By Elias Savada.
Producer-director-editor Jeffrey Schwarz – I Am Divine (2013), Vito (2011), Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007) – is back in original action form from his day job as the creator of electronic presskits and supplemental home digital content. He brings us Tab Hunter Confidential, a laid-back examination of the 1950s heartthrob who came out of the closet a decade ago, courtesy of Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, his autobiography written with Eddie Muller, which is the source for this documentary.
The Fifties (among many other decades and centuries) were not a good time for homosexuals. Especially those posturing as straight while seeking fame and fortune in Hollywood. Joe Friday might bust you for being gay. In our more enlightened present, Tab Hunter Confidential is a finely etched story of the eponymous pretty boy (still looking very good at 84), who 60 years ago embarked on a career that was one such secret. The hint of scandal could have doused his calling and that ever-growing fan base would have evaporated overnight.
In fact it did happen, but thanks to studio head Jack Warner Hunter’s agent Henry Wilson traded a damaging story on Rock Hudson, another Wilson client, set to appear in Confidential magazine, the TMZ of the era, for a suppressed disorderly conduct tale about Hunter. The headline rang out that Hunter was caught in a “limp-wristed pajama party.” Looking up from the bottom of a bus, Hunter found an ally in Warner, and the company successfully fought back on behalf of its star property. The press knew everything, yet kept mum at the studio’s behest. Quite the chess game.
Schwarz edits the film with a ferocious wink, jumping from a clip to a film trailer (it saves on licensing fees, but there is adequate footage from the bigger films the golden boy was in) to a razor blade commercial (shirtless, of course), to a talking head, all with an intelligent sparkle, accompanied by semi-haunting score by Michael “The Millionaire” Cudahy. A black-and-white Tab spouts “I’ve Got a Secret” on the panel game show of the same name, but the skeleton didn’t involve a closet. The talking heads parade by: John Waters, Robert Wagner, George Takei (laughing about how the good-looking Hunter’s shirt always got tossed in his moves), Debbie Reynolds, Allan Glaser (Hunter’s life partner for 30-plus years and a producer on this film), and many others, some from way out of the woodwork (Darryl Hickman! Rona Barrett!). They even find Etchika Choureau, Hunter’s co-star in 1958’s Lafayette Escadrille. Not as drop-dead gorgeous as she was back then (when they met and became passionate for one another, despite the her French only-his English only language barrier), she’s not been seen on the screen since 1966. Marriage was considered.
The relationships flash by, as do the movies, and tv shows. It’s brisk, but it is enjoyable. It’s nice that the fear that Hunter encased himself for too many years has faded into quieter and tolerant times.
Tab pontificates on actor-singer Anthony Perkins, having met him before they fell into a comfortable East Coast-West Coast relationship, and a few years before Perkins morphed into Norman Bates. Actress-producer Venetia Stevenson comments on her role as the beard in that eventually painful relationship (a similar role was played by Phyllis Gates in her short-lived marriage to Rock Hudson).
Hunter himself, somewhat shyly, traces his past via snapshots of his family. A doting mother from Hamburg, Germany, whose abusive husband failed his family, ultimately leaving Tab and his older brother (who died in Vietnam during that war) fatherless the rest of their lives. The transformation of a good Catholic kid born Arthur Kelm, raised as Arthur Gelien (his mother’s maiden name) into a star with talent and pizzazz. But the unpleasantness of high school pushed him into the Coast Guard before numerous oddball jobs (“I did an awful lot of jobs,” the actor jokes). And then there were horses, which consumed his life (and still does), and that equine connection led to his start in Hollywood.
Schwarz lays it out in a neatly ordered story about a shy guy with wholesome charm and an over-abundance of good looks. And while the film covers the many hits (1958’s Damn Yankees being my fave) and the lesser remembered misses (1952’s Island of Desire; his short-lived The Tab Hunter Show; numerous foreign made films of the 1960s he suffered through to pay the bills), Hunter often speaks of his Warner Bros. years, after signing a studio contract, that ultimately led to a supporting role in that studio’s big 1955 hit, Battle Cry. WB pushed him and Natalie Wood (fresh off Rebel Without a Cause) as its new “dream team.”
Oh, he was also a singer. Young Love from Dot Records was a huge smash when released in February 1957, knocking someone named Elvis off the top of the chart. And it stayed there for six weeks. It made Jack Warner so mad (he believed Hunter’s voice was also part of their deal) he started Warner Bros. Records to piggyback on Tab’s now golden tonsils. There’s plenty of double entendre sentiment, particularly when we know Hunter’s love interest while singing one of his romantic tunes.
Hunter’s love for live television began with his cautious entry into that realm with Portrait of a Murderer, a 1958 Arthur Penn-directed episode of Playhouse 90.
Reflecting on his life, Hunter has grown fearless, passionate, solid in his resolve. He’s well suited to the film’s ambling approach. Lightly bitter yet comically self-reflective, Tab Hunter Confidential hits all the major points in the actor’s life. The loves and life of Tab Hunter is laid bare, just like his perfect chiseled chest. I can hear his fans swooning.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.