"Tab was a good movie star," says John Waters near the beginning of the sprightly new documentary Tab Hunter Confidential. When I ask Hunter himself, on the phone from California, if he thinks he was a good movie star, he's reluctant to share his friend's enthusiasm.
"I don't know," he says, after a sigh. "I think I did some good work. My best work was in live TV. I did some good work, but [movies] weren't happening for me. Luck played such an important part. By the time I was serious, there weren't a lot of great roles for a young actor because the industry was changing so drastically." It's an honest answer, the self-assessment of a man whose work for the likes of William Wellman (twice, in the brilliant oedipal western Track of the Cat and the nostalgic WWI drama Lafayette Escadrille, charming despite studio chief Jack Warner's interference), Phil Karlson (Gunman's Walk), and Sidney Lumet (That Kind of Woman) were the bright spots in a career spent largely shunted into dreck.
And yet if you see Tab Hunter Confidential, or read his 2005 memoir of the same name (written with Eddie Muller), you might wish Hunter could be easier on himself. The straight-arrow dreamboat image crafted by the studio and the fan magazines hindered him as an actor. But the casual sunniness he projects in studio publicity shots, or while playing the good sport in variety-show clips alongside Jimmy Durante and Tennessee Ernie Ford, or in the reminiscences he shares in the movie (or in the gamier autobiography), remind you that we respond to movie stars as much for the persona as for anything else. And you'd have to be a real grump not to find Hunter a very likable guy.
Part of the story of both book and documentary — directed by Jeffrey Schwarz and produced by Hunter's longtime partner, Allan Glaser — is his experience as a gay man in Fifties Hollywood. But just as Hunter didn't want to be known as "the sigh guy," the tag he was given in the Fifties, he'd rather not be seen now as some exemplar of gay pride. The first words of his autobiography are "I hate labels," and he means it. A private man, he insists he didn't particularly want to tell his story at all. Toward the end of the book he writes that he was prompted to do so by the news that an unauthorized bio was in the works. Did he find the process pleasurable once he began? "It was difficult," he tells me. "There were times when it flowed and times I came to a blank wall and I didn't know what way to go." Having done the book, why did he agree to turn it into a documentary? "Allan is very pushy," he says, breaking into the hearty laugh that punctuates our conversation.
There were, of course, problems being a gay man in Fifties Hollywood — less from the studios than the tabloids. The notorious scandal sheet Confidential got wind of an early-Fifties arrest wherein the LAPD raided a party Hunter was attending (he was looking for a snack in the fridge when the cops burst through the door). A studio fixer made the arrest disappear. Hunter tells me that, comparatively, today's stars are unprotected. "You had a studio there working for you," he says. "The studio was your employer. You didn't always have to agree with them. But I loved it." Hunter remembers one awards ceremony where a photographer made a crack about the Confidential story. He was touched that Warner, in a show of loyalty, put his arm around him and said, "Today's headlines, tomorrow's toilet paper."
Sure, there were arranged dates with Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood to satisfy the fan mags. But, as Hunter says in the film, he and Wood arrived at a premiere, were photographed going into the after-party, and were then able to slip out a back door, she for a date with Dennis Hopper, he to a rendezvous with Anthony Perkins.
Eventually, though, the frustration with the low-caliber roles being offered spurred Hunter to buy back his contract from Warner Bros. "Studios," Hunter says of his era, "were in that situation where they didn't know which way to go. They had to get rid of their theaters, audiences were changing, foreign films were coming in." Live TV had offered him a chance to work with directors such as Arthur Penn and John Frankenheimer. Now he found himself a sitcom that lasted one season, increasingly tawdry movies, a three-night Broadway run opposite a grandstanding Tallulah Bankhead in Tennessee Williams's The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, and, in the Seventies, a grinding run of dinner theater that led to a heart attack. His co-starring role opposite Divine in Waters's Polyester and in the western spoof Lust in the Dust were not only positive experiences, but instances where he didn't have to apologize for being Tab Hunter.
Like Robert Wagner — who captured the end of the studio system beautifully in his book You Must Remember This — Tab Hunter belongs to the first generation of stars who were movie fans before they were idols. They came in as contract players just when that very idea, and much else about the business, was about to become obsolete. Hunter is a clear-eyed witness to the end of an era, one that both feted and shortchanged him. "What it meant to me was I was a wide-eyed kid accepting it, just going 'whoa.' There was a sense of mystery then that is no longer."
Hunter says the original plan for the documentary was to focus only on his Hollywood years. "That didn't work for me," he says. "I was never comfortable being in the public eye. I tried to make myself comfortable when I was working with people I could feed from. That was important." Tab Hunter Confidential covers his journey back to Catholicism, his rocky but devoted relationship with his mother, the happiness of his life with Glaser, and especially his love of horses (Hunter was a champion horseman and still rides), which he calls "my touch of reality in that very unrealistic world of Hollywood." At 84, Hunter is still the determinedly upbeat fellow he describes himself as. "Under the pile of crap," he tells me, "there's a pony."