Like the autobiographical tome it’s based on, “Tab Hunter Confidential” provides a colorful, likable and unpretentious look at the 1950s Hollywood dreamboat who was living a closeted gay life even as he was marketed as every bobbysoxer’s ideal boyfriend. Sharing his subject’s good humor about himself, prolific docu and DVD-extra director Jeffrey Schwarz (“I Am Divine,” “Vito”) has assembled a pleasing if less-than-revelatory feature that should prove particularly popular on the gay fest circuit en route to broadcast and download sales.
Although somewhat conventionally framed by the drama of an early near-outing — as a 19-year-old Hollywood newbie, Hunter was arrested for attending a private gay party, something he recalls “would be thrown at me years later”—“Confidential” is not a story of torment in the closet. Indeed, the 2006 book Hunter wrote with Eddie Muller does a better job limning the internal and professional conflicts in his life, as well as the somewhat footloose style that saw him seldom seriously involved romantically before he formed a lasting partnership with the much younger Allan Glaser (a producer here) three decades ago. Here, the emphasis is on his affability and ability to roll with the punches.
His German emigre mother, Gertrude, having left his abusive father early on, blond, blue-eyed Arthur Gelien was raised in Southern California along with an older brother. Working at a ranch while still in his teens, he was encouraged to exploit his striking “all-American boy” good looks as an actor. He was soon signed by Henry Willson, a prominent agent noted for enthusiasm toward “pretty boys” (also including Rock Hudson), and who handed him his loathed, cartoonish stage name.
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Success came quickly, though his initial roles pegged him as mere male cheesecake. Deciding to take acting seriously, he won a coveted role in the 1955 hit “Battle Cry” (reportedly over James Dean and Paul Newman), and began winning some grudging critical respect. But the range and depth hinted at were better tapped in some live TV dramas and on loan to other studios than in the generally rote roles he got as a Warner Bros. contract player. Overexposure as a fan-magazine staple and schmaltzy top-40 pop crooner hardly inclined WB to take him more seriously.
At great expense, he bought out his contract, only to find that rapidly changing fashions had already rendered him a relic of the squeaky-clean 1950s, rather than the adventuresome freelance talent he’d hoped to appear. A sitcom flop, B-movies, network guest spots and a long grind in dinner theater ensued — the latter forced by the costs of his now-unstable mother’s institutionalization — before he was “rediscovered” by John Waters for 1981’s “Polyester.” Gamely romancing Divine, he demonstrated a flair for comedy (and self-parody) that few had bothered noticing before.
Still fit and handsome in his mid-80s, Hunter is a most genial narrator, even if some of his confidences seem a bit disingenuous. “I’ve never been as open about it (being gay) as I am with you” he tells an off-camera interviewer here, though a decade ago his book actually spilled considerably more dirt than this documentary does. (Among the missing tidbits are his affair with Rudolf Nureyev, though a more serious relationship with Anthony Perkins is fondly recalled.)
When he rides off into the sunset at the end proclaiming, “I’m happy to be forgotten,” it’s hard to ignore that we’ve just watched 90 minutes of genial self-promotion. Nonetheless, he’s clearly much liked by his fellow professionals, particularly those starlets (including Debbie Reynolds, Connie Stevens, Terry Moore and a gushing Dolores Hart, now a nun) for whom he was a perfect companion, even if their dates were essentially publicity functions.
Pic might well have probed further its subject’s troubled family background, and any difficulties his Catholic faith caused his private life. (“If you were with a man, you were sinning; if you were with a woman, you were lying” is his one moment of insight, when recalling how he came close to marrying French actress Etchika Choureau — who, like everyone else here, still thinks highly of him.) But one gets the sense that Hunter, with his strong work ethic and myriad athletic pursuits, was never much for introversion, any more than he’s been interested in gay identity as a political cause. He comes off not as shallow, but as the type of personality who naturally seeks to keep life as agreeably uncomplicated as possible.
Drawing on a rich array of archival materials, “Tab Hunter Confidential” is lively and entertaining, if not particularly imaginative in packaging elements like Michael Cudahy’s standard synth-based score.