Entertaining doc explores hidden life of ’50s heartthrob

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Wednesday, November 4, 2015 6:40pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

They called him Tab Hunter. The poor guy never had a chance.

In “Tab Hunter Confidential,” we learn the inside story of the manufactured movie star with the jokey name (and equally jokey reputation for his acting ability). It’s an entertaining Hollywood saga, even if it won’t change anybody’s mind about Hunter’s talent.

Born in 1931, Hunter was a painfully shy kid raised by a single mom. His blond good looks brought him to the attention of famed Hollywood star-maker Henry Willson.

It was Willson who gave the former Art Gelien his new name (the manager also invented the names of his clients Rock Hudson and Troy Donahue, among others). Hunter’s rise was quick: a contract with Warner Bros., starring roles in “Battle Cry” and “Damn Yankees,” and even a singing career (including the squeaky-clean “Young Love”).

Tab Hunter was a teen idol, but his real identity was in the closet. He was gay, and he stage-managed ongoing romances (Natalie Wood, for one) for the sake of movie magazines.

“Tab Hunter Confidential” goes into some detail about a couple of Hunter’s authentic romances. One was with a champion figure skater, Ronnie Robertson; another was with Anthony Perkins, who was also being built up as a heartthrob in the ’50s.

Hunter was wounded when a scandal sheet called Confidential spilled the beans about an old arrest at a gay party. The magazine was given the story, Hunter says, as a trade-off for not printing items about Rock Hudson’s gay identity.

The special irony was that Hunter was the very image of a square, clean-cut America — a marked contrast to dangerous new rock music and the hip-swiveling Elvis Presley. Which meant, of course, that he’d be hopelessly dated when the 1960s rolled around.

This documentary has lots of first-person narration from Tab Hunter, with relatively brief comments from friends and co-stars such as Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner, and (very quickly) Clint Eastwood. It’s an authorized bio — one of the producers is Hunter’s longtime companion Allan Glaser — so there aren’t many negative comments in the mix.

We also hear from John Waters, who revived Hunter’s career after it tanked in the early ’60s. Water’s 1981 film “Polyester,” in which Hunter played the love interest of Divine, could only have been made by an actor who was a very good sport.

Hunter comes across as genial and private, a gentle fellow who prefers raising horses (a lifelong interest) to showbiz. You get the impression he’d just as soon keep his personal life to himself, even after all this time. The vintage clips from 1950s TV suggest an awkward young man who seems to have wandered into the limelight by accident. Which isn’t far from the truth.

“Tab Hunter Confidential” (3 stars)

An entertaining documentary profile of the ’50s teen idol, whose squeaky-clean image did not include his identity as a closeted gay man. Hunter comes across as a shy, genial fellow, and this movie (basically an authorized bio) includes lots of stories and interviews with colleagues.

Rating: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter

Showing: Grand Illusion

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