Can We Talk About…? James Dean and Rock Hudson’s Gay Pissing Contest Over Elizabeth Taylor

In 1956, three legendary queens came together to film an epic drama—but it could never compare to the shenanigans happening off-screen.

Can We Talk About…? is a weekly series that is also hoping to get adopted by Sphen and Magic.

Proving that not even the sweet release of death is sacred anymore, James Dean is making a long overdue comeback to the big screen, despite being dead for the past 60 years. As if Whitney Houston’s hologram going on tour wasn’t bad enough, now we have to potentially deal with a zombie James Dean overacting and underwhelming us in what will surely become a disturbing, tacky trend.

So until then, let’s remember Dean as he was—a messy bitch who loved drama.

Thanks to a trio of films released between 1955 and 1956, Dean is considered one of the finest actors of his generation—an opinion greatly augmented by his tragic, premature death at 24. Both 1955’s East of Eden and the following year’s Giant garnered him posthumous Best Actor Oscar nominations, but it was 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, released just a month after he died in a car crash, that made him a star. Still, if Rebel established the legend of James Dean, Giant cemented it.

Adapted from Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel of the same name about Texas, racism, and intergenerational strife, Giant brought together three of the biggest cinematic icons of the 20th century: Dean, fellow closeted actor Rock Hudson, and perennial ally Elizabeth Taylor. Hudson plays Bick Benedict, a wealthy rancher; Dean is Jett Rink, a ranch hand who strikes it rich; and Taylor is Leslie Benedict, Bick’s spirited wife and the object of Jett’s affections. While the men may have competed romantically for Liz onscreen, Hudson and Dean also competed for her affections—albeit strictly platonic—off-screen.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

A sprawling epic bursting at nearly three and a half hours, Giant reunited Taylor with George Stevens, who had directed the stunning ingénue in her first dramatic role, 1951’s A Place in the Sun, co-starring yet another closeted actor, gay icon, and avatar of tragic male beauty: Montgomery Clift.

What can I say? Liz had a type.

Like she did in A Place in the Sun, Taylor would form a deep bond with her leading man—or in this case, men—on the set in Marfa, Texas. Taylor and Hudson would regularly stay up all night drinking and talking to get through the long, hot shoots in the middle of the summer. The night before their first scene together, Taylor and then-husband Michael Wilding invited Hudson over for some get-to-know-you booze. The following morning, Taylor and Hudson were hungover AF, but luckily it worked in their favor. Their scene didn’t have any dialogue, and the amount of concentration it took for them not to throw up on each other passed for undying love between their characters.

“In between takes,” Hudson recalled, “Elizabeth and I were running out and throwing up. We were both so hungover we couldn’t speak. That’s what made the scene.”

Never one to ignore a potential maternal figure, Dean often sought out Taylor’s compassionate ear. According to the actress, during one of their talks he revealed that he was molested by his minister after his mother died when he was 11. This kind of soul-baring apparently took a heavy toll on Dean.

“We would sometimes sit up until three in the morning, and he would tell me about his past, his mother, minister, his loves, and the next day he would just look straight through me as if he’d given away or revealed too much of himself,” Taylor later said. “It would take… maybe a couple of days before we’d be back on friendship terms. He was very afraid to give of himself.”

Taylor may have gotten along famously with Hudson and Dean, but the two men did not care for each other. Rumor had it that Hudson got on Dean’s bad side after he made a pass at Dean, but their animosity toward one another could probably be boiled down to their working styles. Dean was a method actor and therefore very serious about his craft. He would hold up production getting into character, or because of disagreements with Stevens. Hudson didn’t respect Dean’s lack of professionalism and, in turn, Dean didn’t respect Hudson as an actor.

But let’s get back to those rumors ’cause we’re having fun. So Hudson’s homosexuality was more or less an open secret in Hollywood, while Dean tried to keep his own bisexuality (and his past as a hustler) under wraps. During filming of Giant, Dean and Hudson briefly lived together, along with their co-star Chill Wills. Hudson allegedly tried to “queer” Dean—as if it would’ve taken much effort—but according to Giant chronicler Don Graham, Hudson liked to dress in drag and Dean preferred his trade rough. So when Dean rejected him, Hudson asked him to move the fuck out.

Again, rumors.

From there, things only got more tense and awkward, with Dean making fun of Hudson behind his back to the local cowboys, calling him “fairy” onset, and reportedly French-kissing Hudson one day in front of everyone just to antagonize the closeted actor. Hudson was finally rid of Dean when the latter shot his last scene in September 27, 1955, four months after filming began. Three days later, Dean was dead. His friend Nick Adams had to be called in to redub some of his lines.

Taylor was absolutely bereft, collapsing on set after hearing the news of Dean’s death and spending the following two weeks in the hospital for various health problems. Still, Stevens forced her to shoot reaction shots for a scene she had done with Dean, which she did while sobbing between takes. Unsurprisingly, she never forgave Stevens for that.

Hudson, for his part, also shed tears, but perhaps more out of guilt than sadness. “I had been wishing him dead ever since we were in Texas,” he confessed.

Giant spent almost a year in post-production, but it was hailed a triumph upon its release in 1956, nabbing 10 Oscar nominations and winning Stevens the Best Director award. Hudson and Dean competed for Best Actor, while the Academy ignored Taylor. She would eventually snatch two Best Actress Oscars, and Hudson would become a staple of romantic comedies in the ’60s and find success on television in the ’70s. Later, Taylor was among Hudson’s Hollywood friends who stood by him during his battle with AIDS, and she would continue her HIV/AIDS activism for the rest of her life.

Dean, however, never got to make another movie, which is partly why his legend has only grown in the six decades since his death. How a CGI version of him will live up to that legacy—if it can at all—is anyone’s guess.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat