To many, Tab Hunter’s name doesn’t inspire any recognition. But for those who enjoy obscure and studio era cinema, Hunter’s both an intriguing outcast who made quite the career comeback through the work of John Waters, as well as the perfect representation of the 1950s leading man. Hot on the heels of the Orry-Kelly documentary, Women He’s Undressed, Tab Hunter Confidential is another old Hollywood documentary lifting the veil on the balancing act of saint and sinner many actors/directors/etc had to work within regarding their sexuality and career under the studio era. While Orry-Kelly’s bizarre narrative techniques kept that documentary from completely lifting off, Tab Hunter Confidential is a tale of an all-American boy’s issues with stardom, faith, and sexuality, all reminisced on fondly. This isn’t a Hollywood cautionary tale, but a Hollywood endurance test overcome.
Tab Hunter worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest legends: John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Linda Darnell, Divine (yes, Divine is a legend!). And yet he harbored a secret – being gay during a time when homosexuality was not just a career killer, but illegal.
The studio system was the number one manufacturer of persona, best exemplified with Tab Hunter. Born Arthur Gilean, Hunter came to represent the all-American, “beautiful, California surfer boy,” the perfect encapsulation of safe masculinity; the boy you could take home to mom. Tab Hunter was everything the 1950s came to exemplify rolled into one blonde Adonis. The nature of acting requires duality, but Hunter’s Hollywood trajectory demanded he live this duality daily.
Moving beyond just a name change, Hunter grappled with being gay despite being both a sex symbol for women everywhere and a Catholic. When someone mentions, “I would never think the most handsome boy [in Hollywood] was gay,” it sets up the reason why Hunter, and many stars to this day, fear revealing their sexuality. “In some ways the system is still the same was way it was in the ’50s” and that proves true; Hunter’s press image manufactured relationships, sending Hunter out with women like Natalie Wood, all of whom knew of his sexuality.
Hunter mentions some key relationships in his life, but the predominant one involves Psycho star Anthony Perkins. Like Women He’s Undressed, the film’s big revelation isn’t particularly earth-shattering if you’re aware of Hollywood history and the marketing means to use this as the film’s reason for existence. Perkins’s sexuality, as far as I’ve read, was an open secret he tried his damndest to keep, and his and Hunter’s relationship involved double-dating and other means of keeping the press quiet. Unfortunately, it was doomed by fears tabloids would question why the two were seen around so often together, and the two parted. There’s no air of lost love between the couple though. Perkins went on to marry and have two children before dying of AIDS, and Hunter sounds appreciative but never wistful of their time together.
Hunter’s sexuality may be the impetus for watching the documentary, but it’s thankfully never the film’s predominant focus. Director Jeffrey Schwarz and crew’s aim is showing Hunter’s rise and fall. Despite the belief, his sexuality wasn’t the reason Hunter fell from grace. Much like other stars bristling under the studio system, it was Hunter’s desire to make better films which caused him to ask Jack Warner, head of Warner Bros., for a release from his contract. You don’t cross Jack Warner, and Hunter’s career as a free agent was marred with disappointment. Hunter eloquently explains what was once valuable is replaceable and various Hunter lookalikes came through, such as Warner’s own Hunter replacement Troy Donahue.
Because Hunter was never the type to embrace publicity, much of his life post-Hollywood isn’t particularly grandiose. He struggled to keep his career afloat, touring the dinner theater circuit throughout the 1970s before coming back to some prominence working with Divine and John Waters in Polyester (1981). After Hunter realized he wasn’t a fan of schmoozing and playing the Hollywood game, he retired with little fanfare. Today he’s “happy to be forgotten,” enjoying his life and his horses. It’s not the smutty Hollywood world of paparazzi and TMZ culture we’re used to, and that’s great watching someone refuse to be chewed up by the star machine. Too often watching these documentaries is a lesson is schadenfreude, but by the end you’re happy that Hunter’s happy.
Schwarz’s approach puts control in Hunter’s hands and the documentary plays out formulaically. Much of the narrative is obviously driven by Hunter himself, aided by friends, colleagues and critics. Clips of his films and television appearances are used, often semi-reenacting elements of his life, like an advertisement he does for mental illness preceding his discussion of his own mother’s mental illness or, less concretely, a scene of Hunter in a jail cell during discussion of his arrest before fame. The film also boasts an all-star cast of classic cinema interview subjects including Debbie Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, and more.
Tab Hunter Confidential’s appeal will be towards those who love Hunter or the studio system. Everything plays by the numbers, but Hunter’s forthrightness and charm leave you rooting for him and will hopefully inspire you to watch his films. The trailers are certainly playing up Hunter’s “secret,” which is important but never defines him. This isn’t a glitzy “What happened to,” but a pleasant tale of a once Hollywood star turned good. (For those in the Long Island area, Hunter will be appearing at the Cinema Arts Centre on October 14th. The film will be screened with a post-film Q&A to follow.)