Tab Hunter Confidential is a particularly welcome addition to the slew of exposes, documentaries and writings about Hollywood’s Golden Age, and particularly the queer side of those social circles battling against the rigid, public conscious studio systems. The reason being, of course, because the titular subject is still with us, adding an air of immediacy and reliability that are absent from similar explorations and suggestions about the lives of stars like Rock Hudson, Cary Grant and Randolph Scott. But nor is this a ‘coming out’ project, but a look at Hunter’s fascinating career. Ubiquitous and luminous during his heyday, history hasn’t been quite as kind, with a name value only recognisable to people particularly familiar with 1950s films. And yet Hunter, in his mid-80s, is a charming and self-deprecating subject, achieving a likability and charisma that he probably never quite achieved on screen in his youth.
The one-line premise of the film is an exploration of the tension (and irony) of the clean-cut, All-American heartthrob and his own homosexuality, but this really is a biography in a broader sense, and a successful one too. Based on his 2005 autobiography of the same name, we follow the story of a young Tab Hunter, blessed with a photogenic face and body (he is called “good-looking”, or some variant of that, dozens upon dozens of times by commentators in the film) became a near overnight star in the 1950s following the successful Battle Cry as the number one star in the stable of Warner Brothers, in addition to a very successful recording career and as a mainstay in the public eye. A teen icon to millions of girls across America as the prototypical Eisenhower boy, he personally battled with his own personal life – not just his sexuality, but the emotional fallout from an abusive household and his mother’s mental illness.
The documentary is mostly successful, a very well-paced ride through Hunter’s ups and downs with sufficient reference to stock photographs and film clips; the former might feel excessive, but works as reminder of the relentless, often inane media cycle of the 1950s tabloid monoculture and the visual sheer bombardment that defined the consumption of teenage Boomers which is well contextualised in the film. Choice anecdotes like a charming recollection of a woman who won a date with Tab Hunter from a teen movie magazine, something the woman remembers fifty years later, will win over even the most cynical critic of celebrity culture. Director Jeffrey Schwarz’s background as a leading producer of content electronic press kits (the puffy interviews found as Blu-ray and DVD extras) shines through in both good and bad ways. It’s edited swiftly and intuitively and made easily digestible but occasionally feels shallow; Hunter doesn’t have to field any particularly tough questions or delve too far into his psychology especially around the issues of his sexuality in Hollywood, and does occasionally leave platitudes as the last word on particular topics. Overall, the film is content to follow Hunter’s lead.1
This might prove more of a problem if the eponymous star wasn’t so likeable and self-deprecating. He’s quick to laugh at a lot of the cheesier projects he was involved in, but not in a way that feels like a desperate attempt to win over this millennium’s cynics; there are a number of films and performances of which he is deeply proud, and so he comes across as neither trapped in nostalgia or the present but someone with a finely honed sense of perspective that can only come from a career of highs and lows. Effectively spat out by the system by the time the 1960s came to an end, he seems as knowledgeable as anyone when discussing why his brand of movie star went out of fashion once movies started being shaped by the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the era. With nothing to lose, he took a risk and enjoyed a brief resurgence as a cult movie actor, starring in multiple films with John Waters’ muse Divine playing off the hammy sincerity of his own screen image that he has fond memories of. But if nothing else, this is a rare portrait of someone who knew stardom at a level few else did, and was able to let it go. This documentary might be light on insight, but a refreshing story of celebrity that feels like a breath of fresh air and perspective in today’s TMZ culture – just about every movie star of old starred in countless films ending with them gracefully riding off into the distance. Near the end of the film Hunter says he is “happy to forgotten”, but this film might stave off that fate for just a little longer.