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Life After Outing: Tab Hunter, Hollywood’s Most Profound Gay Icon

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In the new documentary Tab Hunter Confidential, the actor is twice referred to as “delicious.” He’s even called “A breath of spring.” And what words could describe how radiantly beautiful he is in, of all things, a TV clip about mental illness which he made in the 1950s after he had to commit his mother to an institution. It was a public service announcement providing national awareness and compassion for the disease. In this doc, Hunter earns awareness and compassion for his gay life story. Today’s Hollywood has no equivalent movie star.

“I would never talk about my private life,” Hunter remembers his early years. The doc traces his pop career, including the moment when the tabloid magazine Confidential, exposed his 1950 arrest at “a limp-wristed pajama party.” (The charge “disorderly conduct” was a code.) Surviving the scandal, Hunter proves there is life after slander. This doc, produced by Hunter’s life partner Allan Glaser and directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, is a personal public service announcement and the most entertaining movie so far this year.

Born to German-American parents as Art Gelien, he was renamed “Tab Hunter”—a comically bland name to match his blue-eyed blond features which at that time were considered “All-American.” The name-image match-up was devised by Hollywood agent Henry Willson who specialized in pretty boys like Guy Madison (Robert Moseley), Rock Hudson (Roy Scherer), Troy Donahue (Merle Johnson), Chad Everett (Raymon Crampton). If Willson was a glorified pimp, he yet had an uncanny read of the American market, knowing what appealed to women as well as men—plus the special, subconscious allure of delicate masculinity that was particular to gay subculture.

Hunter doesn’t say much about that twilight world, but talks about growing up beautiful, sought-after and “scared of my own shadow.” He confesses his closeted Hollywood life: “I had the ability to live behind this wall.” Today, his gayness is an open secret, but taking the public into his confidence is still a major event. Although Hunter is a movie icon—the luckiest of the lucky—this film reveals a different side to the coming-out dilemma by presenting his story of personal growth. Hunter’s gentlemanly discretion, so different from current political boldness, emphasizes personal decency—a virtue as timeless as his good looks.  

In professional terms: Hunter became a popular screen heartthrob in the 1950s—the era of “the teenage revolution”—also achieving success by making rock’n’roll music. (His Number One hit “Young Love” for Dot Records convinced Warner Bros. Studios to start its own record company.) “They [Warner Bros. Studio] created this persona; that was your job to be that persona. You were rewarded for pretending you were something you’re not,” he explains.

In personal terms: Without ever making a movie that explored his dilemma, Hunter’s life experience contained plenty drama—from three long-term partners to an affair with Anthony Perkins that ended in career betrayal. Hunter looks back on Perkins’ own gay identity struggles with forgiveness, which gives the film’s special depth.

Going from teen idol to camp idol, Hunter earns testimonies from Clint Eastwood (“He’s a better man than I am.”) and Mother Delores Hart, a former Hollywood colleague who gave up her film career. She affirms, “He had an honesty, a simplicity; he had a certain strength of character. He was the kind of boy every mother would want to have marry into her family. He wouldn’t let anybody down.” Hunter credits “returning to the church lifted the weight of the world from me.” It’s no coincidence that Tab Hunter Confidential is the most gratifying showbiz biopic since Mother Hart’s own God is the Bigger Elvis.

Part of Hunter’s beauty comes from his candidness (“You have to be true to yourself”) and his unassuming modesty. At age 85, he says “I am happy to be forgotten.” But that isn’t likely. Tab Hunter is a shining example that there’s life after outing.

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