Art is a Lonely Hunter

“I’m Tab Hunter, and I’ve got a secret…” begins the celebrated teen girl heart throb’s intro for the famous 1950s-60s game show, a wink-wink double-whammy for those in the know, and a perfect intro to the superb acclaimed 2015 feature-length documentary TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL, now on Blu-Ray from FilmRise and Automat Pictures.

Hunter, born Arthur Gelien Kelm in 1931, had the genetic good fortune (or, as some see it, misfortune) to be blessed with ridiculous comic-book, chiseled, movie-star looks.  Convenient, since he loved le cinema, along with his family (an adoring, savvy single mother and supportive older brother) and, later, those incredibly spiritual beings that comprise the equine universe (hey, anyone who loves horses is okay by me; people, not so much).

Hunter, in case you Bijou buffs have been living in a cave, was one of the 1950s’ biggest draws – a blond hunky dude whose early inexperience eventually gave way to a genuinely fine actor, gracing a number of memorable Eisenhower Era classics.  The fact that he was gay almost destroyed the meteoric career before it began (a raid at a “fag” party around 1951 was a red flag smack-down from a period where homosexuality was against the law).

Hunter’s previous high-school adventures were nearly as traumatic, if not more so.  Girls wouldn’t leave him alone to the extent that he flew to coop, and, lying about his age, joined the Coast Guard.

His meeting with the infamous one-two punch agents Dick Clayton and then Henry Willson set him on the road to eventual stardom.  Clayton was a hot commodity since he had repped James Dean (but apparently did little else), while Willson was a shadowy (often dubbed “satanic”) figure – the super-agent who coined crazy names for male clients (Hunter, Rock Hudson, and, in a wacky alternative in-joke, John Smith).  The change from Gelien Kelm to Hunter was Willsoned during an exchange where he told the would-be actor, “we gotta tab you something.”  The Hunter part came from the six-foot wannabe thesp telling Willson that in his horse-training lifestyle he showed hunters and jumpers (ironically one of the names originally tossed to him was “Troy Donahue,” who would become his successor at Warner Bros.).  It seemed almost inevitable that at the first signs of trouble (aka, Confidential magazine), either/or both of these creeps would toss Tab under the bus (and so it came to pass).

Suffice to say, TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL is an immensely entertaining and informative look at Hollywood history in the 1950s (a period I really like, so I was hooked from the fade-in).  Hunter himself is an ingratiating subject, smart, intuitive, funny, and, importantly, self-deprecating when necessary (the movie being a worthy companion piece to the actor’s best-selling autobiography of the same name; as Hunter accurately bemuses, it was better his story be told from the horse’s mouth rather than a horse’s ass, since rumors rose that an unauthorized tell-all book was in the works).  His anecdotal abilities are top-notch, and he is aided by many friends and associates, including John Waters, Robert Wagner, Darryl Hickman, Lainie Kazan, Debbie Reynolds, Connie Stevens, Brett Halsey, Robert Osborne, George Takei, Portia De Rossi, Don Murray, Mother Dolores Hart OSB, Venetia Stevenson, Clint Eastwood (who, not surprisingly for these days, makes an idiotic comment) and others.

For me, it’s wonderful to learn that his favorite pics are ones that I consider the actor’s best, particularly the violent, underrated Phil Karlson western Gunman’s Walk (1958) and the butchered but still fascinating all-star adventure They Came to Cordura (1959).

There are so many things I didn’t know.  I knew Hunter had a mega-hit rock ‘n’ roll single with “Young Love” (it knocked Elvis out of the Top Ten), but hadn’t realized that he sustained an impressive, lasting recording sidebar vocation.  The massive success of “Young Love” put him at odds with his employer Jack Warner, who chastised him for making money for other people.  Hunter logically replied, “But Warner Bros. doesn’t have a recording arm,” to which the flustered mogul stumbled and then blurted out “WE DO NOW!”  Thus, Hunter was responsible for Warner Bros. Records.

A veritable bombshell is dropped when the star admits his tumultuous love affair with Anthony Perkins.  Perkins, more career-driven than Hunter, also followed his lover into a recording sideline; but it was an on-screen betrayal that squelched the romance.  Hunter has starred in (and was applauded for) many live-TV performances, specifically an adaptation of Fear Strikes Out, the harrowing story of psychologically damaged baseball icon Jimmy Piersall.  He mentioned to Perkins that he hoped Warner would buy the property for him as a big-screen vehicle (common then, think Marty).  The next thing he knew, Paramount had the project on-tap for Perkins; it would prove to be one of his best movies, one that Hitchcock saw and, well, you know…But it ended the relationship.

Another romance, the acceptable/decept-able kind, emerged during the shooting of William Wellman’s Lafayette Escadrille in 1958.  Hunter developed love-ya-as-a-friend feelings for beautiful French costar Etchika Choureau; it was more than reciprocal from her side, and almost resulted in a traditional marriage.  Hunter ultimately felt he couldn’t do that to Choureau, whom he genuinely cared for (in a brotherly sorta way).  It destroyed her (she returned to France heartbroken after the picture wrapped; she is interviewed for this doc, and is yet another engaging member of the Hunter galaxy).

Hunter’s clash with director George Abbott during the production of possibly his most famous movie, Damn Yankees! (also 1958), is likewise duly covered.  Abbott hated Hunter (although the remainder of the cast, all recruited from the Broadway production, thought he was swell).  Their acrimony is depicted, warts and all; however, no mention is made of co-director Stanley Donen.  I mean, none!  As if he wasn’t involved with the project at all.  A mystery to be solved (that said, I can state that everyone I know who has had any contact with Donen can’t stand him).

Hunter’s great friendship with Natalie Wood is chronicled, their fake  fan-mag “romance” concocted by Warner Bros. to cross-promote their less-than-brilliant on-screen teamings (which nonetheless did phenomenal box office).  Their dates would inevitably end with the couple sneaking off, Wood with Dennis Hopper, Hunter with Perkins.

A lackluster plan for another Hunter-Wood picture finally had the actor throw up his hands in frustration.  Warner charged Hunter 100K to buy out his contract, and Tab’s career never really recovered (possibly sabotaged by Warner, but that’s merely my conjecture).  Hunter quickly became relegated to B-movie hell (The Golden Arrow, Operation Bikini).

Tragedies involving his mother’s bout with mental illness (Hunter should really be commended for a series of daring PSAs underlining the importance of dealing with psychological disorders) and his brother’s death in Viet Nam naturally took their toll.

His re-discovery by John Waters, who paired him up with Divine, finally garnered the coupling he wanted.  No, not the famed transvestite star, but during a pitch to 20th Century-Fox for Lust in the Dust.  It was here that Hunter met rising producer Allan Graser, who was interested.  Fox passed, but Glaser didn’t.  He did the unthinkable; he left his gig at a major studio to seek indy funding, and he and Hunter have been together ever since.

TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL has some impressive pedigrees than transcend Hunter’s champion equines.  It was directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, who previously had made the 2007 documentary Spine Tingler!  The William Castle Story, a movie I screen at least once a year.

The Blu-Ray presentation is terrific, with its specially filmed talking-head footage buttressed by a liberal barrage of movie clips, kinescopes, home movies, stills, etc.

There’s also a mandatory 36-minute supplement featuring excised material, some of which (to me) I find head-scratching, as it constitutes major stuff.   This includes some a really addictive segment on marketing 1950s teen rock stars (via Sirius XM program director Lou Simon), a hilarious tale of dressing-room rumbling by Darryl Hickman, and Hunter’s outstanding (and often side-splitting) reminiscences of working with Tallulah Bankhead in Tennessee Williams’ stage presentation of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (directed by no less than Tony Richardson).

Yet, it’s a throwaway bit that Hunter feeds us rabid movie-hungry screwballs that forever will stick in my lust-crazed mind.  During the filming of his first movie, 1953’s Island of Desire, the bare-chested newbie had some up-close-and-personal scenes with lead Linda Darnell.  After their first long kiss, the wet, swimsuit-clad Darnell purred into his ear, “Mmmmmm, that was nice!”  Sigh. Whoa! Swoon.

TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL.  Color and black-and-white.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 HD-DTS MA.  FilmRise.  UPC # 19109100158.  SRP:  $19.95.

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