“TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL”

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As a kid reared in the 70s, I never knew Tab Hunter in his prime. By the time I was a budding cinephile, Hunter was known two me from his two collaborations with Divine (Polyester and Lust in the Dust), as a homicidal necrophile in Sweet Kill, and as the nervous science teacher in Grease 2. My limited knowledge of Hunter was that he was a ‘50s-era blonde beach hunk (I had fallen prey to a simplification Hunter himself deplored: “I was only in one beach movie!” he protests) that all the gay men I knew loved – and was rumoured himself to be gay. Of course Hunter came from an era where this not only wasn’t talked about, it was illegal. It was really only with his 2006 autobiography Tab Hunter Confidential; The Making of a Movie Star, co-written with “The Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller, that he was coaxed into coming out to the public.

tab bookWhen the two were on tour with the book, I was able to book them into a gig at the original Colorado Street Alamo Drafthouse Cinema where I worked, and even on stage, with the book released and Tab Hunter’s “secret” openly discussed in its pages, he was still hesitant to talk about it. But Jeffrey Schwarz’ new documentary of the same name takes this as its starting point, with Hunter admitting he was gay in a time when he wasn’t even sure what that meant – because it was never openly verbalized even among men who were gay – before the film backtracks to his fatherless childhood, the confusing teen years when he would be shamelessly mobbed on a daily basis by female classmates, and eventually his superstardom, which was always threatened to be undone by his double life.

The film moves chronologically through Hunter’s life beginning with his discovery and a critically damning early acting appearance in Island of Desire (Stuart Heisler, 1952) before winning hearts with his breakout film Battle Cry (Raoul Walsh, 1955) for Warner Brothers, where he beat out Paul Newman and James Dean to play the fresh-faced marine Danny Forrester. From there the publicity machine started churning, although hunter admits that at the time, “the publicity exceeded the product.” Whether he was referring to his then-unrefined acting chops or the quantity of film work he was getting is unclear, but by the middle of the decade, he was Warner Brothers’ top-grossing star.

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Above: Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood

As early as 1955, rumours of Hunter’s homosexuality were circulating, aided in no small part by an article in the tabloid Confidential, who reported that Hunter had been busted at a “limp-wristed party”. While the story wasn’t exactly recent, it was sold to them by Hunter’s ousted manager Henry Wilson in exchange for the rag burying a similar story about his Hollywood meal-ticket, Rock Hudson. Luckily, the article had little effect on Hunter’s then-burgeoning career, and to help dispel such rumours he was frequently paired on arranged dates with co-stars such as Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood – the latter with whom he had a close, sibling-like relationship. These arrangements also helped veil his long-term romantic relationships with figure skater Ronnie Robertson and Anthony Perkins.

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Above: Tab Hunter and Tony Perkins

Of the film’s impressive roster of interviewees – including Robert Wagner, Connie Stevens, Debbie Reynolds, George Takei, Rona Barrett and even Clint Eastwood, who is shoehorned in despite having nothing of consequence to add – John Waters imparts how he first knew of Hunter not through his films but his music – specifically his first #1 hit, “Young Love”. The record was released by independent label Dot in 1957, which raised the ire of Warners, who had Hunter under an exclusive contract. But the success of the single prompted them to start Warner Brothers Records, so that they could continue to exploit Hunter’s appeal to the teen music market. As Waters notes, Hunter was as big as a crooner as he was a movie star. This talent would be tapped to great effect decades later as Hunter parodied himself in (the woefully underrated) Grease 2 (Patricia Birch, 1982).

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Above: Sweet Kill (1973)

Hunter’s star started to fall in the late 60s and he turned to B-pictures for work – Curtis Hanson’s directorial debut Sweet Kill (1973) among them, wherein Hunter plays a surfer who finds that his sexual repulsion towards women turns to arousal when they are dead. It’s a bizarre entry in the necrophilia canon and not one Hunter was especially proud of, although the character’s internal struggle and his exchanges with women in the film seem especially poignant given his real life situation.

But it was Hunter’s willingness to try out kooky roles like this that eventually put him back on the map – when John Waters approached him to star in Polyester (1981), where he would have to make out with now-legendary drag queen Divine, Hunter went for it, and became an icon for a whole new audience unfamiliar with his early career. He collaborated again with Divine on Paul Bartel’s Lust in the Dust (1985), which he believed in so strongly he personally lobbied for production funds, which led him to producer – and now his partner of over 30 years – Allan Glaser.

Glaser was also the producer of this documentary, which allows for a candidness that might not be there otherwise. That said, the groundwork was laid with the original book, and at over 400 pages it covers a lot more than a 90-minute film can hope to. But the director of Tab Hunter Confidential is no slouch. Jeffrey Schwarz is a prolific documentarian and a staple at LGBT fests with acclaimed films like Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon (2008), Vito (2011) and I Am Divine (2013); that he also shares a predilection for horror pictures (he directed Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story, 2011 and numerous horror DVD featurettes as well as exec-producing That Guy Dick Miller, 2014) has kept him on my radar with interest. While put together using a fairly standard structure – talking heads intercut with movie clips and animated stills – Tab Hunter Confidential has an undeniable bounce to it, and a wealth of mid-century Hollywood history seen through the unique perspective of a closeted, and ultimately resilient mega-star.

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TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL screens at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto this week through Thursday Oct 29th. For more (inter)national dates on the film, see the film’s website HERE.

See Tab Hunter’s official site HERE.

About the author:

Kier-La Janisse

Kier-La Janisse is a film writer and programmer, founder of Spectacular Optical Publications and The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, co-founded Montreal microcinema Blue Sunshine, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival (1999-2005) in Vancouver, was the Festival Director of Monster Fest in Melbourne, Australia and was the subject of the documentary Celluloid Horror (2005). She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012) and contributed to Destroy All Movies!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (Fantagraphics, 2011), Recovering 1940s Horror: Traces of a Lost Decade (Lexington, 2014) The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul (University of Toronto Press, 2015) and We Are the Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale (PS Press, 2017). She co-edited (with Paul Corupe) and published the anthology books KID POWER! (2014), Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s (2015), Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin (2017) and Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television (2017). She edited the book Warped & Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive (forthcoming), and is currently co-authoring (with Amy Searles) the book ‘Unhealthy and Aberrant’: Depictions of Horror Fandom in Film and Television and co-curating (with Clint Enns) an anthology book on the films of Robert Downey, Sr., as well as writing a monograph about Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter. She was a producer on Mike Malloy’s Eurocrime: the Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the ’70s and Sean Hogan’s We Always Find Ourselves in the Sea and her first film as director/producer, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is due out from Severin Films in 2020.

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