Jun 21, 2016

Review: Candid Talk with an Eternal Heartthrob in Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)

Tad was serious about his career, but he never took himself that seriously.

-John Waters

Blonde, handsome, boyish, and without a hint of being on the make, it's no wonder that Tab Hunter inspired swoons in his heartthrob heyday. The actor and singer had a bumpy ride in the entertainment industry, but he never entirely lost that youthful appeal. To put it simply, he was, and is dreamy.
Tab Hunter Confidential takes a kindly look into the life of this deeply spiritual, charming and life-affirming talent.

Hunter seems to have possessed that unusual mix of blazing sex appeal and down-to-earth decency from an early age. He was irresistible to the girls in his high school; as a youth he would be forced to duck into an empty classroom to avoid the mobs. Overwhelmed by the attention, he escaped to the Coast Guard. That led to a chance meeting with an actor and fast entry into Hollywood, where he was simply too magnetic and attractive to be ignored.

The documentary explores the considerable ups and downs of that career that started with so much ease, and the actor's struggles to thrive as a homosexual in a society that still considered his orientation a mental disease. He began as a B-movie pretty boy, with admittedly limited acting skills, but a contract with Warner Bros led to roles in more prominent films like They Came to Cordura (1959), The Pleasure of His Company (1961) and That Kind of Woman (1959). He would also find great success as a recording star. Hunter made all of those films on loan-out though, and Warner formed a music label just to be able to have control over his recording career as well. The actor began to resent the restraints of his contract. He paid a steep fee to get his release, which in his own words was "career suicide"

Hunter would never reach the same heights professionally again. He exhausted himself to the point of having a heart attack working the demanding dinner theater circuit and made a series of uninspiring films just to make a living. Then John Waters asked him to star in Polyester (1981) opposite Divine.

The success of Waters' film led to a second act career triumph, including roles in Grease 2 (1982) and another positive experience starring opposite Divine in Lust in the Dust (1985). More offers for work began pouring in, but Hunter was disillusioned with public life by then.

The film tells these stories with film clips, photos and interviews with friends, co-stars and film experts, and a great deal of candid conversation with Hunter himself. An impressive roster of interviewees includes John Waters, Connie Stevens, Debbie Reynolds and Mother Dolores Hart. Also on hand are film documentary all-stars Eddie Mueller and Robert Osborne. It was also interesting to get the perspective of George Takai and Portia de Rossi, two actors who know much about the gay experience in Hollywood.

Each of these interviewees, whether they knew Hunter personally or not, express an overwhelming feeling of affection for the actor. He seems to have been the rare Hollywood specimen to have never made an enemy. It is easy to see why in his interview segments. While part of his appeal is still definitely that elusive "X Factor", he is also attractive simply because he is so genuinely kind and generous. He is candid about his troubles, including career disappointments, issues reconciling his homosexuality with the rest of society and his struggles caring for his mentally ill mother, but he refuses to remain bitter, or take out his frustrations on the people around him.

In an especially touching sequence, Hunter fan Jo Ann Cox Burton speaks lovingly of the extent of his generosity. She was the winner of a "Win a Date with Tab Hunter" contest, and was still glowing decades later as she spoke about the time they spent together. Instead of approaching it like the flashy publicity stunt it was, the actor treated the occasion like a real first date, and gave Burton the thrill of her life with his genuine attention and interest.

Hunter has always been reluctant to discuss his homosexuality publicly, even when different sexual orientations became less taboo, because he feared being defined by his preferences. While the "Confidential" in the title does refer to his unprecedented candor here on the subject of his love life, the film doesn't dwell on it. The men he has loved are presented as important to telling his story, but also part of a life that has been rich in many other ways.

Hunter and Perkins

His affairs with men including ice skater Ronnie Robertson, actor Anthony Perkins and his long time partner (and producer of the documentary) Allan Glaser are presented with affection and charm. Though society's perception of homosexuality has caused the actor enduring pain, he does not appear to dwell on the difficulties he has faced. He has admirably pursued healthy relationships and refused to judge the choices of others, such as when former paramour Perkins decided to marry a woman.

Much of Hunter's tolerance and spiritual balance has come from an enduring interest in the church. While he felt essentially exiled from Catholicism because of his sexuality for many years, he never gave up on religion. In later years he found solace in faith again.

Horses have been another major joy in Hunter's life, and his interest in them is prominent in the film. He began riding as a teenager and became increasingly more interested in grooming and competing in events as the actor's life began to lose its appeal. The actor made another career as a successful competitive jumper.

This is an inspiring portrait of a man with an extremely healthy outlook on life.

After a limited release and making the rounds at several film festivals in 2015, the film is now available for purchase or rental in digital HD on platforms including iTunes, Amazon and Vudu, and for purchase on DVD. 

Many thanks to Justin Cook PR for providing the above images and a screener of the film.

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