Wednesday, October 14, 2015

LIZ SMITH: Tab Hunter's Happy Ending

Tab Hunter signing books following the screening of "Tab Hunter Confidential" at SRO Film Forum.
by Liz Smith

Tab Hunter's Happy Ending. (Which Has Not Yet Ended!)

"I WAS walking here in New York, and I ran into Julia Child. And she was, you know — Julia. I asked her how her latest book was going, and she replied, "Oh, fine. But what are you doing? I told her I was thinking of writing a book myself. She seemed very excited as she asked me if I'd settled on a title?

"Well, I was thinking 'Product of Hollywood.'"

"Julia paused, and then said: 'That's not very sexy!"
Tab Hunter at a book party at Elaine's for "Tab Hunter Confidential" in 2005.
TAB HUNTER took Julia's remarks to heart. He called his 2005 memoir, "Tab Hunter Confidential," decorated with a dazzling bare-chested photo of him. It was a bestseller.

Tab told this story on himself Monday night after the SRO Film Forum screening of the new documentary based on his book. It is titled "Tab Hunter Confidential." Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz and produced by Tab's love of 33 years, Allan Glaser.
Tab with Allan Glaser at Monday night's screening.
Jeffrey Schwarz and Tab on set during the filming of "Tab Hunter Confidential."
This is quite a film, a worthy companion to Tab's book. It is a candid, but still reasonably discreet, straightforward account of the rise, fall, plateau and rise again of a beautiful product of Hollywood's dying studio system. And of the good old days of Hollywood closets and "beards" and fear of exposure. (Although as Tab points out in the movie, "It really hasn't changed that much, for leading men, with the kind of image that was fashioned for me.")
The book. The movie.
The documentary includes appearances by, among others: Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner, Rex Reed, Liz Torres, Lainie Kazan, Clint Eastwood, George Takei, John Waters (who resurrected Tab in "Polyester" with Divine) and Rona Barrett. Yes, the Rona Barrett, the major gossip columnist and TV personality who followed Joyce Haber and Sheila Graham. Rona had pretty much retired just as I embarked on my gossip life in 1976. (She even had her own magazines.) Rona looks great!
Tab and Debbie Reynolds greeting fans in 1953.
WHAT is striking about Tab, in the movie and in real life, is his lack of a sense of victimization. He was young, gorgeous, made movies, had fun, had affairs, survived a scandal sheet expose, saw his career dry up — thanks in great part to Tab buying out his Warner Bros. contract, much to Jack Warner's rage. When good film work waned, he made crappy movies and wore himself out on the dinner theater circuit. "My motto was pay the bills and keep working!" (He supported his troubled mother until her death.) He was glad to be back in the spotlight with "Polyester" and "Lust in the Dust," but not shattered when that comeback eventually faded. He turned down big movies. He never kept a scrap of memorabilia. (Allan Glaser says with a rueful laugh: "I've spent a fortune buying everything up on eBay!")
Tab Hunter and Divine in "Polyester," 1981.
Divine, Gina Gallego, Tab Hunter, Nedra Volz, and Lainie Kazan in "Lust in the Dust," 1985.
Tab Hunter and Susan Hart in "Ride the Wild Surf," 1964.
Tab Hunter in "The Golden Arrow," 1962.
Tab and Dorothy Malone in" Battle Cry," 1955.
THROUGH all this, Tab Hunter remained something of a rugged individualist. Happiest with the horses he raises and rides. "Shoveling horse shit is better than shoveling the crap I had to in Hollywood," he says.
Pleased with the film, he nevertheless says, "Eh, I'm an old man. This is my life. Big deal!" (At 84, Tab remains a knockout; and there are still traces of the bashful, what-the-heck-am-I-doing-here? vibe he projected in many of his TV appearances in the 1950s, often singing his big hit, "Young Love.")
Even after the lights came up, and Tab was being interviewed by cinema critic Foster Hirsch, the actor seemed more concerned with real-life matters and attitudes: "Forget the spin. Not just Hollywood spin. What happens in life. Just be fair. That's my favorite four-letter word — Fair!"

Mr. Hirsch is a wonderful writer and observer. (His slim volume on Elizabeth Taylor's career and persona and several essays on that star stand alone in perceptive acuity.) But he can get into strange territory. At one point, the writer said to Tab:

"Your father was Jewish."
"And Allan, your partner, is Jewish."
"Well, do you see some connection there?"
Tab with Robert Osborne and Allan Glaser at the screening.
Tab looked blank, and the audience rustled. Allan Glaser broke the awkwardness by saying, "Hollywood was made by Jewish moguls and agents. Tab knew lots of Jews."

Hirsch also said, "Oh, but your affair with Rudolf Nureyev was left out." Allan broke in, deadpan, "Yes, it was." Then he added: "Don't worry, there will be a director's version DVD, it'll have Rudy and Tallulah and whatever else you think we missed." (What you do get are great clips and trailers from Tab's films and some remarkable footage of him in live TV performances — he was a far more viable actor than his astonishing looks at first indicated.)
"Tab Hunter Confidential" is one of the few movie-star documentaries with a happy ending. Tab is shown literally riding off into the sunset, content, not embittered, and still, despite his book and this movie, unwilling to roll around in too much detail. "Yes, we dated ... I was attracted ... we were seeing each other." That's as lurid as he'll get, describing partners as varied as Tony Perkins or another lover, Ronnie Robertson, a champion ice-skater.

One senses a great stability but also a degree of stubbornness. He is his own person, not a poster, not a pin-up, not a victim. To know Tab Hunter, to appreciate him, one must look past the impossibly sexy image, the "scandal" of his early Hollywood career, and find the beating heart.
Loren Elliott, The Chronicle
MAIL! I love the schizophrenia of receiving wildly different responses to an item. Several people have written in about my column on the screening of the new Cate Blanchett/Robert Redford movie, "Truth." "Keep up the great work, Liz!" said one. Another note raged: "I am shocked ... I am going to puke!"

I should point out that that column did not declare anybody "innocent" or "guilty" or specify what I thought the "truth" was — mostly, I wrote about the performances.

Speaking of performances, one reader, who noted my praise of Noni Hazlehurst's work in "Truth," guided me to an Australian series titled "A Place to Call Home." In this she, "chews up the scenery, brilliantly."
Noni Hazlehurst in "A Place to Call Home."

Contact Liz Smith here.