Sunday, June 12, 2016
Jeffrey Schwarz | Tab Hunter Confidential
a lost soul
by Douglas Messerli
Jeffrey Schwarz (writer, based on Tab Hunter’s and Edie Muller’s Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star) and director Tab Hunter Confidential / 2015
A bit like the actor himself, Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary Tab Hunter Confidential, based on Hunter’s and Edie’s Muller’s 2005 book, is only interesting primarily for its surface beauty: its display of photographs and quick snippets of filmmaking. There is nothing much here of depth, and it represents very few new revelations. One might almost argue that, like Hunter’s career, this new film is fairly superficial, despite its affability. Hunter, himself narrating much of the film, admits from the beginning that he was an extremely shy youth and is still uncomfortable speaking of his sexuality. “Accepting that I was wired differently was no cause for celebration, believe me. We all have our various urges and desires and shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of them. Being ‘proud’ of your homosexuality, however, was a concept still years away. Not that I’d ever feel that way. To me, it’s like saying you’re ‘proud’ to be hetero. Why do you need to wear a badge? You simply are what you are.”
Yet at age 84, the still handsomely chiseled male beauty, feels he can now speak out about, at least, some of his own experiences.
Despite his seeming resistance, however, this work is utterly fascinating for what it says about the film industry of 1950s, and the difficulties of working as a gay actor in film even today.
Hunter was first “discovered” by the future agent, Dick Clayton, who working on a shoot spotted the young Kelm as a stableboy. Soon after, the 15-year old lied his way into the Coast Guard, spending his leaves in Clayton’s apartment and attending Greenwich Village parties, sometimes with Cole Porter at the piano. Clayton, after the young boy was released from the military when his true age was discovered, introduced Kelm to notorious Hollywood agent Henry Willson. And that’s where this film’s narrative becomes most interesting.
Willson, often described as the “Fairy Godfather” of numerous film actors, specialized in what is often described as “beefcake” boys, handsomely masculine gay and bi-sexual men including the former Robert Moseley (Guy Madison), Merle Johnson (Troy Donahue), Francis McCown (Rory Calhoun), Orton Whipple Hungerford, Jr. (Ty Hardin), Robert Wagner, and, most importantly, Roy Scherer (Rock Hudson), often checking them out on the casting couch in order to recommend them for parts. He would also dress them, straighten their teeth, teach them how to behave, and even spy on his clients personally in order to protect them. Few of them—or, for that matter, even Willson’s women clients who included Natalie Wood, Lana Turner, and Rhonda Fleming—could act (although Wood had been a child actress before her adult career). As Willson asserted, they were “stars," not actors, and he arranged for them to take acting classes and to study their craft by appearing in local theater productions (Hunter starred in a production of Our Town.) He put their faces regularly into the popular screen magazines of the day, and promoted them, particularly to teenagers. Most importantly, he renamed them, openly branding his own sexual discoveries with the hyper-masculine monikers such as Dack, Tab, Rock, Rory, and Ty. Comedian Kaye Ballard even mockingly offered some further suggestions: “Grid Iron, Cuff Links, Plate Glass, and Bran Muffin.”
To clear them from any sexual insinuations, Willson paired them up with his female clients, so that actors such as Hunter were nightly seen in clubs and restaurants with young women such as Wood, Debbie Reynolds, and others, most of whom, such as Reynolds, were happy to play the role of what Hollywood insiders described as “beards.” As Reynolds noted: “Oh sure, I dated all the boys who were homosexual, because I liked them better. They weren’t fresh. They were fun. They were sweet. They didn’t come on to me. All the straight guys were coming on to me. And I couldn’t stand that. I was seventeen. I was a virgin. I didn’t want hands all over me.” Natalie Wood and Margaret O’Brien used to play a “game of trying to figure out which of their dates had slept with Henry.”
According to Hunter, Perkins was more seriously in love, yet his career mattered more than anything (and one must admit, Perkins was the better actor), and after Hunter told Perkins that his studio, Warner Brothers, was about to buy a property which he already had performed on television, Perkins had his studio buy the film rights for himself, the relationship gradually faded.
What becomes apparent in Hunter’s life is that he was forced not only to act on the screen and television, but to transform his whole life into a fiction. What sets him apart from some others is that he was evidently completely willing to perform that role and to knowingly take on the part of the beautiful bachelor boy next door. Sadly, Hunter seems to have been one of the most closeted figures of the entire era.
Fortunately—and fortune seems to be a subtheme of Hunter’s entire career—the moment he took to the screen he had the accident of being asked to sing what became the most popular single of the year, “Young Love,” backed up by Elvis Presley’s background singers. The record was the #1 record for six weeks, becoming one of the greatest hits of the rock-and-roll era. The voice is thin and frail, but he sings it and others with the belief of young lovers, and, with his beautiful blue eyes, conveys a sense of absolute belief that no one can deny. He was a natural seducer.
Even the evil Jack Warner was clearly sold on the new wonder boy, especially after Hunter artfully seduced the married Dorothy Malone figure in Raoul Walsh’s Battle Cry, one of the most successful movies of 1955. The studio bought the musical Damn Yankees as a vehicle for him, while importing most of the rest of the cast—Ray Walston, Gwen Verdon, Shannon Bolin, Jean Stapleton, and choreographer Bob Fosse—from Broadway. Director George Abbott, attempting to transform Hunter, yet again, to his stage vision of the original Broadway star, finally forced the mutable young actor into a more forceful being, as Hunter demanded that he define the role of Joe Hardy in his own way. Although he perhaps succeeded in doing that, one must admit that the final production was not the greatest of musicals to reach the screen (see my comments on Gwen Verdon and him in my “Shall We Dance” essay in My Year 2000). Both Abbott and co-director Stanley Donen were appalled by his lack of talent, Donen later observing: “He couldn’t sing, he couldn’t dance, he couldn’t act. He was a triple threat.” I’ll always, however, remember the lovely, late film number, “Two Lost Souls,” where, finally, he and Verdon, realizing they’re now both utterly failed human beings, temporarily come together for a charming song and dance. The number might almost be used to describe Tab Hunter’s entire career, although his 30-year long relationship with producer Allan Glaser utterly redeems him.
For his part, Hunter argues that “I wasn’t so much a person now as I was a valuable commodity. . . . They can put you in the slot they want, and you’re supposed to stay there, performing your trick on demand.” Once he had begun to define himself, he was described as difficult to work with and “temperamental.”
At about the same time, in order to save his major breadwinner, Rock Hudson, from being outed by the wicked Hedda Hopper and others in the even more evil Confidential magazine, Hunter’s agent Willson, as some have described it, put him, along with Rory Calhoun, “under the bus,” revealing Calhoun’s early periods of imprisonment and Hunter’s arrestment—one must recall this was the worst period of the 1950s—for simply attending a gay party at a private house. Jack Warner’s response was heartening: “Today’s headlines, tomorrow’s toilet paper,” but without Willson (Hunter claiming that Willson left him, as opposed to the industry legend that Hunter left Willson) the hunky actor’s career took a tailspin as he was forced again and again to play young sailors, soldiers, and airmen in grade B movies, few of which—with the exception of John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), performing with his former friend Antony Perkins, and, with Sophia Loren, in Sidney Lumet’s That Kind of Woman.
A career in television, including his own show, and a long period in dinner theater, including productions of Bye Bye Birdie, Under the Yum Yum Tree, and West Side Story (a movie role for which he had yearned, going instead to Richard Beymer [see My Year 2004]). Hunter seems quite bitter about his dinner theater years: “The audiences for these shows were married middle-aged women with grumpy husbands in tow, hoping to relive their youth by seeing their onetime matinee idol in person.” Given his previous indenturement to thousands of young screaming teen girls, one wonders at his later dismissal of this theatrically conventional, but apparently lucrative activity.
Nonetheless, he later slightly redeemed his career with wonderfully campy but completely committed performances in John Water’s Polyester (1981) and Paul Bartel’s Lust in the Dust (1985), in which both of which he had on screen affairs with the drag artist Divine.
Finally, what all of this makes apparent is that despite the seemingly easy, open beauty of Hunter’s aspect and demeanor, there was always a deeper, someone frightening and even sinister world behind that gorgeous face and its innocently embracing eyes.
Los Angeles, June 12, 2016