Essentially following the path of the former matinee idol’s 2005 memoir, “Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star,” the new film TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL traces the wildly successful career (DAMN YANKEES!, BATTLE CRY, THE SEA CHASE, POLYESTER) and secret life of the movie star, pop singer, and all-around handsome guy who was forced to hide his homosexuality deep in the celluloid closet.
The most immediate revelation many of you will have watching this film is just how big a star Tab Hunter truly was. Although mostly bubble-gum teenager in nature, his films were hits, and he was one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood in the 1950s. There was something innocent and non-threatening about his brand of strikingly handsome looks, which both young girls and their parents seems to appreciate. When he wanted to become a singer as well as an actor, Warner Bros. studios (to which Hunter had a contract as an actor) created a record division to release his music and capitalize on his massive success.
TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL also looks at the plight of the struggling, middle-aged actor, seeking relevance in a sea of B-movies and C-grade theater. Hunter was happier fading away in obscurity than tarnishing the career that had made him famous. With an eye toward always being entertaining, the film also reminds us that some find it better to be themselves and anonymous than live a lie to achieve celebrity. The film is quite moving, inspirational and a true eye-opening work for movie lovers. And seeing him make a fun comeback in the John Waters’ film POLYESTER, as well as in the Western LUST IN THE DUST (also with Divine as a co-star), is a nice footnote to his story.
I had a chance to sit down with Hunter at the SXSW Film Festival in March, along with the film’s director, Jeffrey Schwartz (I AM DIVINE) and producer (and Hunter’s long-time partner) Allan Glaser. Please enjoy my spirited and revealing chat with 84-year-old Tab Hunter, Jeffrey Schwartz, and Allan Glaser…
If you live in the Chicago area, on Friday, November 27, after the 8pm screening of TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Tab Hunter will discuss the film via Skype with myself moderating. For details and advance tickets, go to the Film Center’s website.
Capone: Ten years ago, you wrote this wonderful memoir, and a lot of times such a revealing document of a life opens the door for a documentary as well.. Why did it take 10 years for you to commit it to film?
Tab Hunter: It probably took Allan ten years to talk me into it [laughs].
Allan Glaser: That’s true.
AG: Tab isn’t a self promoter. He doesn’t love celebrity, so getting him to do the book took years, and getting him to commit to the film took even longer. It wasn’t actually until we met Jeffery…
Capone: I figured that meeting him for the DIVINE documentary led to this.
AG: That’s what it was, because Jeffery has such a great way about him that when we met him, he interviewed us for I AM DIVINE, and I came away from that thinking, “That’s the director for this movie.”
TH: Because he’s so easy and not in your face, and that’s really wonderful, particularly in this day and age.
Capone: Had you been approached before to do something like this?
TH: No, not at all. I’m not really comfortable in the public eye. Never have been. You know, I faked it.
Capone: For how many decades?
TH: For a long time. But of course, you had a studio behind you, and it’s a whole different ballgame today.
Capone: Right. And what they were promoting wasn’t really even you.
TH: Promoting the product.
Capone: It was a version of you that they could sell.
TH: Well, it was you, but they do their own spin on you.
Capone: But the studios were pairing you with these starlets to go on dates with. That was a version of you didn’t reflect who you really were.
TH: No, that’s not true. I went out with different dates all the time. I loved them. The studio would say, “We have a young starlet under contract. Would you take her to such and such premiere?” Or, “We have this. We need to exploit this picture. Would you go out and do this?” So it’s all about the product.
AG: Tad makes a good point in the movie which is the studio creates this persona, and it’s your job to be that persona. So yes, you are right in that respect.
Capone: I guess that’s what I meant.
Jeffrey Schwartz: But what you see is what you get with Tab Hunter, even though that was a roll he was playing, he is that guy. He is a genuine, warm-hearted guy, and those dates he was on, yes they were set up by the studios, but they all loved him.
TH: Also, I went on a lot of dates on my own. My gosh, I loved going out on dates. I was a young man, for gosh sakes. You’re not going to sit there at home [laughs].
Capone: When I met Jeffrey a couple years ago for the DIVINE movie, I grew up around Baltimore, so John Waters was like my patron saint.
TH: Oh, he’s god.
Capone: So I was introduced to you through his movies.
Capone: I was aware when I saw POLYESTER that you were famous for films that I had not been exposed to, so I had to work backwards from there over the years. And the more I learned about you, the more I realized that POLYESTER is so much different than anything you’d done before.
TH: John was amazing. I just loved the fact that he called me up and asked me to do that. That was a shot in the arm for my career, because I had no career. I was out doing dinner theater. I was one of the pioneers of dinner theater for years and years.
AG: And he was told not to do the movie. His agent said, “Are you crazy?”
TH: I had an agent that just said, “You don’t want to do that. Not with Divine.” I said, “Why? I’ve got everything to gain, nothing to lose.” Sidney Lumet said it years ago: “If you’re going to play it safe, stay in bed all day long.” It’s the safest place to be, it’s also the dullest.
Capone: Some of the people you interview in the film know Tab. There are a few other people, I couldn’t tell if they actually knew Tab or just knew of him, or were in awe of him. How did you decide who to interview? Did you reach out to people?
JS: Yeah, pretty much everyone we wanted to be in the movie is in the movie. There might be one or two people who were a little difficult to get a hold of, but somebody like Portia de Rossi, we wanted her in a movie because not only is she a friend of Tab’s, a personal friend and also in the horse world, so they have that connection. But she’s also somebody who can speak to the similar situation she was also in. It’s not really in the film, but she has a perspective on Tab’s career that not a lot of people do, because she was also somebody who was known for her beauty and not necessarily taken seriously, and also a fantasy figure for men in the same way Tab was a fantasy figure for women.
Capone: George Takei’s movie from last year was incredible, and it told a very similar story to yours. Are you friends with him too?
TH: Yes, I know George. Not well. It was through Jeffrey that I knew George.
AG: The way George came into the picture is, a friend of ours listens to Howard Stern all the time, and about four months ago she said, “I was listening to Howard Stern, and Howard said, ‘If you could be on a desert island with one person in this world that was not your partner, who would it be?’ And George said, ‘Tab Hunter.’” So that’s how he came in.
JS: I’m friends with Jennifer [Kroot], who directed the film about George Takei. So she connected us, and when we connected with George and his partner, they immediately said yes, we want to do it, because George was a rabid fan from a very early age, then we found out that George went to Tab’s…
TH: We went to the same junior high school.
JS: You and George. A couple of years later, George found out. And George was like sneaking Tab Hunter magazines under the mattress before he fully embraced who he was; Tab was his secret pinup boy.
Capone: I’ll admit, I had no idea you had a singing career, so that was a discovery via this film, and you had so many albums. I know you explain it a little bit in the movie, but how did that start? Had you ever sung before you committed it to vinyl?
TH: Yes, I did. I used to sing in the choir at church. But Natalie Wood and I went on a tour with THE BURNING HILLS in Chicago, and Howard Miller…Did you ever hear of him?
TH: He was a huge DJ in Chicago and he could bust a record wide open, and he talked Warner Bros. into having us there for the premiere at the Chicago Theatre for THE BURNING HILLS. We were out together one evening or out together on his boat one day on the lake, and I started humming something, and he said, “Did you ever think of singing?” And I said, “I love to sing. It’s great fun.” He said, “I should introduce you to Randy Wood if you’d like to record sometimes.” And I go, “That would be nice.”
So he put me in touch with Randy Wood of Dot Records, and Randy heard me sing a little bit of a song and said, “When I get the right tune, I’m going to contact you.” And within no time, he called me in on a Friday. We recorded on a Saturday, and Monday I heard it on a car radio going down Sunset Blvd. and almost hit a palm tree. I couldn’t believe it, it was so quick. Then Warner Bros. went “Whoa, wait a minute. I had a $100,000 advance on my album for Dot, and Warner said, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? You’re under contract for us, for everything.” I said, ‘But Mr. Warner, you don’t own a recording company.” He said, “Well, we do now.”
Capone: That is a crazy story.
TH: Can you believe that?
Capone: I love connecting those dots. At the time in the ’50s, were you living in constant fear of being discovered, or did it only really cross your mind occasionally?
TH: It’s not constant. People would say things, but people weren’t in your face as they are today. People would say a little something, and it would be like new chalk on a blackboard; you’d sort of bristle a bit. My touch of reality in that unrealistic world of Hollywood were my horses, and I kept running back to them. They are still a major part of my life.
JS: There was also a conspiracy of silence in the culture. Of course there were gay people, and of course they were living full lives, but it all had to be in secret. With Tab, living under a microscope like that, that tension, that was one of the reasons I was interested in working on the film with these guys, because I was very interested in exploring that, and also the fact that Tab came out of that on the other side and is here today as a happy, healthy survivor of all that is a very wonderful thing to see.
TH: But the thing is, people put too much emphasis on that. My sexuality is a thread in the tapestry of my life. Today, people want to label you “You’re this, he’s that, she’s this.” The first line in my book was “I hate labels,” because people are always labeling people, which is unfortunate in many ways.
I was a freelance actor for while. I was under contract, then I was a freelance actor, but it was the end of studio days, and it was a whole different business from today. Jack Warner, Harry Cohn, Darryl Zanuck, Louis B. Mayer, they knew how to run a tight ship, and you work for them, and if you didn’t do what they said, you were out and someone else would be in there. It was just that simple.
AG: They had a publicity wing there to keep your secret. They probably all knew about Tab’s preference, but it was up to them to manufacture this whole other life to make him straight.
TH: And no one ever dared to say anything to you at all.
AG: That’s how publicity has changed. Now, they’re right in your face, can’t wait to get it out there. Back then, Hedda [Hopper] and Louella [Parsons] would conspire to keep it quiet. It was just totally different.
TH: They were the big guns, of course. And then at the trades, they had Mike Connolly [of the Hollywood Reporter] and Army Archerd with Variety.
Capone: As you got older, did it take you a while to work up the nerve to talk about your life and career? Were you still hesitant and nervous about finally writing about this for the book?
TH: It was very difficult for me to talk about this in the book, but I figured this is the journey. It’s all about the journey, getting from A to B in life, and I think that’s very important how we get from A to B.
AG: If Tab had not written the book, he never could have done this documentary, because the book at least helped him desensitize that stigma. He was raised, you never talk about it. You never say stuff like this.
TH: I have a very strict German mother. Elevate your thinking, don’t pay attention to anyone. She was a very positive woman about direction. It was quite wonderful, and she kept saying our major growth in life is mental, physical, and number one, spiritual. I talk about that in the movie.
Capone: One of the most interesting stories you tell, Allan, is about him not liking to revisit the past and just going right past one of his movies on TV. Why is that? I believe in not dwelling in the past, but are you ever just like, “I did that.”
TH: [laughs] I don’t want to watch myself on the screen. I did keep a great scrapbook that [actress] Linda Darnell gave me. I did have that somewhere in the garage.
AG: Can I tell you something? That was by accident. Tab had nothing. He gave away his gold record. He didn’t care about the memorabilia of the past. He didn’t hold on to any of that.
TH: But the wonderful thing that Linda Darnel wrote, I’ll never forget, she said, “I’m good luck for newcomers.” She was an amazing woman.
Capone: Jeffrey, when you begin this process of piecing Tab’s life together visually, were you able to take the book and pull out the things you wanted?
JS: Yeah, the book was a starting point, and we wanted to go deeper, and we also wanted to get a perspective from other people who aren’t in the book. Usually when you start a film like this, you go though this archeological dig looking through all the archives and looking for materials, and we were so lucky in this case that Allan was around, because even though Tab left all that stuff in the past and didn’t collect anything, Allan has been spending the last 30 years recollecting all this material. So by the time we were ready to start the film, he walked me over to the backyard where there’s a giant trailer truck filled with memorabilia. So we had an incredible archive at our disposal to put this film together.
Capone: You probably didn’t know that you were going to become a historian.
AG: No [laughs], and I do have to say that Tab’s life, thank god, was chronicled in every movie magazine from 1951 to 1965.
JS: Even though it’s all BS.
Capone: That makes them almost more fascinating.
TH: It was hoopla.
JS: Okay, hoopla. That might be a more generous word.
Capone: I would spend days on end looking through those and laughing.
TH: Sometimes you laugh, and sometimes you want to cry [laughs].
Capone: BATTLE CRY is one of my favorite performances by you, and I was glad to hear that you considered it a turning point in your acting.
TH: [Screenwriter] Leon Uris’ first novel, exactly.
Capone: You said that that’s the first time you were really felt like you were acting.
TH: In a major film. I still think live TV is what I have to credit for getting me involved. Dick Clayton, who was my agent and the agent for Jimmy Dean, Jane Fonda, Burt Reynolds, some pretty heavy-duty people, he was there for me. He was part of our family. People like that say, “Put your nose to the grindstone.” People like Jeff Corey as a coach, they open your thinking.