Tab Hunter
“Tab Hunter Confidential is not going to win any awards, but it’s a lovely and well-deserved tribute to the man at the center of the film.”
is not going to win any awards, but it’s a lovely and well-deserved tribute to the man at the center of the film.”

Sometimes I can be a bit of a miserable sod. When I’m not recommending depressing documentaries, I’m recommending depressing dramas, or comedies so dark they may as well not be comedies.

Occasionally, though, even I like to relax with something fluffy. I’ve been known to take in a popcorn movie or two each summer (hey, I just saw The Martian – and it wasn’t terrible!), and can even enjoy the odd showbiz hagiography. Which kinda, sorta brings me to this week’s film, Tab Hunter Confidential, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Nov. 6.

Born Art Gelien in 1931, Tab Hunter was, briefly, the hottest thing in 1950s Hollywood. Ridiculously handsome, Tab was the young man every young lady wanted to bring home to Mom and Dad during the Eisenhower administration. He also happened to be gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the United States.

Tab Hunter Confidential tells us all about it. Always aware of being different (though initially uncertain as to how), young Art dropped out of school at 15 and joined the Coast Guard, where he wouldn’t be troubled by constant attention from girls. After the Coast Guard discovered he was underage and discharged him he took up various odd jobs, including deliveryman, gift wrapper, and Hollywood Blvd. Orange Julius hawker.

It was a job mucking out Southern California stables, however, that provided him with his big break. Equine-fancying thespian Dick Clayton introduced Art to agent Henry Wilson, a pretty boy specialist who rechristened his new client Tab Hunter and found him work in Tinsel Town.

There was just one problem: Tab couldn’t act. Clips from his first flick, 1952’s Island of Desire, provide incontrovertible evidence of this sad fact, and it would take Hunter years of hard work – beginning with a stage production of ‘Our Town’ – to learn his new craft.

Repeatedly referred to as America’s most eligible bachelor, poor Tab had little interest in settling down with a woman. Despite promotional material describing him as ‘six feet of rugged manhood to stir the heart of every woman’ – and well-publicized dates with various Hollywood starlets – Tab was much more comfortable in the company of men like ice skater Ronnie Robertson and actor Tony Perkins.

Eventually, of course, the truth leaked out. When Tab changed agents, a 1950 arrest at a ‘limp-wristed pajama party’ leaked to Confidential Magazine thanks to a furious Henry Wilson. Hunter’s career went into a lengthy spiral, which only turned around when John Waters hired him for 1981’s midnight-movie smash Polyester.

For folks who watch a lot of old movies, Tab Hunter Confidential is a revelation, featuring interviews with lots of people I (and perhaps you) had presumed long dead. There’s Rex Reed, Rona Barrett, Venetia Stevenson, Terry Moore, Debbie Reynolds, Don Murray and, best of all, Dolores Hart, who’s been a Benedictine nun since 1963.

If there’s such a thing as a happy ending for any of us, Tab’s living it: still looking great in his 80s, he spends his time horseback riding in the hills above Santa Barbara. As for Tab Hunter Confidential, it’s not going to win any awards, but it’s a lovely and well-deserved tribute. Don’t miss it.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...