Film Review: Tab Hunter Confidential

A basically sunny stroll through the life and times of a movie heartthrob with a huge heart.
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He very well may have been the handsomest movie star to ever come down the pike: big, bonny and golden blond, with a blindingly radiant smile, which only added to an almost absurdly overwhelming physical irresistibility. (God hit this one hard with the beauty stick.) His acting may have been less overwhelming, much more charmingly game than anything else, but his ultra-wholesome boy-next-door appeal was every bit as much an integral part of the iconography of the 1950s as that triumphantly troubled trio of Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift, who were his darker, more complex and rebellious, direct cinematic opposites.

Still agelessly terrific-looking today at 84, with those amazingly clear blue eyes and the open gaze of a child, Hunter is the subject of a documentary directed by Jeffrey Schwarz and produced by Hunter's life partner of decades, Allan Glaser. Tab Hunter Confidential is a breezy cruise through the star’s life, beginning with his Southern Californian roots as Arthur Gelien, the son of a complex single mother (who eventually had to be institutionalized), through his discovery by notorious gay agent Henry Willson as one of his stable of beefcake-y screen studs (Rock Hudson, Guy Madison, Troy Donahue, Rory Calhoun, et al.), who renamed him, and his swift rise to international teen-idol stardom at Warner Bros..

Hunter narrates the film himself and comes across as just what he is in life: an incredibly nice and down-to-earth guy, with a near-miraculous lack of ego for an actor. He’s genial and likeable, if somewhat less than completely forthcoming about his sexuality, being of a time when decorum took precedence over the kind of soul-baring personal revelations ubiquitous today. (He’s far more open in his 2006 autobiography.) But even while affirming his love for privacy, he does describe the 1955 Confidential magazine scandal in which his homosexuality was strongly suggested, which had been brokered by Willson to hush up the rag’s exposing the truth about his more prominent client, Rock Hudson. His past love life is also touched upon, including a very closeted relationship with fellow actor Anthony Perkins, who comes across as the exact opposite of Hunter, not only in darker physique but with a much darker persona.

One gets the strong impression that this easygoing, very private man, who not only bought out his Warner contract (which included, for this decidedly less-than-Sinatra, a hit-making recording deal with the Warner music company which was started for him) but turned his back on his career to devote himself to his beloved horses in Santa Barbara, was reluctantly coaxed back into the limelight by the ambitious, decades-younger Glaser. A thorough professional, even through the lean post-stardom days which saw him involved in B pictures and that ultimate actor’s humiliation, dinner theatre, before being resurrected by John Waters in the camp-fest Polyester, he manned up, showed up and did what was asked of him for the edification of his myriad of faithful fans.

Also showing up here are his uniformly adoring and admiring living co-stars, including a seen-it-all-by-now Debbie Reynolds, more Hollywood sage than perky Tammy now, Robert Wagner (another comely Willson alumnus), Etchika Choureau (who nearly married him), Connie Stevens, Terry Moore and, in a nun’s habit, Dolores Hart, who almost mythically forsook stardom for the veil. A new generation—Portia de Rossi and Noah Wyle—also extol his strong sense of values and work ethic. If what emerges is less an incisive view of the emotional depths of the man (maybe he has none) and the rapidly evolving times he survived, Tab Hunter Confidential is a highly amiable, irresistibly ingratiating portrait of perhaps the most well-adjusted—as well as gorgeous—of screen icons.

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