Above, a gallery of proof that Tab Hunter is a hot, hot piece!
A few weeks back, my buddy John invited me to see Tab Hunter at a screening of the Jeffrey Schwarz-directed documentary on his life, Tab Hunter Confidential. I'd already been trying to get tickets to no avail (the Film Forum Web site was touting the movie, but not allowing a ticket to be bought), so was happy when he snagged us seats. (If you're a jealous Long Islander, see Tab tonight at the Cinema Arts Centre!)
I, of course, always forget I am a media outlet and buy tickets to stuff like this. In fast, last week, I was invited to interview Hunter and his longtime partner and business partner Allan Glaser (I'll post that this week), so it seems I could've had a free ticket.
However, I do like paying for things that need the money, and small documentaries need the money; I want more of them to be made, especially the ones made by Schwarz, who has fulfilled many a gay fantasy by giving us in-depth looks at Jack Wrangler, Vito Russo, Divine and—next!—Allan Carr.
Look at the range of men among Schwarz's subjects: a gay (for pay?) pornstar, a firebrand activist, a pioneering drag queen and, in Hunter, an obsessively private teen heartthrob with a gigantic secret. This is a filmmaker I am happy to support.
The screening was a blast.
John's hubby Sheldon had actually been a fan of Tab's back in the day—rank amateurs such as myself first became aware of him once he had what've-I-got-to-lost himself in the John Waters masterpiece Polyester (1981), and then worked our way backward—and had seen Tab on Broadway in the ill-fated production of Tennessee Williams's The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, in which the blond heartthrob had starred with Tallulah Bankhead. That only ran three performances, so you can imagine how many people on earth can claim to have caught one.
The place was packed with people like Sheldon who had a legit interest in Tab, and in showbiz. For example, I sat next to a charming man who barely hinted at his résumé, which I later discovered included directing 100+ TV shows ... even one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes. He said he knew Tab in passing but knew Tony Perkins—one of Tab's loves—“better.” I'm looking forward to lunch with this guy!
I do hope the director is a bit more gossipy than Tab is. Though he has become far more open with the 2006 publication of his memoir Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star (Algonquin Books) with writer Eddie Muller, and now with this film, Tab is old-school—he doesn't enjoy dishing the dirt. That's both an admirable and a frustrating trait.
The film itself is a solid work that at times feels like a sunny recitation of Tab's good qualities—he is sincere, he is hard-working, he seems never to have let fame go to his head (think of him as a saner, better-looking Bieber), he is loyal, he is beautiful. Because Hunter and Glaser (who produced the film, and who produced Hunter's flicks Lust in the Dust in 1985 and Dark Horse in 1992) had such control over this project, it was always going to have a distinctly “authorized” quality.
That said, I don't think one would get very far arguing that there was a lot of unflattering stuff to leave out in the first place—who doesn't like Tab Hunter? The documentary puts the “joy” in enjoyable not by putting an artificially positive spin on a public figure, but by focusing on a naturally positive public figure. While the movie doesn't shy away from Tab's mother's struggle with mental illness, it is an overall bubbly look at a bubbly person whose flaws never dragged him down and never became an excuse for bad behavior, and is an occasionally juicy look at the studio system at the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood, at the dinner-theater circuit (Liz Torres gives great blue-plate special dish on this topic) and at the inner workings of how teen stars were minted in the '50s.
Tab is an extremely likable, self-effacing man in his doc, but probably the most effective interviews were those with his former beards, the young starlets with whom he went out on studio-arranged dates, like Debbie Reynolds, Etchika Choureau and Venetia Stevenson, who provide far more candid comments about what it was like fake-dating the best-looking man in the world, yet one who didn't care to round the bases with them.
Fascinatingly, Hunter almost married Parisian bombshell Choureau even though he spoke no French and she spoke no English. Like, none. Comparing the beards' experiences to that of a girl who won a teen-mag date with Tab in the '50s—and who is still glowing from the memory, 50 years later—was my favorite part of the film.
The film benefits greatly from Schwarz's slick sensibilities, and from Glaser's apparently tireless re-collecting of archival material via eBay, since Hunter—who doesn't seem to relate to his former life in the slightest—never saved anything, not even a headshot, from the past.
Tab is one of the older generation of gay people who still seems uncomfortable dwelling on issues of gay identity. He hates labels, which a friend of mine fairly sees as internalized homophobia. He's no George Takei (who was at the screening!), but perhaps instead of holding his Catholicism-fueled conservatism and reticence against him, maybe we can think it admirable that he overcame his upbringing enough to matter-of-factly acknowledge that he is gay and to agree to appear in a film that focuses, in part, on that aspect of his life. How many Golden Age of Hollywood figures who were gay: (1) came out professionally, and (2) spoke about it at length in the context of their status as stars? Not many.
For that reason alone, don't miss Tab Hunter Confidential, and you'll probably be pleasantly surprised by some of what else you find here.