Hollywood wasn’t always as open to homosexuals as it is today–and the extent to which it’s open is still questionable as there are very rarely, if any, lead roles where the character is gay). Still, a place once known as Hollywoodland has come a long way. But in the 1950s, during the tail-end of Hollywood’s golden age, actor Tab Hunter, born Arthur Kelm, was leading a double life. Successful, good-looking, and contracted with Warner Bros. studios at the height of his film career, Hunter played leading men in several films, including Battle Cry and Damn Yankees! among several others.
He was the wholesome gentleman with “all-American looks,” the heartthrob of his era. This was right around the time the brooding likes of James Dean and other actors were ushering in a new era of what was considered sexy. Constantly seen with leading lady Natalie Wood and other actresses, there was one thing that Hollywood didn’t know about Hunter: he was secretly gay.
Hunter, who is very private about his life, never used the word “gay” to describe himself back then, since the word didn’t have the same meaning as it does today. When actors were tied down to individual studios–other studios had to loan them out for a fee if say, Paramount wanted to use a Warner Bros. actor for one of their films–Tab Hunter’s true personal life was kept out of the gossip magazines because the studios used their connections to do so.
Tab Hunter Confidential opens the gates to Hunter’s past in an eloquent and thoughtfully-told documentary. Hunter, sometimes reluctant to go into specifics about certain aspects of his love life, indulges you with details about his life at the time and the story behind the glitz and glamour that everyone associates with the film industry. Director Jeffrey Schwarz doesn’t particularly take the melodramatic route, but rather keeps interest high with the facts and open way the story is executed. The feeling of being yourself, but not really being known for who you really are is an issue Hunter struggled with during the height of his career and is a feeling everyone can relate to in one way or another.
Hunter, along with actress Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner and several others, discuss what really happened behind-the-scenes, like the date set-ups by studios to which a camera person would be in tow, etc. The most fascinating aspect of the film is learning that Hunter’s career began taking a downward slide before word got out about his sexuality. There’s something to genuinely appreciate about the actor’s demeanor, his want to not come out publicly, and the recounting of his career. Tab Hunter Confidential is a thoroughly enjoyable documentary, told with honesty and not wrought with melodrama just for the sake of being shocking. A documentary worth seeing.