beau’s intentions are not necessarily honorable, Day retorts “Not all men finish every sentence with a proposition.”
There’s no avoiding the fact of the out-of-date sexual politics on display here, but a person only has to actually watch the movie to know that those very gender roles were on the verge of shifting irrevocably over the coming decade and a half. It had already started when women had replaced men in the workplace in large numbers while they were away fighting the second World War, and Day’s Jan Morrow is herself a product of that changing environment.
Post-war America tried to put that genie back in the bottle (heck, some people still are trying), but clearly to no avail. Men and women were going to have to learn to deal with one another on different terms than they had before and it is Pillow Talk‘s ability to play with this context in gender relations without either preaching about it or ignoring it altogether that preserves it as an enjoyable comedic portrait of the time without being insulting to an informed modern viewer.
The age of Day’s character isn’t stated outright that I can remember, but Day herself was thirty-seven years old at the time of the movie’s release. At an age that even many modern day people would be panicking and strongly considering the first promising proposal they received, her confidence and independence is driven home by her rejection of the millionaire serial monogamist played to excellent effect by Tony Randall. To be honest, the opening shot of Day, one which trails up her very shapely legs to then rest on her pushing-middle-aged face played me like a fiddle. It says a lot about the character that the sharp dialogue couldn’t fully if it tried.
Of course being that it is still 1959, the movie feels compelled to play up her character as a little naive and prudish.
Times had not yet really begun to change much for Day’s co-star Rock Hudson. The very popular leading man had been gracing the silver screen since the late 1940s mostly in westerns (Winchester ’73, Bend of the River), military roles (Bengal Brigade, Battle Hymn) and dramas (Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Giant), often playing romantic roles playing on his chiseled good looks and easy going masculinity. Pillow Talk helped to reveal his skill with comedy and led to two more similar films with co-stars Day and Randall, Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964), each doing well at the box office. While his career was going very well indeed, Hudson’s personal life was a continued source of anxiety. Although it was an open secret in Hollywood, his homosexual relationships had to be strenuously hidden from the mainstream press. In 1955 as his star was rising, the notorious scandal magazine “Confidential” threatened to publish an article revealing Hudson’s secret, a piece which was eventually bargained away by his agent who gave up less damning stories on two of his other clients.
The following year Hudson would receive his only Academy Award nomination for playing alongside James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor in Giant (the film’s director George Stevens would take home the statuette for Best Directing). It is easy to imagine such opportunities drying up if Hudson’s secret had gone public. A marriage to his agent’s secretary, Phyllis Gates, materialized shortly after filming on Giant was complete which lasted only a few years. She would later claim that she had been in love with Hudson and had not been aware of his homosexuality, but records released after her death suggested that she had known of it at some point during their marriage and there has been speculation both that she was a lesbian and that she had attempted to blackmail him over his secret. As would be expected when one person is an internationally famous movie star and the other is a secretary, Hudson paid substantial alimony to Gates for several years after the divorce. She did not marry again.
Despite the efforts of Hudson and his people, rumors nipped at the corners of his public image and threatened to “out” him on multiple occasions, including a pair of jokes suggesting that he and “Gomer Pyle” star Jim Nabors had (or had not) married one another. The payoff of the first joke was that Hudson had taken his husband’s name and would be called “Rock Pyle.” The rumors would sour the men’s friendship despite the fact that both were in the same precarious boat. Although Hudson’s star would fade a bit in the second half of the 1960s, he would continue to work, starring on television in his own series “McMillan & Wife” from 1971 to 1977 and later featuring in nine episodes of the popular nighttime soap opera “Dynasty.” It was during this time that he was diagnosed with AIDS, a fact that he kept hidden from almost everyone, including his co-stars.
It was during a promotional appearance with Doris Day for her upcoming television show that Hudson’s alarming physical degradation and poor speech became publicly noticeable and speculation began to swirl around the actor. He had gone through with filming the project over Day’s objections that he rest and focus on his health and shortly after the news conference departed for France where he was receiving a treatment that was not yet available in the United States. While there he collapsed and was held in a hospital, causing increased questions about what exactly was wrong. A rumor focused on liver cancer was quickly denied, but tellingly these same denials were not offered by doctors when AIDS was brought up as the possible source of his health troubles. Less than three months later, he succumbed to the illness, never having publicly addressed his personal history and having floated the possibility that he had contracted the virus due to a blood transfusion during an operation some four years earlier. As a very public figure, Hudson’s passing was the early face of the illness in America and increased awareness, leading rather quickly to more funding and donations for research. Despite some controversy surrounding Hudson continuing to participate in kissing scenes on “Dynasty” with co-star Linda Evans after becoming aware of his diagnosis, the general response from Hollywood was one of support and affection for him. Doris Day herself gave a warm and loving tribute to him during the airing of the first episode of her show which was being carried on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Hudson’s passing was sad, but films like Pillow Talk remind fans of his vitality, charm, and talent while those who knew him in life remind us of his kindness and dependability.
In closing, it should be noted that the 2003 comedy Down with Love, starring Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor was hugely influenced by and referential to Pillow Talk. As someone who had been familiar with the Day/Hudson romantic comedies and others like them prior to the release of Down With Love, I found it to be pretty darned delightful. It is possible however, that by the early 21st century not many people showing up at the local cineplex had much idea what they were watching Bridget Jones and Obi-Wan doing.