Why did Tab Hunter, 1950s all-American adonis and Hollywood star, want to make a movie about his life? “I figured, ‘Get it from the horse’s mouth, not from some other horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone.”
You might not know this blond-headed hunk (now 83) from the days of Tinseltown’s yesteryear because he wasn’t exactly a marquee idol. He enjoyed a mid-sized movie career, starring in war pictures in the 1950s before landing a plum contract at Warner Bros. — all the while keeping his private life off the record, on the Q.T. and very hush-hush. Well, almost.
Director Jeffrey Schwarz un-closets this Fifties Golden Boy in “Tab Hunter Confidential,” the documentary film version of Hunter’s memoir, co-penned by noir czar Eddie Muller nearly a decade ago. Schwarz discovered Hunter’s story while interviewing him and his longtime partner (and former Fox executive) Allan Glaser for Schwarz’s “I Am Divine,” a documentary portrait of none-other-than Divine, John Waters’ muse and a close friend of Hunter’s.
Hunter led a double life as both groomed movie star and secret homosexual. But his gay identity wasn’t so secret to some (including Jack Warner, his supportive and nurturing executive producer). In 1955, as his career was beginning, Hollywood rag Confidential (think a fanzine TMZ) dug up Hunter’s arrest at a underground party five years earlier, and published an expose tying the incident to his until-then-hidden homosexuality. But Hunter survived the scandal — would an actor today? — in part because his All-American, provincial, honest-boy good looks made him so desirable to women. And he was desired by men, including Henry Willson, the agent who discovered him and was known for philandering with his talent, such as Rock Hudson.
The film takes a good long look at Hunter’s affairs with athletes and actors, including the elusive Anthony Perkins who was more protective of his sexuality before dying, still married to wife Berry Berenson, of AIDS-related causes in 1992. Can you imagine two stars like Hunter and Perkins showing up together at a movie premiere today? The world would end.
Hunter meanwhile maintained camera-friendly relationships with women including pal Natalie Wood and French actress Etchika Choureau, who barely spoke English and almost married him.
A loving, mostly hagiographic documentary, “Tab Hunter Confidential” takes us through his career in Hollywood and as a top-of-the-charts pop crooner, his fade into obscurity and TV movies in the 1970s, brief comeback in the 1980s thanks to John Waters’ “Polyester” (co-starring Divine) and his foray into indie producing with Allan Glaser, with whom he made Divine vehicle “Lust in the Dust.” Now, he has a star on the Hollywood walk of fame and is enjoying life in California with Glaser and his horses.
I sat down with Hunter, Glaser and director Schwarz for lunch at The Driskill in Austin, in the heat of South by Southwest, where “Tab Hunter Confidential” had its world premiere ahead of playing Frameline and Outfest, among other fests.
“Tab Hunter Confidential” opens Friday, October 16 in New York from The Film Collaborative.
Ryan Lattanzio: You’ve written an autobiography. What drew you out of the closet, so to speak, to tell this story as a film?
Tab Hunter: I heard someone was going to be writing a book on me and I figured, “Get it from the horse’s mouth, not from some horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone.” People will write what they want anyway, but I lived it. This was the journey.
You co-wrote the book.
Hunter: But I had 500 pages on my computer. Once Allan talked me into it, which was not an easy chore.
Allan Glaser: He didn’t want to write a book. Tab’s very private. He doesn’t buy into celebrity. He didn’t embrace any of the stardom part of Hollywood, and that’s how he came out the other end, whole and intact. Celebrity wasn’t important to him when it passed him by.
Hunter: Well I bought into the work. But all the hooplah, and the fame, is uncomfortable. It’s chalk on a blackboard.
Glaser: If he had not written a book, you wouldn’t be seeing a documentary. The book helped desensitize Tab to the whole sexuality aspect of who he is that he was never comfortable talking about. Once he had that experience, it was easier for him to let us do a movie.
Hunter: And I’m glad I did it. There are a lot of people who have the same fears and problems I had as a young man growing up. You read about it all the time. If you can help someone in some way, terrific.
Jeffrey, when did you enter the picture?
Jeffrey Schwarz: I knew who Tab was and years ago, in the early 1990s, I was living in San Francisco and going to thrift shops and I found a record album of Tab’s and I picked it up and remembered thinking, “This means something.” I also found a record album of Tony Perkins at the same time. I put them up in my bathroom, so I’ve had Tab and Tony staring at me in my bathroom for over 20 years.
Hunter: When I went in to pee I said, “Oh my god what are we doing in there?”
Schwarz: I met Tab and Allan when I interviewed them both for “I Am Divine” and started thinking about a documentary without knowing they were also thinking about that, and Allan and I started talking and he brought me on.
Allan, you really pushed for the documentary. The Tab Hunter/Anthony Perkins pairing is probably the sexual fever dream of so many people.
Hunter: Oh god.
Glaser: It’s true.
That’s one of the juiciest bits. Even though you were very private, was your sexuality understood by many, or just ignored?
Hunter: I never discussed it. I think it’s a thread in the tapestry of my life. Society, particularly today, only wants to focus on one thing. A person’s life is hopefully more than just one thing.
Glaser: I do think Warner Bros. knew about it. It was their job because they created this persona. Tab was smart enough to know they had created this persona, and that it was his job to portray it.
Hunter: It’s a job. If you don’t do the job, they’ll get someone who can do the job. Studios are weird. It was a whole different ball game from today. Those moguls knew how to run a business.
Well it seemed Jack Warner was always privy to what was going on.
Hunter: He was wonderful. He never mentioned my sexuality whereas Tony, at Paramount, they talked about it. They told him not to see me.
Schwarz: There was a conspiracy of silence about many things, not just sexuality of the stars, but anything that was against the grain of what was commonly accepted in the 1950s. We’re talking about the most repressive time, and nobody talked about sexuality. “Gay” was just not discussed. Between the studios and the media, they colluded to present a very rosy picture of the family of boys and girls together, and Tab was part of what was almost a propaganda machine.
Hunter: Propaganda is one way to look at it, but that’s just the way they ran their business. For example, if you came in to do a story on someone and wanted to do a certain angle and they didn’t want it, and you insisted on going your way, you no longer went back to Warner Bros. and got any of their stars on any of their pictures. Think about that for a moment compared to today.
Schwarz: Even if the reporters knew the truth about the private lives of the stars, they would never dream of bringing it up because they would never have access to that star again.
Hunter: They may hint. Louella Parsons might when something really pissed her off, but I liked her.
Glaser: But even the whispers about Tab’s sexuality did not damage his career because a magazine called Confidential came out and exposed him and he was voted, six months later, the most popular young male star in America. Two years later, he knocked Elvis off the top of the charts with his record. It’s one of the first times actually where, even a hint of that, prior to Tab’s time, would have ruined a career. For some reason, he just came away from that and was very fortunate, and it was his choice to leave Hollywood behind before Hollywood could leave Tab behind.
Hunter: I was never comfortable with all the hoopla but I would do it.
You knew you were being groomed. Why did you go along with that?
Hunter: If you were a product of Hollywood, wouldn’t you go along with that? I think you possibly would. You’re gonna kiss Sophia Loren, you’re going to work with Geraldine Page, you’re going to work with Natalie Wood and be great friends with her. I loved the work and all the PR that went along with it.
Schwarz: Tab was always true to himself. There were stars in what they called “lavender marriages,” people like Rock Hudson would take the extra step of getting married for publicity purposes. It was for PR. Tab had the opportunity to do that, but he never did.
Hunter: Well Rock married Phyllis, and she was Henry Wilson’s secretary, and he was my agent. To breathe, I would run out to the barn to be with my horses because I love shoveling shit. I really love it. I feel closest to God with a pitchfork full of crap in my hands. I’m serious! In fact right as we speak now I’m waiting to be a father because my mare is as big as this table and she’s due any hour, and if she does I’m going to call the baby Austin because we’re in Austin.
Glaser: Tab never liked going to the Hollywood social scene. If he had a choice between going to a premiere and going out to the barn, he’d choose the barn, and that is what kept him grounded.
Hunter: But it was fun to go to those affairs. You’d see the old time stars. I was very impressed. You play cool, but it’s not what you’re really feeling.
You did almost get married twice. You had a relationship with a French actress who barely spoke English.
Hunter: We got along really well. She was a fabulous person. And the other time was Harry Cohn’s widow. That’s in the book, but not the film. I go back to this all the time: Darryl Zanuck would buy all these bestsellers and make motion pictures out of them. There’s only so much you can take out of the book to put into a film and that all comes down to choosing what you think would make the best film.
How did you decide what went into the film?
Hunter: It was very difficult. Jeffrey and Allan were at it.
Glaser: If it were up to me, it’d be a four-hour movie of Tab’s.
Hunter: And that’d be pretty boring.
Schwarz: Hollywood is the MacGuffin in, when you’re asking what did we choose to keep. If it didn’t relate to this journey of self-awareness and discovery, and a journey of someone going from self-loathing to self-acceptance, that’s really the theme of the film. Anything in the film somehow relates to that, and also to Tab coming into his own as an artist and wanting to assert his wants and needs as an artist and be independent of the studios.
That’s the theme of all your films. Speaking of that, I had never heard of this Western you concocted for Divine, “Lust in the Dust.” Tell me about that project.
Hunter: It’s explained perfectly in the capsule on the billboard: “He rode the West, she rode the rest, together they ravaged the land.” It’s a spoof of ’50s Westerns and I did my Clint shtick.
What drew you to Divine?
Hunter: She was one of my favorite leading ladies, are you kidding? Sophia Loren, Geraldine Page, Natalie Wood, Divine!
Glaser: Divine had a great sense of humor. It wasn’t the outrageous person you saw in the screen persona. The Divine that we knew–
Hunter: He was a beached whale! He was fabulous! And he was very serious as an actor.
Glaser: He really wanted to do “Lust in the Dust” because as much as he loved John Waters’ pictures, he wanted to break out and become more mainstream.
Schwarz: They wanted to do another movie together before Divine passed away. It was going to be a James Bond spoof and Tab was going to be the James Bond character, and Divine was going to play, like, eight different characters.
Glaser: And it was called “James Blonde”!
Were there other projects that fell through that you two were steering together?
Glaser: Many! But that’s Hollywood. For every one picture we’d get done, I’d work on five just as hard that would never see the light of day. Either an executive would leave a studio or the financing would fall out, or whatever.
Hunter: Allan got the rights to the Gene Tierney story, which was wonderful, and then we took it to some young executive at Columbia who said, “June Tierney…? Gene Tierney…? Wasn’t that a boxer?” You wonder. Some people shouldn’t be working if they don’t have the background of their industry.
You both essentially left Hollywood together for the indie world.
Glaser: Exactly! But there is no more studio “Hollywood” that Tab was in, or that I was in the tail-end of in the ’80s. Now studios basically pick up independent films and distribute them. Sound stages are empty.
Schwarz: All the projects Tab has been involved with since “Dark Horse” have been indie films.
What does it feel like now that you’ve “come out,” for lack of a better word, into the public eye? This is a small movie but people are seeing it, and your sexuality will be more exposed.
Hunter: People will pick that, but it’s not about that. Maybe somebody will see it and think, “I’ve gone through those same problems.” People are too quick to criticize and condemn. We’ve got to be more positive.
Glaser: But you’re right, that is the hook to the movie. As a producer, I’m aware of that. I understand that it has to be commercial to appeal to people, and this appeals on a lot of levels. That is a very appealing aspect of the movie for me, less for him, because he never embraced that part of himself. He was raised in a different world.
Hunter: And with a very strong German mother. Foundations are important.
It was a fascinating twist to see you go back to the church and your Catholic roots after all these years.
Hunter: It’s a very important part of my life. I always have felt that way.
Glaser: Every Sunday he is at church no matter where. He went to church this Sunday in Austin.
Schwarz: That’s the thing about Tab. There are so many connections. He is openly gay, he’s a devout Catholic, and a lot of Tab’s fans who came of age with him might not want to face certain aspects of his life. Just this week, I saw on Facebook, an older fan from back in the day, say “I didn’t know. I am so disappointed.” I want her to see this movie. She thinks she knows Tab but there is so much more to him and I would love for her to understand his journey, that we deal with his religion.
Glaser: The irony of what Jeffrey is saying is that that woman who was disappointed bought into the studio persona, and she was probably 15 and fell in love with Tab, and I understand her disappointment.
Schwarz: Tab is so approachable and accessible that he is a perfect conduit to understanding. I would love for people who don’t understand the LGBT community to see this film because Tab is one of us and he’s also somebody who they already love, so they just didn’t know that part of him. He’s a conduit to understanding.
Hunter: People want to put you in a slot. That’s bullshit.
At least for this film, it’s an entry-point into a larger discussion so if it serves that point, so be it.
Hunter: I am very old-fashioned and I still feel funny when I see people in your face of any sexuality, no matter what it is.
Glaser: It was interesting when Portia de Rossi said there’s still part of us still afraid of Hollywood, we’re still afraid to be who we are, because it’s so two-faced. It’s probably the most gay industry in the world and yet they won’t embrace their own sexuality for fear they’re going to lose money if they tell the truth.
Schwarz: Even if they want to be out, their managers and agents are preventing them from doing that. There is still a conspiracy of silence.