America in the 1950s was a different planet than the one we now inhabit. Case in point: Tab Hunter, movie and singing star, gossip column sensation, fantasy sex object, and subject of the lightly agreeable documentary Tab Hunter Confidential.
Hunter (civilian name: Art Gelien) was one of the last inmates of the now-vanished Hollywood studio system of grooming talent under long-term contract. That system would fall apart a few years after New York City native Hunter — the blond, ridiculously handsome son of a German-immigrant mother and a mostly-absent father — first signed with Warner Bros. in the early Fifties. His boss, Jack L. Warner, “tabbed” him a future star, largely on the basis of his “California surfer” looks, and assumed control of his every waking hour, shepherding Tab through a series of grade-B starter pics and ascending publicity blitzes while building him into a ubiquitous matinee idol. Teenage girls, especially, couldn’t get enough of him.
Tab had a secret, however. He was gay, which made his romantic roles (opposite everyone from Linda Darnell to Sophia Loren to his beard “girlfriend,” Natalie Wood) and movie-magazine puff pieces about how he “hadn’t found the right girl yet” look a trifle disingenuous. In the days when homosexuality was a crime in most states, the film industry’s gay community was cosseted in a job-security blanket maintained by studio publicity departments, which hushed up all but the occasional reference to “limp-wristed pajama parties.” Added to which, Hunter absolutely refused to talk about his personal life, to anyone, for years.
He speaks out at last in director Jeffrey Schwarz’s sympathetic biodoc. Hunter, now a well preserved 84-year-old horse enthusiast, comes across as a genuinely sincere, unassuming man cursed by magnetic beauty, grateful for his showbiz career yet relieved to be out of the glare. It was his fate to be overshadowed, in critics’ eyes, by such angry young actors as Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and Marlon Brando. Compared to them, Hunter was too normal. It’s doubtful the doc will cause anyone to run out and look for his movies, except maybe the spoofs Polyester or Lust in the Dust. Hunter won’t mind in the least. As he explains, he’s “happy to be forgotten.”