The easygoing documentary Tab Hunter Confidential offers an insidery look at 1950s Hollywood through narration provided by the amiable Tab Hunter himself, who at 84 looks decades younger.
Born Arthur Kelm, Hunter had the kind of all-American good looks that teenage girls used to squeal and swoon over. His combination of blond hair, blue eyes and square jaw epitomized youthful masculinity of the era. But he was secretly gay.
No wonder he wasn’t “on the make,” as Debbie Reynolds explains in the film. Hunter’s shyness made him all the more popular with the ladies, and he was often photographed on “dates” with such actresses as Natalie Wood.
Hunter quickly became an asset for Warner Bros., starring in Gunman’s Walk, Damn Yankees! and other box office successes. And he wasn’t just an actor; he also scored some hit records. Yet his stardom didn’t last long.
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This is where the movie, directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, begins to feel like a bait-and-switch. During the opening scene of the documentary, Hunter revisits a night in 1950 when he was arrested while attending a gathering of other closeted gays. As he speaks, we see movie clips and music that set a film noir mood before Hunter says ominously, “I had no idea it was going to jump up and be thrown at me years later.”
For all the weight that the movie gives this episode, it was hardly a pivotal moment in Hunter’s life.
To be sure, Confidential magazine got wind of it years later, running a story about how America’s favorite hunk was caught at “a limp-wristed pajama party,” as the article put it. But the story didn’t end Tab Hunter. Everyone moved on. Even studio head Jack Warner, who was likely used to covering for closeted actors, reassured Hunter that “today’s headlines are tomorrow’s toilet paper.”
In fact, the actor’s undoing was his decision to terminate his contract with Warner 1959. It had nothing to do with his homosexuality. By the time Hunter was ready for another shot, moviegoers had become interested in a more anti-establishment kind of hero. The perfect face was passe, and Hunter was relegated to traveling the country doing dinner theater.
The documentary is based on Hunter’s 2006 autobiography, which gave him a chance to fess up to his lifelong secret and admit that he had been in a relationship with producer Allan Glaser for decades. Although that revelation won’t mean much to viewers who don’t know Tab Hunter’s name, the movie’s more interesting threads involve the actor’s secret relationship with another up-and-coming actor, Anthony Perkins. Also fascinating: How Hunter rejuvenated his career in the 1980s by teaming with John Waters and Divine on Polyester.
The movie isn’t especially subtle, providing a relentless stream of eye candy in the form of photos of Hunter in his prime, set to cheesy background music. Still, Hunter proves to be an engaging if low-key narrator, whose greatest asset is his refusal to take himself too seriously.
You’ve got to give credit to any documentary that gets former screen siren Venetia Stevenson, one of Hunter’s female companions, to admit, “I suppose I was a beard.”
Exclusive: The Texas Theatre, Dallas
Tab Hunter Confidential
Director: Jeffrey Schwarz
Cast: Tab Hunter, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman
Rated: Unrated (nothing objectionable)
Running time: 90 min.