Tab Hunter Confidential is a great 2015 documentary about the life and career of the titular former actor, matinee idol and heartthrob who was also a closeted homosexual in 1950s Hollywood where being out and proud as such could immediately curtail a burgeoning or even an established career – even one that burned astonishingly bright for a short time in the 1950s.
Knowing what I knew of Tab Hunter – which wasn’t much, I expected the documentary to be more about his struggles as a closeted gay actor in 1950s Hollywood. And I had assumed that any closeted gay actor’s career in those days would have ended on account of his private proclivities having gone public — so that was the story I was expecting to unfold.
But as we find out in the documentary, neither of these were really the case for Hunter – who was a willing participant in a studio system that allowed him to have private relationships with men such as figure skater Ronnie Robertson and fellow actor Anthony Perkins as long as he maintained the public illusion of relationships with actresses such as Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds. And though that same studio system protected him from the scandal-hungry tabloid press, it was Hunter’s own desire to separate himself from it that derailed his Hollywood career at its peak.
Outside of a few key examples, the documentary doesn’t present Hunter’s having to maintain an incongruous public and private life as being as much of a struggle as I would have assumed it would. So it is actually better able to serve as a reflection of a sociopolitical climate that forces people to make these kinds of concessions to living a life on their own terms in order to have this career. Whether this was purposed or inadvertent, because it wasn’t obviously called out in this way, the documentary is all the better for it – even if less riveting. But in this day and age of content overabundance where riveting is what it takes to break through (as opposed to just interesting or entertaining), less riveting is quite refreshing.
Tab Hunter Confidential is also impressive for the stars that appear in it. In addition to the aforementioned Reynolds, Robert Wagner (on behalf of the late Wood), Noah Wyle of ER (whose first film credit was in one of Hunter’s final films), Clint Eastwood (who appeared in one of Hunter’s peak films early in his own career), director John Waters (who revitalized Hunter’s career in the 1980s), Lainie Kazan (who co-starred with Hunter and Wyle) as well as several starlets of the era who were tasked with helping him maintain his public image are interviewed. Their respective inclusions help the documentary maintain a better balance between Hunter’s career and Hunter’s sexuality than I would have imagined it would upon first reading about it. (The most pleasing of these inclusions is Jo-Ann Cox of St. Louis, Missouri — who won a date with Hunter in 1956 and, in a nod to the great lengths the producers went to include as many relevant people as possible for this documentary, recounts that experience.)
Though Hollywood has changed in terms of acceptance of gays, its activism on behalf of them and in how they’re portrayed on screen, much hasn’t changed in terms of how its matinee idols are expected to put forth and maintain a certain type of image for moviegoers – which still means that a gay matinee idol is still called upon and/or chooses to remain closeted for fear of risking any box office money. And though it has become more than okay for an actor to be openly gay, there are still limitations on the types of roles that are available to them. The documentary doesn’t speak too much on this either, but because it doesn’t, Tab Hunter Confidential, inadvertently or otherwise, becomes both a stark reminder of how things haven’t changed and a somewhat pleasant reminder of how they have.