Everyone loves a Hollywood tragedy. The violent murders of Sharon Tate and Sal Mineo generate more press and web articles than the body of work they left behind while the estates of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean continue to benefit from our endless fascination with early death by misadventure. For better or worse, we obsess over stories of fallen stars who died while they were still young and beautiful as well as those who died violently or wasted away in obscurity. Stories about celebrities who endure great personal and professional hardship but manage to survive and thrive into comfortable old age tend to sell fewer magazines. Tab Hunter’s story is a survivor’s story. It’s uplifting, empowering and intriguingly retold in Tab Hunter Confidential (2015), a new documentary directed by Jeffrey Schwarz that was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray. It is also currently streaming on Amazon and Netflix.
This insightful documentary explores the life of the blond, blue-eyed actor who graced the cover of countless movie magazines during his heyday. As a young gay man in post-WWII Hollywood, Tab Hunter was forced to lead a double life and remained in the closet while publicly dating a bevy of beautiful starlets including costars Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds. His all-American good looks often distracted audiences from appreciating his acting abilities but contrary to popular critical consensus, I think Hunter delivered some edgy and accomplished performances in atypical westerns such as Track of the Cat (1954) and Gunman’s Walk (1958). He also made the most of the numerous ‘solider boy’ roles he was pigeonholed into by injecting his characters with a rich personality and genuine passion as seen in Battle Cry (1955) and That Kind of Woman (1955). The documentary does a good job of broadening audience’s presumptions about Hunter and presents him as a complex and compelling man who overcame great odds and eventually found acceptance, love and cult status thanks to his work with director John Waters.
Tab Hunter Confidential is an extension of Hunter’s autobiography written in conjunction with film historian Eddie Muller, which I briefly discussed back in 2012. We get to know Hunter through his own words as he describes the various highs and lows that have accompanied his life and career. It also includes interviews with many of his costars and Hollywood insiders as well as TCM’s own Robert Osborne.
The interviews are weaved between clips from Hunter’s various film and TV appearances providing viewers with a look at his transition from bit player to superstar. It doesn’t cover every aspect of Hunter’s life and some of his most interesting roles during the sixties in films such as The Loved One (1965) and Vengeance Is My Forgiveness (1968) are sadly overlooked. Despite this, it’s a well-rounded portrait of a man who learned early on to guard his feelings and keep a tight lid on his emotions. Hunter comes across as incredibly likable and down to earth but he’s still reserved and keeps his cards close to his chest.
Tab Hunter aka Arthur Gelien (his stage moniker was the invention of his agent Henry Willson) was born in New York on July 11, 1931. By all accounts, Hunter’s father was an ogre who regularly abused his wife. When she finally had enough she packed up her two sons, Tab and his older brother Walt, and fled to the West Coast where she attempted to make a life for herself as a single woman with two young children. It couldn’t have been easy for the family and the hardships they faced ultimately took their toll on his mother’s mental health.
Hunter’s family was Catholic and while growing up he attended parochial schools and sang in the church choir. He was also extremely active and learned to figure skate and ride horses early on. His equestrian interests developed into a lifelong passion for horses that he still maintains today.
When the painfully shy and awkward Hunter left parochial school to attend public high school he was mobbed by swooning teenage girls to the point where he had to hide from their advances. The unwanted attention emboldened 15-year-old Hunter to lie about his age and join the Coast Guard in 1946. During this time, Hunter would spend his off-hours going to see movies and eventually earned the nickname “Hollywood.” When the Coast Guard finally discovered he was underage they kicked Hunter out and he went back to Los Angeles to live with his mother while taking any odd job he could find. While working at a horse stable he befriended actor Richard ‘Dick’ Clayton who encouraged Hunter to pursue a career in movies. The rest, as they say, is Hollywood history.
During all of this, Hunter was forced to keep his sexuality hidden. In post-WWII America being gay was considered a form of mental illness and the Catholic Church, which Hunter was devoted to, had labeled it an unspeakable sin. Hunter tried to discuss his feelings with priests he trusted but he was treated like a pariah. It took decades before he finally reconciled with the Church but it’s painfully clear that Hunter had trouble accepting himself in the bigoted and hostile environment that was prevalent then.
Although it’s often forgotten today, Hunter’s recording career was as important as his acting career and helped make him a household name in the 1950s. To take advantage of this, Jack Warner created Warner Brother Records as a means to control and financially benefit from Hunter’s musical activities. One of the documentary’s highlights is a clip of Hunter performing his hit song “Young Love” on The Perry Como Showin 1957 (you can also find it on Youtube). When the ridiculously handsome actor shyly belts out “They say for every boy and girl there’s just one love in this whole world and I know I found mine” you can easily imagine millions of young hearts melting. Unfortunately for Hunter, love did not come so easy in real life.
Obliged to keep his sexual identity a secret, Hunter had clandestine affairs with championship ice-skater Ronnie Robertson and fellow actor Anthony Perkins but his relationships constantly came under scrutiny from Hollywood studio executives and were fodder for gossip magazines. He eventually considered marring the French actress Etchika Choureau who he met on the set of Lafayette Escadrille (1958). The two were incredibly fond of one another and Hunter admits he was attracted to Choureau but he abandoned the idea of marriage when he realized he could never seriously commit to her. At a time when sham marriages were typical amid gay actors in Hollywood who were desperate to present a picture of homogenized domestic bliss to the public, Hunter’s decision was an admirable one.
He eventually found his perfect match in film producer Allan Glaser who has been his partner since 1983. The couple met while Hunter was trying to find a studio to produce his western comedy, Lust in the Dust (1985). Hunter’s career was in the process of undergoing a resurgence following his work on John Water’s cult classic Polyester (1981) and after befriending the drag artist Divine, Hunter was eager to work with him again. The two were eventually reunited in Lust in the Dust and although Divine died a few short years later, Hunter has often referred to him as one of his favorite leading ladies along with Natalie Wood and Geraldine Page.
Tab Hunter fans and classic film enthusiasts eager to learn more about how the studio system controlled and manipulated their stars identities should find the documentary particularly interesting. Hopefully, it will also encourage new interest in Hunter’s film work which has often been pushed to the sidelines while focus on his sexuality and celebrity status remains paramount. Hunter’s acting abilities may not have had the opportunity to flourish due to personal pressures and limited opportunities but few can boast that they held their own against powerhouse performers such as Robert Mitchum and Van Heflin. In addition, even fewer can claim that they portrayed utterly believable romantic leading men opposite sensual starlets like Dorothy Malone and Sophia Loren while managing to keep their own sexuality under wraps.
On September 19, TCM is running a double feature of Tab Hunter films that I hope readers will tune in to see. First up is the highly entertaining The Steel Lady (1954), an action-packed tale of survival where Hunter and three other men (Rod Cameron, John Dehner & Richard Erdman) endure a plane crash in the Sahara and are forced to fight their way out of the desert in a recovered WW2 tank. Afterward you can catch Hunter in Return to Treasure Island (1954), a loosely constructed sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure tale of piracy on the high seas. The second film is not as engaging as the first but Hunter is shirtless throughout and provides a lot of generous eye-candy.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movies and published in 2016