J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Tab Hunter Confidential: from Warner Brothers to John Waters

He was part of the final generation of stars groomed under the old fashioned studio system. Tab Hunter’s Warner Brothers contract would be considered exploitative by today’s standards, but it provided him the protection from the tabloid press he needed. Once that was gone, his name became closely linked with scandal. The former heartthrob takes stock of his career highs and lows in Jeffrey Schwarz’s Tab Hunter Confidential (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Unless you are a big John Waters fan, Damn Yankees! might just be all the Tab Hunter you know. However, at one time he was James Dean’s biggest rival and the star of Battle Cry, one of the biggest hits of 1955. He was also mostly closeted, except for a gossipy story in the infamous scandal sheet Confidential, a tawdry bit of business later incorporated in L.A. Confidential.

Doing it the traditional way, Schwarz (who also helmed the thoroughly entertaining Spine Tingler! the William Castle Story) starts with Hunter’s difficult childhood and proceeds forward in chronological order. Aside from his uber-California good looks, Hunter (born Arthur Gelien) never got a lot of breaks early in life, but he eventually found his niche in Hollywood. To open doors, he signed with Henry Wilson, who also happened to be Rock Hudson’s agent, which we are indeed supposed to find significant.

Even without the issues of sexuality, Confidential paints an intriguing picture of the waning days of mogul-era Hollywood. In the day and age, it seems bizarre the studio constantly photographed Hunter stepping out with his friend and frequent co-star Natalie Wood. At least they enjoyed each other’s company, even if the implication was bogus. Frankly, Hunter’s career rise, fall, utter cratering, and cult comeback are rather fascinating to behold. Arguably, no prior documentary subject ever had as much experience with dinner theater as Hunter, which he forthrightly addresses.

As an interview subject, Hunter comes across as a rather matter-of-fact and unassuming kind of fellow, not so very far removed from the earnest soldiers he so frequently portrayed. He does not seem bitter or out to prove anything to anyone. Therefore, it is rather pleasant spending time with him.

Of course, there is no getting around the ironies of Hunter’s life. He is now considered kitschy, but he grew as an actor. Unfortunately, some of his best work was done for the moody television drama showcases, so it is not widely available now. Yet, neither Hunter nor Schwarz cares to claim martyrdom for the retired actor, preferring to position him as a show business survivor. They are also both impressively nimble when traversing the film’s trickiest territory: Hunter’s relationship to the late and very married Anthony Perkins.
Adding his cult movie seal of approval, John Waters turns up as he usually does in docs about marginalized cinema figures, reliably delivering the
Polyester sound bites. With its peppy pace and insider’s perspective on old school Hollywood, Tab Hunter Confidential is quite engaging stuff. Recommended for fans of Hunter and his big screen contemporaries, it opens this Friday (10/16) in New York, at the Village East.

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