In the 1950’s, the tall, lanky All-American boy next door, born Arthur Gelien but now known as Tab Hunter, was a matinee idol and hit recording artist. Girls swooned for him. His pictures covered school lockers and bedroom walls. Turntables and radios played his songs over and over and over. He was romantically linked to some of the greatest starlets in Hollywood, Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood among them. He was #1 at the box office, #1 on the record charts and #1 in the hearts of millions. But just how did young Art Gelien become Tab Hunter? And at what cost?
Based on Hunter’s 2006 autobiography co-written with Hollywood historian Eddie Muller, director/editor Jeffrey Schwarz adapts Hunter’s story for the big screen in this candid and engaging documentary. Now 84 years of age and having long retired from the public eye, making “Tab Hunter Confidential” special is Hunter’s own involvement in the project with countless interviews and recollections from him which provide the backbone of the documentary; in fact, it took seven years for, Allan Glaser, his partner of 30+ years and a producer here, to convince Hunter to allow the documentary to be made.
The title of the documentary, and the autobiography, serves as the entry point into Hunter’s story as we learn about his arrest at age 19. Fresh-faced newcomer to Hollywood, Hunter was caught at a private gay party; a taboo in the 1950’s. Agent Henry Wilson stepped into the picture and covered up the story and the fact that Tab Hunter was gay. Unfortunately, that cover-up would come back to haunt him years later when Hunter “fired” Wilson and out of revenge, Wilson sold the story to one of the biggest gossip rags of the day, “Confidential Magazine.” But there’s one thing that we learn early on in “Tab Hunter Confidential”, and that’s Hunter’s survivability, positivity and ability to roll with the punches. And it’s those qualities that not only kept him aloft, but helped his star rise even higher; well, that, and Jack Warner. But be careful, because what Jack Warner giveth, Jack Warner taketh away.
While Hunter’s sexuality is addressed throughout the documentary, along with his long term relationship with Anthony Perkins, as well as his decades long happy partnership now with Glaser, “Tab Hunter Confidential” is not Hollywood tell-all filled with tension, doom and gloom. Hunter’s story focuses on his career, not his personal life. His personal life remained just that thanks to the “gentlemen’s agreements” of the day. As one of the last crop to come through the studio system, Hunter’s recollections and anecdotes are engaging, insightful and refreshing.
Structured chronologically by director Schwarz, we follow Hunter’s career from that early arrest to a one line walk-on in the John Wayne-Lana Turner vehicle, “The Sea Chase” and on to films like “Battle Cry” and “Track of the Cat” before ultimately landing the roll of a lifetime in “Damn Yankees”. Sweet and poignant are Hunter’s recollections of his mother (many of which are not even in the film but which he relayed to me during an exclusive interview), including her telling him, “You were lousy”, after seeing his first film, “Island of Desire” with Linda Darnell. Hunter keeps no secrets from us.
Interviews with former co-stars, contemporaries of the day, and friends like Robert Wagner, Debbie Reynolds, Connie Stevens, Darryl Hickman, Don Murray and Mother Dolores Hart speak volumes as to Hunter’s character, his kindness, his professionalism, his genuineness and his talent, while also shedding light on the mores of the day with staged studio romances and the protective nature of the studios not only for their stars, but their private lives. Insightful and welcome commentary on Hunter’s films themselves and Hollywood history comes from Rona Barrett, Rex Reed and of course, TCM legend, Robert Osborne.
We learn of Hunter’s value to Jack Warner, so much so that when Hunter’s records were skyrocketing to the top of the record charts for Dodd Records, Warner started Warner Bros. Records just to keep one of his top properties in the Warner stables. But we also learn first-hand of Jack Warner’s power when Hunter buys out the remaining time on his contract hoping to work on meatier projects for other studios over what Warner was giving him. No one would hire him. Ever the survivor, Hunter broke ground on the dinner theatre circuit and television, the latter in which some of his greatest work would appear with shows like “Playhouse 90.” And then came John Waters, who also lends his voice to the Hunter story, with Hunter’s re-discovery by a new generation with Waters’ cult classics, “Polyester” and “Lust In The Dust”, which also showcased something not seen in Hunter in the 50’s – comedic ability and self-parody .
“Tab Hunter Confidential” addresses Hunter’s youth and early family life, while staying true to Hunter’s belief that not every detail of one’s life be shared, there is no deep probing into his very private past, yet his love for family and his Catholic faith are evident throughout the film.
Although the 2006 book was much more explorative and in depth, the adaptation to documentary is well done and topically inclusive. Schwarz keeps the film moving and light, with Hunter’s own affability as the anchor. Pacing is exceedingly well done as is the editing and the documentary’s construct with segments and interview placements.
As Tab Hunter rides into the sunset on his beloved mare Harlow (had he not become an actor, he would have become a horse trainer. And yes, he has always been a champion equestrian.), stating “I’m happy to be forgotten”, thanks to his still legions of fans and admirers, and now “Tab Hunter Confidential”, Tab Hunter will never be forgotten.
Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz