Friday, October 23, 2015

Jeffrey Schwarz & Allan Glaser's TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL: an engrosssing, enriching, informative look at the lives--real and manufactured--of a 1950s Hollywood star

Back in the mid-20th-century, who didn't have a crush on Tab Hunter? That uber-adorable blond boy of German ancestry, whose gorgeous face and sveltely muscular body set the screen ablaze from his first big role (opposite Linda Darnell), almost immediately became the nationwide idol of teenage girls (and boys with certain proclivities), going on to make a couple dozen film and/or TV appearances over a ten-year period that would ensure his entry into the Hollywood pantheon. Critics may have come late, if at all, to his actual acting ability, but nobody, I suspect, could gainsay the guy's ability to turn heads, hearts and libidos his way. Now comes a new documentary, TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL, that not only tells the actor's story -- damned well, too -- but might easily stand in for a textbook case of how the Hollywood dream factory created then sold those dreams to a more-than-willing public. The film is also one of the best documentaries made thus far about the career and lives -- real and manufactured -- of a Hollywood "star."

The creation of producer Allan Glaser (shown at left) -- the actual identity of whom becomes apparent toward the end of the documentary, at which point it couldn't seem more pleasing and appropriate -- and director Jeffrey Schwarz (below, right), the film should prove catnip to Hunter's many fans, most of whom are now senior citizens. Beyond this, however, the movie may very well capture the somewhat younger audience who knows Hunter from his later work with John Waters, Paul Bartel and Divine (Polyester and Lust in the Dust).

Mr. Schwarz's fine work (he both directed and edited the documentary) weaves together Hunter's career with his life, his family (an older and much-looked-up-to brother, a mother with mental problems and an absentee dad), and the necessity of remaining in the closet due to his homosexuality -- which was not only a Hollywood career-breaker but illegal and grounds for imprisonment back in the 1950s. Schwarz allows Hunter to tell his own story, abetted by a terrific library of archival photos, clips from various films and Hollywood "news" footage from that era.

Mr. Hunter (above in his "dreamboat" days, below in his current life) appears to be a pretty "private" guy, almost as much now as in his heyday when he had so much to hide. Still, at the film's beginning, he promises to give up the goods, and by and large he does just that. (The movie's title, by the way, is a nasty nod to the nastiest magazine of its day, Confidential, that delighted in opening up scandals -- often sexual in nature, with homosexual best of all, of course -- that could and often did destroy an actor's career.)

When the magazine "outed" Hunter, the advice of one of his mentors, Warner Bros.' Jack Warner, proved smart and helpful to the young actor. As did that of some of his co-stars and leading ladies -- from Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds to Venetia Stevenson and Etchika Choureau -- all of whom seemed to have liked and cared quite a bit about this rising star.

Ms. Stevenson, in fact, tells us that she didn't at all mind being seen dating Hunter and likewise dating Anthony Perkins (shown in background, above), thus acting as a "beard" to cover up the affair between the two (yes!). The Perkins connection proves one of the film's most interesting aspects, as it sheds a lot of light on the gay dating habits of that day, as well as on the character of the also-very-private Mr. Perkins, whose affair with Hunter seemed to cool, due to a certain television and then movie property called Fear Strikes Out.

Hunter's lead-role appearance in the TV version, and Perkins' follow-up in the movie makes for some very interesting fodder for ideas about ambition and betrayal in Hollywood. Hunter's work in television and even in legitimate theater also proves salient, interesting and even sometimes amusing, as shown here.

Some of us may have forgotten just how successful was Hunter as a recording artist -- something else the film makes sure we understand. Warner Bros Records, in fact, was created because Hunter's number one pop song was recorded for Dot Records (only because Warners did not yet have its own record label!).

The documentary is full of fascinating stuff like this, and its 90 minutes seem to fly by. By the finale, you'll have grown to admire and appreciate Mr. Hunter (as well as his producer, Mr. Glaser, and director Schwarz), feeling, I suspect, that there is great deal more to the man and his work than first met the eye. Though what met that eye was -- still is -- rather extraordinary.

Tab Hunter Confidential, from Automat Pictures and The Film Collaborative, while continuing at New York City's Village East Cinema, opens today, Friday, October 23, in other cities, and hits Los Angeles at Landmark's NuArt next Friday, October 30. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

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