Tuesday, October 6, 2015

See TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL

In his Hollywood heyday, actor Tab Hunter was described as "6 feet of rugged manhood."  The description was accurate.  No wonder the teen fan girls swooned over him in the 1950s.  Tab Hunter was one gorgeous hunk o' man.        
Under contract to Warner Brothers, he was ripe movie star material.  He got a role in a war drama, a role James Dean and Paul Newman also tested for.  He had hit records.  He sang opposite Jane Powell in a special CBS TV adaptation of Meet Me in St. Louis, the classic MGM musical that starred Judy Garland.  Tab Hunter's boy-next-door face graced magazine covers. He shared movie screen time with A-list actresses such as Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, Natalie Wood, Dorothy Malone and Sophia Loren.                                                                                          
Not bad for a guy who was an introverted, shy, Catholic kid.  Off-screen, the public had no idea that actor Anthony Perkins was Hunter's boyfriend.  Publicity photos in fan magazines showed Hunter with a girlfriend.  We hear from her in the documentary.
That's just part of the story we learn in TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL.  It's a very interesting, revealing, heartbreaking and heartwarming celebrity documentary.  It's tastefully done.  The archive footage is really good.  Hunter, still handsome in his 80s, speaks honestly and openly about surviving the Hollywood studio system as a gay man.  Society and the entertainment industry were different when he was a top star.
Today, there are dozens of openly gay performers making money on TV.  Network news anchors, network morning show hosts, daytime TV hosts, prime time TV show actors and reality show celebrities.  William Hurt, Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, Charlize Theron and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman won Oscars for playing gay characters.  Today's freedom to be gay or to play a gay character must not be taken lightly by our younger generation.  That personal and artistic freedom was denied a previous generation like Tab Hunter's.  Rumors of being gay in 1950s Hollywood could kill a promising career.  When Rosie O'Donnell and I were VH1 veejays in the late 1980s, she advised me against coming out publicly for fear it would cripple my chances to get future employment in TV.  That's the way things were.  The 1990s saw major changes start to happen.  Before his career hit big, he'd gotten busted by the cops for being at a Hollywood party.  The crime?  Same-sex dancing. Yes.  Gay couples dancing together was illegal then and homosexuality was considered a mental disease.  The actor felt the sting of discrimination when he dated other men.  Tab Hunter Confidential is very insightful.  His story is still relevant.
Back then, Hollywood movie studios were still big businesses ruled by studio heads.  Images were manufactured for actors under contract and the actors were protected by the studios.  Hunter's movie name was inspired by his love for horses, as you'll learn. Hunter was more talented than people knew.  He worked in stables and was quite a horseman.  He was a good ice skater.  He worked hard to grow from one-dimensional heartthrob movie star into a commendable actor of depth in a competitive business.  Did you ever see Fear Strikes Out, the 1957 baseball drama biopic about Jimmy Piersall, the Boston Red Sox player who suffered a nervous breakdown?  Wait till you get to that section of the documentary.

By the time I was twelve, I had already memorized all the numbers and large sections of dialogue from the Warner Bros. movie version of the Broadway musical comedy hit, Damn Yankees.  The studio purchased that property for Tab.  With his All-American good looks, the part of the shy, young baseball phenom fit him like a glove.  And Tab Hunter got to perform choreography by Bob  Fosse!  Damn Yankees, co-starring Gwen Verdon and Ray Walston, was one of my favorite films to show up frequently on local Channel 9's Million Dollar Movie in L.A. when I was a kid.  I loved that movie.  I still do. It makes me happy.  Tab Hunter was so totally cool -- and cute -- as Joe Hardy.   
Tab's complicated parents, the brother he adored, the Catholic church that disappointed him, the studio that made him, the tabloids, the heartbreaks and the tender romances.  They're all here in Tab Hunter Confidential directed by Jeffrey Schwarz.
Tab Hunter Confidential is one of the best Tab Hunter features I've ever seen -- and, ironically, it's a documentary that touches on the Hollywood homophobia that kept him from becoming the even bigger star that he deserved to be.  The late Rock Hudson, also gay and a major movie star, got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his dramatic work in 1956's Giant, showed a gift for modern-day screwball comedy in box office hits co-starring Doris Day (Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, Send Me No Flowers), and he was worthy of a second Oscar nomination for his fine work in the 1966 science-fiction social drama, Seconds.  Hudson was luckier than Hunter, script-wise.  NBC should've starred the mature Hunter in a crime-solving mystery series like James Garner's The Rockford Files and Rock Hudson's McMillan & Wife which ran from 1971 to 1977.  But, according to the documentary, Hunter was sort of a sacrificial lamb when an item about his gay personal life was given to a tawdry but influential gossip publication.

Classic film fans will get a sure-fire kick out of seeing some of the folks who appear and talk about the Tab Hunter they know.  You'll see Rona Barrett (before Entertainment Tonight, there was network entertainment reporter Rona Barrett), Robert Wagner, Don Murray (Marilyn Monroe's leading man in Bus Stop), Mother Dolores Hart (the former film actress Dolores Hart of Where The Boys Are who left Hollywood at the height of her popularity to become a nun), Darryl Hickman (Leave Her to Heaven) and Terry Moore (Mighty Joe Young and Peyton Place).

I've liked Tab Hunter for many years.  There were quite a few things I didn't know about him that are in this documentary.  At the end, Tab Hunter Confidential made me like him a whole lot more.  I love that he found a fulfilling life away from the Hollywood spotlight.  Tab Hunter Confidential opens October 16th in New York City.  Later, it will expand to Los Angeles and other selected cities.

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