The recent passing of 1950s pinup, matinee and pop idol Tab Hunter is reason enough to revisit or take in, for the first time, this 2015 documentary, a film as sweet, discrete and lightly charming at the man himself.
“Tab Hunter Confidential” is an upbeat, revealing portrait of a man who spent his career and indeed most of his life in the Hollywood closet, by necessity in the beginning, by his own desire for privacy he insists in the film. And if director Jeffrey Schwarz goes easy on his in the questioning and tilts towards flattering in the discussions of Hunter’s talents, well, Tab’s longtime companion, producer Allan Glaser, rounded up the money and produced the picture.
It’s basically an autobiography, as in “My version told my way.”
A Santa Barbara native born Arthur Gelien to a single mom from Germany, Hunter had the chiseled blond good looks of the quintessential California surfer (he wasn’t, and only made one “surf” film). A gay talent agent specializing in “pretty boys” (Rock Hudson, most famously, Chad Everett and Guy Madison) cooked up the name — “We’ve got to TAB you something!”
Hunter, who died at 86, started his career at the tail end of the Hollywood long-term studio contract era, signing with Warner Brothers, making a few notable films for them (“Battle Cry,” “Damn Yankees”) before buying out that contract, starring in his own TV show, a quick failure, and watching himself quickly replaced by the next pretty boy (boys) to come along — Troy Donahue, among them.
Pre-Method, his acting was slow to come around, and critic Rex Reed notes how “not a hint of talent” turned up in his earlier movies.
But being “The Sigh Guy,” as he was nicknamed, opportunities kept dropping into his lap. Want to sing, Tab? Sure! He knocked Elvis off the top of the charts with his version of this one.
I’d forgotten that aspect of his career, because even though he was a chart staple, pre-Beatles, and cut many LPs, you almost never see that old vinyl at estate sales or flea markets.
Did you know he was a competition level figure skater, concurrent with his Hollywood career? He was, and his first true love was a fellow skater, he reveals in the movie.
Dating and competing with Paramount rival/lover Tony Perkins, fending off “Confidential” magazine accounts of his sex party arrest in the early ’50s (homosexuality was illegal then), befriending and frequently co-starring with Natalie Wood, Hunter ruled the roost as much as any guy getting by on mostly looks could back then. He was as shirtless as any star of the era, via posters, magazine covers and at least one scene in every movie. But he tackled tough work in the Golden Age of Live TV, too, taught himself to act and got better even as his star was fading.
Peers from Robert Wagner and Connie Stevens to Don Murray and Clint Eastwood set the scene and talk about Tab’s place in it. Women who were teeny-bopper fans recall his appeal, their infatuation and one remembers her “Win a date with Tab Hunter” evening.
And Hunter himself talks about his closeted life, the Catholic upbringing that he abandoned when he realized the Church condemned his sexual leanings, a fellow who “never confronted these things” until much later in life.
“If you were with a man, you would be sinning. If you were with a woman, you would be lying.”
He came closest to marrying a French co-star, eventually came back to the church, had to commit his mother to a mental institution and worked, largely he says, to ensure she had a comfortable life and never had to go back once he saw what she went through there.
And through it all, Hunter comes off as pleasant and guileless as he does in many of his films, and in one of the opening interview moments on camera in “Confidential.”
“What the heck? I’m an old man. This is my life.”
John Waters brought his career back from the odd TV guest appearance with 1981’s “Polyester,” Hunter got “Lust in the Dust” a Divine romp in the same (non Waters) vein, met his longtime companion and got back to his first love — horses. The former hunky stable boy (“discovered” while doing that as a teen by actor/manager Dick Clayton) became a ribbon-winning equestrian and stayed on horseback much of the rest of his life.
Check him out in any of his Westerns — “Burning Hills,” “Gunmman’s Walk,” “They Came to Cordura.” The guy could ride.
Maybe it’s not as revealing as its teasing title suggests, but “Tab Hunter Confidential” makes a splendid history lesson and light, fun portrait of what you can only call a blessed life, one lived with a big, open secret that only old age convinced him he should let out.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Tab Hunter, Connie Stevens, George Takei, John Waters, Robert Wagner, Don Murray, Rona Barrett, Clint Eastwood, Portia de Rossi, Rex Reed
Credits:Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz . A Film Collaborative release.