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Tab Hunter Confidential is a biopic that feels less like a hagiography and more like your grandpa telling stories about the good ol’ days. Tab Hunter, the genial former matinee idol who’s still handsome at 84, helps narrate his own story in Jeffrey Schwarz’s (I Am Divine) documentary, along with directors, co-stars, critics, and fans—even Clint Eastwood, who appears near the end to make a quip about Hunter’s horsemanship.
The film’s title is a wink at Confidential magazine, which was essentially the 1950s’ National Enquirer. And the nugget of interest in Hunter’s career—the gossip that landed him in Confidential—is that Hollywood’s golden-haired boy next door may have been primed to make all the gals swoon, but in fact was gay and deeply closeted. (One of Confidential’s headlines on Hunter: “Caught at a limp-wristed pajama party.”) Coincidentally, he and Rock Hudson shared an agent who worked to keep both men out of the rag.
Hunter, as an unseen ’50s television announcer describes, was “six feet of rugged manhood that could stir the heart of every woman.” Star Trek’s George Takei, who’d also kept his sexuality a secret for most of his life, indirectly likens him to Matthew McConaughey: “In every picture, he managed to take his shirt off.”
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Indeed, although Hunter—born Arthur Kelm—was a movie buff as a kid, it was his looks that got him recruited into acting by an industry insider. He was widely mocked in his first film, Island of Desire, and says he worked on “Grade Z movies” after that. But Hunter put some effort into his craft and soon won a bit of critical respect as well as tons of fan admiration.
To protect his career, Hunter platonically stepped out with his leading ladies, including Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds. And when he became involved with men (including Anthony Perkins), they’d “double date” to both enjoy each other’s company while keeping up the ruse. Hunter now understatedly says, “I didn’t feel good about myself.” Equally serious for him was his Catholic faith; after once confessing to a less-than-Christlike priest, Hunter said he made him feel “like I was the worst person that ever lived.”
Tab Hunter Confidential checks off all the boxes that make a typical documentary: Footage of Hunter’s films; stills of him both professional and candid; commentary by industry people, from Rex Reed to John Waters to actor-turned-nun Mother Dolores Hart. Hunter himself explains much of his career development—and downfall—with good-natured self-deprecation. (Of his 1966 project with Soupy Sales, Birds Do It, he sarcastically says, “That’s a winner.”) He’s blunt about eventually embracing camp and mocking his image in Waters’ films: “That’s called ‘paying the bills.’”
Hunter’s not the only appealing part of the film; throwback jargon such as “eligible bachelor” and black-and-white tape of game shows that gave out cartons of cigarettes make for amusing relics. And though he mentions throughout the doc the pain of having had to pretend to be something he wasn’t, it seems that no scars linger: Hunter has had a partner for 30-plus years and here acts game to answer personal questions for the first time publicly, likely no longer caring about keeping secrets at this point in his life. As he tells the director, “I am happy to be forgotten.”
Tab Hunter Confidential opens Friday at the Angelika Pop-Up.