Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Tab Hunter — His Final Ride Into The Sunset

Tab Hunter signing books following the screening of "Tab Hunter Confidential" at SRO Film Forum in 2015.
Tab Hunter — His Final Ride Into The Sunset.
by Denis Ferrara

“THE HARDEST thing to do is to be true to yourself, especially when everybody is watching.” — Dave Chappelle.
WHEN I heard the news of Tab Hunter’s unexpected death at almost 87 — today is his birthday — I at first felt some relief that it had been unexpected.  No long illness and decline. He was so vital and healthy.   Then I recalled the last time I chatted with him on the phone, three years ago.  He’d called the office to thank Liz Smith for the column that had run on the New York premiere of the documentary, “Tab Hunter Confidential.”   Liz took the phone and said, “Well, honey, I’m so glad.  But you should talk to my guy, Denis.  He was there, he wrote it.”  (Liz had been less candid as to who did what when Tab had called a few years earlier to thank her for the column review of his autobiography. But, times had changed.)
Tab was a doll.  He said, “You were there?  You should have come talked to me!”  I said that he was being mobbed — which was true — and anyway, “I’m actually kind of shy.”  True as well. 
He laughed, “You’re shy?  Does Liz know this, how long have you worked with her?”  When I told him upwards of thirty years he really laughed. “Well, don’t tell Liz. You can’t be shy in your business.  Are you sure this is what you want to do?” He was as charming one-to-one as he’d been one-to-several-hundred, at the screening. 

And so in honor of Tab, I’m going to re-run part of that column and  later today, I’ll watch one of my favorite Hunter films, 1959’s “That Kind of Woman,” directed by Sidney Lumet and co-starring Sophia Loren.  It wasn’t a great success, but nevertheless offers modest, honest charms, terrific work from Hunter, Loren, George Sanders and — perhaps most of all — from the great Barbara Nichols. It is one of those “why-isn’t-this-a-better-known movie” movies.
So, here’s this from October of 2015:

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: The Making of a Movie Star" 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 also titled "Tab Hunter Confidential,” directed by Jeffrey Schwarz and produced by Tab's love of 33 years, Allan Glaser. This is quite a film, a worthy companion to Tab's cogent, sensitive book.
Tab with Allan Glaser at the 2015 screening.
Jeffrey Schwarz and Tab on set during the filming of "Tab Hunter Confidential."
Like the book, the documentary 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 bad old days of Hollywood closets, "beards" and fear of exposure. (Although as Tab points out in the movie: "It really hasn't changed that much, for leading men — 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. (She even had her own magazines.)  Rona looks great!
Tab and Debbie Reynolds greeting fans in 1953.
WHAT is striking about Tab 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.  He realized he was a product, and breaking free of that initial image was harder in some ways than working around being gay. Coming out back then was out of the question.  And so there’s no excessive sorrow or self-pity.

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 appeared on Broadway opposite Tallulah Bankhead in Tennessee Williams’ whopping flop, “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.”  (Made into the whopping film flop, “Boom!”) 
He was glad to be back in the spotlight with "Polyester" and "Lust in the Dust," but not shattered when that comeback eventually faded. Stardom with its attendant pleasures and strictures were not “where he lived.”  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.
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 shrugs, "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 movies and TV appearances in the 1950s.  On TV he could often be found singing his surprise 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 said, remarking on the film, "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 on DVD, and 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 — the good, the bad, the eye-rolling — and some remarkable footage of him in live TV performances. He was a far more viable actor than his astonishing looks suggested he could be, or could have wanted to be — after all, he fit the Hollywood mold; you’re young and blonde and beautiful. Surely you don’t want more?!)
"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 to” ... “we were seeing each other." That's as lurid as he'll get, describing partners as varied as Anthony Perkins or another lover, Ronnie Robertson, a champion ice-skater. It’s an almost revolutionary approach to 21st century celebrity candor.  Discretion is not to be despised.

One senses a great stability in the actor, but also a degree of stubbornness.

He is his own person, not a poster, not a pin-up, and most definitely not a victim, despite his many years of hiding in plain sight. And he’s not terribly interested in being a spokesperson or role model.  He did it his way — you do it yours. 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 of a very remarkable man.
RIP Tab Hunter.
Contact Denis here.