Tab Hunter Confidential Dir. Jeffrey Schwarz

[The Film Collaborative; 2015]

Styles: documentary
Others: I Am Divine

Tab Hunter Confidential begins with the titular actor/icon narrating a story about being arrested at a “secret house party,” a rare safe haven for the queer community in the 1950s. Had this arrest been reported further and wider at the time, it would have been a massive controversy: save maybe Elvis (whom he actually managed to knock down the charts once), Tab Hunter was America’s dreamboat supreme in that era. If it was even broadly hinted at that he might be gay, his career would be effectively over. Thank Jah for the Mafia-like power of the Hollywood studio system, I guess?

Hunter, of course, was gay, a fact which did affect his career both positively and negatively over time. However, he mostly dodged the bullet of full ostracization: really, it was only Father Time, and his determination to be taken seriously as an actor and not just as the object of swooning, that found Hunter falling from favor. Tab Hunter Confidential does a fine job of chronicling his arc, from his time as America’s Sweetheart and Natalie Wood’s right-hand man to his dinner theater nadir in the 1970s, from his career makeover at the hands of John Waters in Polyester to his ultimate retirement from the silver screen.

Unfortunately for anyone but Hollywood trivia buffs, it isn’t a consistently fascinating tale. Hunter, though charming and obviously handsome as hell in his youth, isn’t exactly a fount of wild stories. This is a man who definitely came of age in the stiff-upper-lip 1950s: he’s out, sure, but he doesn’t seem all that proud, and he doesn’t want to delve too deep into his private life. He refers to his various trysts with broad romantic euphemisms, and he rarely dishes on any juicy details. As a result, the film is neither that dramatic nor that lurid, an unexpected turn from the same director who gave us the delightfully trashy I Am Divine.

In a lot of respects, this is all well and good. Obviously, there’s nothing trashy about being gay; in his mom-and-apple-pie wholesomeness, Hunter is something of a quiet pioneer for broadening the concept of what it means to be homosexual in the modern world. Since quiet and square doesn’t sell, though, the film tries to spice things up with fun editing tricks and vintage film clips akin to those in the aforementioned Divine pic, and it even drags out some of the same interviewees (including Waters, naturally, but when is he not in a documentary about gay pop history 1950—present?). Plenty of Golden Age Hollywood starlets show up, too, to talk about what a gentleman and charmer Hunter always was, even if being in his orbit might have occasionally meant acting as a beard for him and Anthony Perkins.

Though far from revelatory, Tab Hunter Confidential has some kicks for fans of classic camp, Hollywood history, and queer pop culture. Hunter’s career had major ups and downs, but he was fortunate to come out of a less enlightened Hollywood relatively unscathed (though that’s damning with faint praise, of course, and is not intended to diminish the anguish of being locked in the closet for so long). Good news, to be sure. If only it were a touch more exciting to watch.

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