Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 27, 2015 9:36 pm 
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Hollywood gay

Tab Hunter Confidential, based on the blond Fifties heartthrob's 2005 book, is narrated, with fluency, by the now eighty-four-year-old but still very good-looking Tab himself from start to finish. But the producer Allan Glaser, also Tab's longtime companion for the last thirty years, says it took seven years, due to the subject's reticence. He is "out of the closet," but still reluctantly. The "out" stars who emerged in the last decade or so, like Ellen, Rosie, George (Takei), Ian, Nathan Lane, are a little artificial, because as this film points out, there are big Hollywood stars who're as closeted now, of necessity, as anybody in the Fifties. Have things change so much? Tab, though, having put acting behind him for over twenty years, now lives in a beautiful house in Montecito, California with Glaser, several dogs, and several horses. Born Arthur Kelm, raised Arthur Gelien (his mother's name), he seems like a simple guy. But his life was not simple.

Director Jeffrey Schwarz, who has made many videos and documentary shorts, recently focusing on gay themes, presents Tab's story in a slightly humorous (but warm and indulgent) archival style: every time Tab mentions something, like talking to his mother, or being in a surfing picture, an appropriate image, often a still, instantly pops up to illustrate it. It's almost like a primer on Tab Hunter's life.

He had an older brother he always looked up to, who died in the Vietnam war. He was handsome from very early on in a pure, beaming, blue-eyed blond way, so attractive to girls he had to run from them and hide in empty classrooms sometimes in high school. He joined the Coast Guard to escape that, but was kicked out for being underage. Always concerned to support his mother, who'd been abandoned by his father, who'd abused her (and was Jewish, which he doesn't mention here, though he has elsewhere), he had a succession of minor jobs, till he was offered a contract at Warner Brothers. Being homosexual was illegal in the Fifties, and once he was rounded up and arrested (for "disorderly conduct") in a group who were partying, a fact later revealed in Confidential, the scandal sheet movie actors lived in fear of in those days. But a feature of the studios was they fiercely protected the reputations of actors in their stables.

Tab Hunter was bland, and got boy-next-door roles. At first he was terrible, as noted here by Rex Reed, one of the talking heads (another is John Waters). But he worked hard to become a good actor, and succeeded, as an early success as George in a stage production of Our Town showed; his co-star of the time confirms this. His first high profile film was Leon Uris' Battle Cry, directed by Raoul Walsh (1955). But that was his seventh movie, and he started in 1950. Nonetheless he was the pinup on every girl's wall in these years. It's almost with delight that he confirms that frequently he was roasted by critics at fist, but loved by the audience. When he was a hot star, he was dating movie stars like Natalie Wood, and Debbie Reynolds -- who speaks highly of him today.

His three-year affair with Tony Perkins, carefully concealed of course, was pivotal. They went on double dates for a while going home with each other at the end of the evening. It turned sour when Perkins stole the movie role of Jim Pearsall in Fear Strikes Out from Tab, who had played in the TV version, and was counting on playing it on screen. Perkins was more cutthroat in his ambition. Tab's narration, colored by his current far-from-Hollywood life (Glaser says he doesn't keep any memorabilia of his days as a star and flips away from his old movies on TV), is to take his career lightly, and see it all as a lot of fun at the time. Wanting more artistic freedom, Tab bought out of his Warner Brothers contract. This was death to his career. Independent roles of real value did not materialize, and without the studio to protect him from gossip, his reputation suffered. He was forced to do dinner theater -- an exhausting activity.

Tab, unlike Tony Perkins, who anyway was a better actor, was never my type, and I never went to see his movies. But I was surprised to learn from this documentary what a lot of talents he had. He skated competitively when young, and was nearly pro-quality: his first relationship was with the pro skater Ronnie Robertson. He recounts how Robertson did not receive a title he merited because he insisted on attending the competition with Hunter, against the sponsors' wishes. He had a successful singing career for a while, with some big hits: and he could sing (and, again, enjoyed himself doing it). Long before he was an actor, he was a very talented horseman, good at jumping. His first longtime relationship, of seven years, with Neal Noorlag, began with giving Noorlag jumping lessons. Glaser he met as producer of John Waters' Lust in the Dust, his second outing with John Waters. After Hunter's career had tanked for years, his fearless and fun choice of starring in Waters' 1981 movie Polyester breathed new life into it, bringing him back into the limelight.

The comparison of Perkins and Hunter is a fascinating one. The are gay opposites, New York Tony dark, sexy, cute but mysterious, California Tab the all-American boy, blond, macho, athletic and uncomplicated. Late in the documentary Hunter muses on Perkins' death from AIDS in 1992; he had been married to "Berry" Berenson for nineteen hears, with two children. Had he been trying to change, all those years, but not succeeding? he wonders (Perkins' first heterosexual sex was at the age of thirty-nine.) Tab Hunter never thought of marrying. For him in the early days, gay sex was a sin but straight sex would have been a lie. He may have always been guarded and private, but he was still always true to himself. Nowadays he seems to live a very serene and happy life.

Tab Hunter Confidential,. 90 mins., debuted at SXSW March 2015; 18 other festivals, a including a number of gay ones. US theatrical release from 16 Oct. 2015; special showing 12 Oct. at 7:30 at Film Forum, with an appearance by Tab Hunter in person; he also appeared for a 19 Oct. screening of John Waters' Polyester. Bay Area Tab Hunter Confidential showing from 6 Nov. 2015.

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