It begins with a startlingly innocent scene: men sitting next to each other and women dancing with each other, smiling and occasionally holding hands.
“It was just a party,” a voice states. “And people were dancing and having a good time. Parties like this were...illegal.”
The next moment, images of trench-coated cops walking toward the camera appear onscreen.
“The doors burst open and there they were,” the voice states. “They were arresting a bunch of...queers. They took us down to the police station, and I thought ‘Oh my God, this is terrible.’”
The voice is that of Tab Hunter speaking to the cameras of a documentary film crew. Tab Hunter, the bronzed adonis of a 1950s movie star, who blazed a trail through Hollywood while remaining firmly in the closet, starring with the likes of Sophia Loren and in such blockbusters as Damn Yankees.
Tab Hunter Confidential is scheduled to be the main men’s feature event at next week’s 2015 QFilm Festival, showing at 7:00PM on Thursday, September 10, and it does not disappoint.
The film traces the birth, rising star, decline and post-Hollywood life of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Tab Hunter, born Arthur “Artie” Kelm in 1931. (His agent changed his name when he first started in show business.) Throughout most of Tab Hunter’s career, he was cast as the beautiful, heterosexual boy-next-door.
The movie is a meditation on the cost of keeping one’s true identity a secret for the majority of one’s life as well as a reflection of the power of Hollywood studios in controlling the image of movie stars.
“For me to come out of myself like this and to share all of this is extremely difficult. I’ve never been as open as I am with you, because...it’s been written about, and what the heck, you know. I’m an old man, you know,” Hunter said, laughing. “This is my life. Big deal.”
Hunter openly delves into past relationships, including ones as a teen with figure skating star Ronnie Robertson and Psycho's Anthony Perkins. His ability to move beyond the stigma he once associated with his private life and to speak without shame is both commendable and refreshing.
What’s perhaps most striking is the differences between the Hollywood of the ‘50s and the Hollywood of today. The power studios once had was much more intense than the power of studios today; without the advent of the internet and rise of tabloid journalism, the studios were able to broker deals with the media that fed the public pure ideas of an actor or actress’ private life.
Reckless Hollywood youth wouldn’t be photographed immediately at the whim of the paparazzi; the media were used strategically by the studios, and their products were shaped by the studios for their own marketing purposes.
For example, Hunter was one of the last film stars to sign an exclusive studio contract with Warner Brothers Studios, along with Natalie Wood and James Dean. While he was employed by the studio, the notorious magazine Confidential outed Hunter, detailing his arrest at the aforementioned party documented in the opening scenes of the film. It was a story laced with innuendo, suggesting that Hunter was gay.
However, Warner Bros. persuaded the media to take pictures of Hunter and Wood together, while Hunter was privately seeing actor Anthony Perkins, and Wood was secretly dating Robert Wagner. As a result, Hunter’s popularity did not wane, and he went on to star in the most successful films of his career.
Tab Hunter Confidential successfully pairs images of the lithe young Tab Hunter with the mature man he is today, looking back on his youth with candor. His honesty adds an authenticity to the film, and an intriguing perspective of a time that, on the outside, appeared innocent and serene, but was filled with the same gossip and power struggles the world openly witnesses today.
Old, glossy footage of movies evokes the glamour of old Hollywood and an up-close glimpse of just how beautiful the actresses Tab Hunter was surrounded by were. Hunter talks about how he once considered marrying a co-star, but felt marrying a woman to be his “beard” was a lie, while continuing to see men was a sin. He was conflicted, but stayed true to himself, despite society’s negative view of gay culture.
What could have turned into a depressing story given the time period, is actually quite uplifting. Hunter did not die of AIDS, as many closeted stars from his era did (including Rock Hudson and Anthony Perkins). He also did not remain single and embedded in the Hollywood scene.
Hunter reflects upon his career and youth at his home in Santa Barbara, where he has pursued his passion of equestrian horseback riding and horse shows for the last few decades of his life. He lives there with his partner of 30 years, film producer Alan Glaser, whom he met during a career resurgence in the 1980s that included collaborations with John Waters (Polyester) and a role in Grease 2.
The pacing of the film is at times a bit slow, especially toward the end, but its focus is comprehensive. The most brilliant moments in the documentary take place in the beginning, with quick snapshots of the danger Hunter confronted as a gay man in Hollywood (the scene of the cops arresting him at the party) juxtaposed with glamour shots of him on the beach and in movies with beautiful actresses. Diving into the underworld of Hollywood is fascinating, given the polished image of perfection the movies succeeded at selling.
Despite the many difficulties of his life, which included placing his single mother in a mental care facility, Hunter has established a loving, authentic life. Above all, Tab Hunter Confidential shows that such a life is possible in the face of seemingly insurmountable hardship.
Walking away from the movie, I was inspired by Hunter’s practical eloquence and matter-of-fact commitment to being who he really is. It’s a standout choice for QFilms’ men’s feature. We can all learn from Tab Hunter. He’s a true star—and that is definitely not confidential.
Above, left: movie poster courtesy of tabhunterconfidential.com.
This story was updated on September 3, 2015 at 1:59PM to correct the list of Tab Hunter's co-stars.