In the 1950s, fewer matinee idols were hotter than Tab Hunter. Born Art Gelien, Hunter was blessed with rugged, all-American good looks that were custom made for teen flicks and war movies but little else. Starting his career in B-pictures thanks to the relative lack of acting talent in his early days, Hunter honed his craft well enough to catch the eye of legendary studio head Jack Warner. He was also an accomplished equestrian, one of the first mental health awareness advocates, a chart topping recording artist and a figure skater. Eventually, he would break his sweetheart contract with Warner Brothers out of a need for more artistic freedom. It would be career suicide, bumping the sheen of his star so low he would end up doing dinner theatre for years before being rediscovered by trashy auteur John Waters for Polyester. He also kept with him a private secret the entire time. Despite perpetually being linked to some of Hollywood’s hottest starlets, he was a closeted homosexual.
Based largely in part on his own co-written memoirs, the documentary Tab Hunter Confidential features some well known talking heads for contextual reasons (including Waters, Robert Wagner, Noah Wylie and Clint Eastwood), but mostly lets the actor deliver his life story in his own words. The results are a refreshing, warm-hearted tale of Old Hollywood gossip that’s free of judgement and told by an older gentleman looking back on the ups and downs of his life with no regrets. Eager to leave his acting days behind him, Hunter’s tone is often cathartic, and that sense of accomplishment and pride is well earned.
Hunter talks about past successes and failures—both personal and professional—quite bluntly but in great detail. These were events in his life that happened for better and for worse, and while some memories are fonder than others, there’s no sense trying to look too deeply into what might have happened if he made different decisions. He’s not using this second chance to tell his story to get deep and introspective, and to the credit of director Jeffrey Schwarz, there’s not much need to.
The stories are the main attraction here. Whatever one might think of Hunter’s decision to keep his private life under lock and key during an era where being gay was largely still illegal in the United States, he certainly lived and loved his way through a full and enriching life. There are plenty of anecdotes trotted out to explain how he loved working on certain projects (Battle Cry, Polyester) and others that were successful, but less than happy sets (Damn Yankees). He’s not too quick to dish on the specifics of his romantic relationships with men or women, but the facts he chooses to share suggests a man who loved all his exes deeply and fully, even if recollections of his time spent with fellow closeted actor Anthony Perkins suggests some finger pointing as to who screwed that partnership up worse.
What Schwarz captures so well about Hunter is the inner conflict of a man torn between his faith and his sexuality, a timeless, relatable struggle that billions—gay, straight or otherwise—struggle with daily. By his own admission, Hunter, who was raised Catholic, saw bedding down with a man as sinning, but also viewed lying about his sexuality as being equally damning and hard to take. It was often said that audiences gravitated towards Hunter in his heyday because he “didn’t look complicated,” and this through line shows that he was just as complicated as the everyday people who kept shelling out money to see him work.