‘Tab Hunter Confidential’: No Longer the Boy Next Door

Catherine Ellsberg ’16
Staff Writer

There are moments throughout Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary, “Tab Hunter Confidential,” when one wishes for just a little more. Schwarz previously directed the well-received “Vito,” which focused on gay rights activist and author Vito Russo. He now turns his attention to Tab Hunter, the 1950s heartthrob and quintessential “boy next door.”

Hunter starred in dozens of films in the 1950s alongside screen idols such as Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds, and he usually appeared topless. He also experienced great success producing hit singles, though his voice was as bland as an infomercial jingle. And yet, for all his “good ole boy” charm and easy magnetism, Tab Hunter carried a great secret: he hid his homosexuality throughout the pinnacle of his film career, instead appearing as a virile sex symbol for countless American teenage girls.

Hunter is now 84, but the traces of his sunny, blond demeanor linger in interviews with Schwarz. Though he claims he has always enjoyed his privacy (and necessarily so), the octogenarian now seems ready to open up on camera and bare all. Often cast as a B-star and second-billed actor in the 1950s, Hunter speaks candidly about his brother’s death, his mother’s mental illness, his own heartbreak and times of desperation in Hollywood.

Indeed, Hollywood, that chipper city of can-do mantras and big dreams, looms overhead as its own character in “Tab Hunter Confidential.” As viewers, we begin to understand that Hunter’s choice not to disclose his homosexuality did not mean he was reclusive (though he was, in many ways); rather, we come to realize that he did not have any choice in the matter and that, frankly, Hunter would not have had any career to begin with if he was openly gay in Hollywood.

Hunter did have several affairs with men – most notably Anthony Perkins, his boyfriend for seven years. While Perkins, most famous for his role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” went on to marry a woman and have children, both Schwarz and Hunter are careful not to judge; instead, they both respectfully and bluntly shoot back at Hollywood, which did not and often does not make space for homosexuality in the limelight.

Bringing in director John Waters and actor George Takei, among many others who worked with Hunter or knew him as a child, the film does a remarkable job of interweaving Hunter’s account with archival footage. Schwarz also playfully inserts what look like paper cutouts of Tab Hunter and his co-stars, all transposed over black and white photograph stills; it is a beautiful touch as well as a clever metaphor for the paper-thin construction of Tab Hunter the Heartthrob. Indeed, “Tab Hunter Confidential” demonstrates that the exterior façade was far removed from the reality of Hunter’s world, one in which he was often alone, cornered and struggling with an increasingly torn identity.

Unfortunately, despite the carefully incorporated interviews and clips from Hunter’s early films, Schwarz’s film starts to deteriorate during the last quarter. Hunter did eventually find his happiness with the significantly younger producer Allan Glaser. The two have been together for the past 30 years and, as Glaser describes, his partner seems perfectly content to take care of his horse and stay far from the silver screen.

“Tab Hunter Confidential” quickly slides into a gentle viewing experience – easy to watch but hollow and tepid by the end. Hunter is certainly amiable, but one wonders about the darkness hinted at in brief flashes throughout the course of the movie. With soft guitar music playing over the last few minutes, the documentary devolves into TV special territory, taking some of the wind out of the film’s sails.

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