Since 1986, San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival has given its Frameline Award to a person or entity who has made a major contribution to LBGTQ representation in film, television, or the media arts. Previous award recipients include film historian, author, and activate Vito Russo, “drag artiste extraordinaire” Divine, producer Christine Vachon, and producer/distributor Marcus Hu.
On the opening weekend of Frameline 39, filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz, whose filmography includes documentaries about both Russo (“Vito,” 2011) and Divine (“I Am Divine,” 2013), joined their ranks. At an emotional ceremony in front of a standing-room-only crowd, the award was presented by noted Bay Area filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who had employed Schwarz, fresh out of film school, as an intern on their film “The Celluloid Closet,” based on Russo’s groundbreaking book, in the early 90s.
As Friedman noted, it was a grim time in the San Francisco gay community, reeling from the ravages of AIDS. It was a unexpected delight to welcome a cute young boy who reminded him of the grit of Jeanette MacDonald after the earthquake in the movie San Francisco — and who would also understand that reference, as well as Judy Garland referencing MacDonald in her 1961 Carnegie Hall concerts. Schwarz began as an intern in their Dolores Street offices housed in a former nun’s convent and Catholic girls school, and eventually apprenticed as an editor under Arnold Glassman. In closing, Friedman summed Schwarz up in a word: mensch.
A skillfully edited clip reel highlighted Schwarz’s ten years of producing DVD extras, some with gay content, such as “Bound,” “Basic Instinct” and “Philadelphia,” as well as scenes from his films “Vito” and “I Am Divine.”
In his graceful and charming acceptance speech, Schwarz said that “This means the sun, the moon, and the stars to me.” He referenced the magic of the old Castro Theatre, mentioning that he’d seen Gus van Sant’s “Mala Noche” and Richard Glatzer’s “Grief” at a Frameline festival there — “and you haven’t lived unless you’ve seen ‘The Wizard of Oz’ here. Or ‘Can’t Stop the Music,’ which opened 35 years ago today. Or ‘Showgirls’!” San Francisco opened his eye to the idea of a gay community — a fellow employee at the film offices asked if he was “family,” which he didn’t immediately understand to mean gay. And when they needed a plumber, they turned to the Gay Yellow Pages. The room erupted in knowing laughter when he said that who he came out to his family, his grandmother already had guessed — “because I moved to San Francisco!”
Afterwards Schwarz’s latest film, “Tab Hunter Confidential,” based on the autobiography written by Hunter with Bay Area scribe Eddie Muller, screened for the receptive audience. It opens stunningly, with Hunter describing an arrest at a gay party in Hollywood when he was a young actor. The movie tracks Hunter’s life from childhood with his cool, distant, and eventually emotionally troubled single mother and adored older brother, through seemingly almost effortless ascension to Hollywood stardom due to his extraordinary physical beauty and the backing of Harry Warner and his Warner Brothers studio during the last gasp of the star-making system. An eventual precipitous decline in his career was due only partially to revelations from the dreaded Confidential magazine and others that the “eligible bachelor” was actually “light in his loafers,” with the long-ago arrest revealed. Hollywood turned to more serious actors, such as Anthony Perkins (with whom Hunter shared an important romance). The studios were challenged by the loss of their movie theaters due to antitrust legislation, as well as the competition from television. Hunter’s many live TV shows, a medium he loved, working with such directors as Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and Arthur Penn, were enticingly sampled. His less-enjoyable sojourn in dinner theater was not as fulfilling as training and showing horses, a hobby that he loves and continues to this day.
After enjoying working with Divine in John Waters’ “Polyester”, a many years’ long odyssey to make “Lust in the Dust” together introduced Hunter to his thirty years younger partner, Allan Glaser, with whom he shares an idyllic-seeming life in a house in Montecito.
After the screening, Schwarz was joined onstage by an ebullient Hunter, with Glaser, and Eddie Muller. “It’s so good to be back in San Francisco where I grew up — and in this theater — and you as an audience? Well, forget it! It’s fabulous!,” a youthful-looking Hunter, now 83 (he’ll turn 84 on July 11th), told the crowd. It was difficult for him to do the book, he said, but he preferred to get the story out “from the horse’s mouth rather than some horse’s ass.” He thanked Muller — Allan Glaser said Eddie was able to pull stories out of Tab “that I hadn’t heard in 33 years.” Hunter, not a sentimentalist, hadn’t saved any memorabilia, and much of the source material seen in the film was accumulated by Glaser. “Why are you buying that crap?,” Hunter asked, and Glaser responded “Because it will come in handy one day.”
The first cut of the film ran over four hours, Schwarz said, and mentioned a couple of tantalizing excised sections that one hopes might turn up as a DVD extra: appearing on Broadway with Tallulah Bankhead, and a sequence dealing with Hunter defending himself from allegations that he beat his dog. Hunter answered questions from the audience with good humor. The program ended on a high note, with news that the book “Tab Hunter Confidential,” originally published in 2005, had re-entered the NY Times bestseller list at #9 this week.