Idiom, adage, meme, we’ve all heard it before: “Behind every great man is a great woman.” In 1950s Hollywood, behind nearly every great star, there was Henry Willson. The flamboyant, but closeted agent discovered dozens of silver screen heartthrobs and then guided their careers into movie history.
“Starmaker,” a new play by Michael Leeds receiving its world premiere at Island City Stage in Wilton Manors, finally tells the story of the driven man behind the men.
Willson, deftly portrayed by David Edwards, narrates his own story. The action unfolds quickly as Willson discovers and renames Robert Mosely (Guy Madison), Orison Whipple Hungerford, Jr. (Ty Hardin), Arthur Gelien (Tab Hunter), Roy Scherer, Jr. (Rock Hudson) and a bevy of other handsome boys. Think of Willson as a modern day Pygmalian, less concerned with the rain on the plain in Spain, but fixated on grooming the beefcake boys who drove millions of swooning teen girls to the theaters each weekend.
He was a master of publicity and never afraid to make a sacrifice to protect his hottest property, Rock Hudson. In 1955, as the tabloids threatened to expose Hudson’s homosexuality, Willson instead traded scoops about Rory Calhoun’s prison time and Tab Hunter’s arrest at a gay party. He also offered up his own secretary, Phyllis Hudson, as a blushing bride to quell further roomers.
Assisting Edwards on stage is an animated Greek chorus of the agent’s early successes, Jeanine Gangloff Levy, Sahid Pabon, Samuel Maya and Sean Davis as Lana Turner, Troy Donahue, Calhoun and Hunter, respectively. The quartet also transform instantly into dozens of incidental characters throughout the play.
Clay Cartland is Hudson and faces perhaps the biggest challenge, portraying a legend who has been preserved for posterity on celluloid. Unlike most of Willson’s proteges, Hudson remains a familiar face 30 years after his death, especially to Island City’s mostly older gay audiences.
Cartland, a Carbonell Award-winner who is a master of comedic and character roles, has transformed himself into the proverbial leading man over the past several years, displaying “Rock” hard abs and the same chiseled good looks that would have attracted Willson’s gaze today.
Clocking in at two hours and thirty minutes (including a 15-minute intermission), “Starmaker” could benefit from some tightening. While Willson’s unrequited love for Hudson is central, it’s not always clear if Willson is narrating his own biography or Hudson’s.
Leeds also runs into a conundrum in the second act after Hudson defiantly leaves Willson’s stable in 1966 after his career grinds to a standstill. Willson befalls an even more devastating fate, losing all his clients as his homosexuality becomes common knowledge, going on drunken binges and eventually winding up destitute in the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. He eventually dies of cirrhosis in 1978 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood.
The grave doesn’t stop Willson’s spirit from visiting a dying Hudson nearly a decade later or commenting as the actor’s ashes are spread. It’s a tidy, if overly sentimental conclusion to a fascinating and complicated story.
Island City Stage presents the world premiere of Michael Leeds’ “Starmaker,” though Sept. 8 at Wilton Theater Factory, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $38 at IslandCityStage.org.