Some younger people may have never heard of Tab Hunter, but if you say the name to any straight woman or gay man who was young in the 1950s, you can often see their eyes glaze as they remember the teen heartthrob who was the biggest dreamboat crush of an entire generation. However, while he was setting millions of teenage hearts aflutter in the likes of Damn Yankees and Battle Cry, he was also hiding the fact that he was gay (with the help of the studio system).
Hunter only officially came out when he wrote his autobiography in 2006, on which this documentary is based. The film includes extensive interviews with Hunter, who still seems somewhat reticent to talk about his sexuality – an entire lifetime of not talking publicly about that side of his life hasn’t disappeared now he’s ‘outed’ himself – but even so he does open up about his career, his relationships with the likes of Psycho star Anthony Perkins, and the studio-mandated dates he went on with a string of young starlets.
It’s an interesting and well-told tale. Although it would have been easy to make a movie that concentrated on the more salacious side of a movie star living in the closet – especially at a time when being gay was illegal – Tab Hunter Confidential ensures this is only part of the story. It wants to put that side in context, being as interested in a young, talented and beautiful man who almost accidentally became a film star (although that’s not denying the hard work he put him), as it is with his love life.
There’s a fantastic roster of interviewees who worked with or knew Hunter at one time or another, from Debbie Reynolds to Clint Eastwood, ensuring you get a well-rounded view on a man everyone seems to have genuinely liked.
Film fans will love its insights into the classic Hollywood studio system, where young stars’ romantic lives were planned out and photographers sent along on the dates (it’s interesting to hear these were proper dates and not just photoshoots, which is what I’d suspected). However, there’s also the opposite side of that, where if you angered the wrong person they might sell you out to the gossip rags, which is exactly what happened to Hunter when info about him being caught up in a gay soiree that was raided by the police was leaked to Confidential. While our traditional view of US society in the 1950s would make us think this would be the end of Tab’s career, as he was so important to the studio at the time it was successfully glossed over and ignored.
Indeed, as the movie points out it’s only the box office that Hollywood cares about, and while stars may think the phone will always keep ringing especially when they saw what the studios would do to protect their top talent, once they can’t bring in the crowds Tinsel Town simply isn’t interested anymore. It’s something Hunter discovered himself, and it’s one of the more interesting parts of the movie where he talks about moving into things such as dinner theatre, largely because he needed the cash to support his sick mother, who suffered from mental health issues.
It’s all pretty fascinating even if Tab is somewhat sickening (in a good way) – sure he had to live in the closet, but he was truly beautiful (the footage and pics of him as young man still have the power to make many go weak at the knees, and he remains attractive now), a film star, had good looking boyfriends, and was a talented figure skater and horseman. In fact, as the list lengthens of the things Hunter was incredibly good at, it starts to seem patently unfair it was all heaped upon one guy. It would be nauseating if it weren’t for the fact Tab seems like a humble, well-balanced and genuinely nice guy who has a great attitude about life where he never forgets what is important.
When we talk of those who were forced to live in the closet in the past, it’s normally a tale of misery and angst. However, for every Montgomery Clift there was a Tab Hunter, for whom their sexuality caused issues and problems, but who dealt with them and then came out the other side as a happy, healthy man.
Overall Verdict: If you like the movies, Tab Hunter Confidential is a fascinating documentary that’s well worth a watch. It’s a great look at the world of Hollywood in the 1950s, as well as how gay stars back then dealt with being in the closet – and it’s good to see someone talk about it in their own words.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac