’50s dreamboat Tab Hunter’s journey from all-American boy to camp icon
Let’s get something out of the way up front: Even if you’ve never heard of Tab Hunter — especially if you haven’t — in his heyday in the 1950s, there was no more beautiful man on the planet. Even today, you’d find it hard to compete with the alchemical mix of muscles, stature (6-foot-even), blondness and dimples that Hunter possessed. Still now (he’ll be 84 this summer), he’s a handsome man.
But at least part of the appeal of Hunter in Hollywood was his all-Americanness. Gorgeous, yes, but sincere, too — a regular Joe who was meant to wear a soldier’s uniform, a baseball player’s gear, a sailor’s duds. In films from Battle Cry to Damn Yankees to Ride the Wild Surf, he represented a world between The Greatest Generation and California surfer boy. He even has a hit pop single, “Young Love,” which knocked Elvis off the No. 1 slot on the hit parade. Warner Bros., his studio, founded Warner Bros. Records for him. You can hardly imagine a mother at the time who wouldn’t crow with delight to have Tab Hunter as her son-in-law.
Except that throughout his life and career, Hunter was gay.
He wrote about it for the first time a decade ago in his memoir Tab Hunter Confidential, which has now been turned into a documentary, making its Dallas debut at the USA Film Festival this week. (The film received its world premiere at SXSW.) But as upfront as Hunter is today, don’t say he was in the closet — it was more complicated than that.
“I was raised that way, not to talk about [my private life],” he says from his Santa Barbara home. “I had a strict German mother. She liked to say, ‘Why speak of other peoples’ lives — better you concern yourself with your own development.’”
When he started off, he was an honest-to-goodness strong, silent cowboy type. Despite being born in New York and growing up in San Francisco and later Los Angeles, Tab Hunter (ne Arthur Gelien) was authentically rugged and down-home. He was easily wowed by the glamour of Hollywood. But he was bitten by the acting bug, and soon acquired an agent who helped nurture his ambitions.
During his Hollywood days, that meant he happily lived three lives: One onscreen, one that the studio designed for him (appearances, interviews) and one personal. And it’s the latter he didn’t share with the public. It was easier not to talk about it … and, remarkably, no one ever asked, least of all the studio bosses.
“I [became a star] at the end of the studio era, when they had people under contract. But they [still] had these great people — Lana Turner, Marlene Dietrich … they were movie stars! But [the studios] ran their lives in many ways. I would do whatever they told me to do, like take a starlet to a premiere. If I didn’t do it they, they would just get someone else who would do it. And it was fun! But those things [i.e., sexuality] were never discussed. If anyone had gone to Warner Bros. [and accused me of being gay], the studio would blackball them — they were very strong. But nobody would say anything to me. Paramount did talk to Tony [Perkins, who was Hunter’s lover in the 1950s and ’60s] about being seen with me, but no one said a word to me.”
It wasn’t his homosexuality per se but the pressures inherent in being in the public eye that he didn’t like.
“Everybody seems to label people,” he says. “The first line of my book was, ‘I hate labels.’ A studio will label you because you’re a commodity to them, like a product in a grocery store. But Geraldine Page once said to me, ‘If people don’t like you, it’s their problem, not yours. Do the best you possibly can.’ I admired so many people in the industry, but I was very fearful of it — every minute I had free, I would run out to be with my horses. That was my comfort zone; I felt at ease there. The people part of Hollywood was very difficult … you just learn to fake it. My life was my horses and horse friends. That was my touch of reality.”
He enjoyed a healthy career, working with the true moguls of the industry: Darryl F. Zanuck, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn. He may be one of the few stars in history who has nice things to say about the legendarily unlikeable head of Columbia Pictures.
“I’m probably the only person who got along with [Cohn] very well, and was really close to his widow, Joan. I met him when Columbia wanted me on a loan-out to do Gunman’s Walk. He looked up and said to me, ‘So you’re Tab Hunter. Bob Wagner wants to do this role.’ I said, ‘Well get him,’ and turned around to leave. He stopped me, I sat down and spoke to him for 30 minutes and at the end I got the part.” Gunman’s Walk ended up being one of his favorite film experiences, along with Damn Yankees, his only musical.
But it was two late-career films than cemented Hunter as a gay icon, even before he officially came out: the John Waters’ trash classic Polyester, and the Waters-esque Western spoof Lust in the Dust, both of which co-starred zaftig drag diva Divine.
“I love you mentioning both of those!” Hunter says. “I was doing a play in Indiana when I got a call from John Waters [asking me to do Polyester]. I was thrilled because I was a huge fan — I loved every minute of it. Lust in the Dust was something I had thought of for a long time — I wanted Divine to be in a Sam Pekinpah-style Western. That was pretty darn funny! I wish Waters had done it.” (Paul Bartel ended up directing instead.)
Those were two of his last films, both more than 30 years old now, but although he’s thrilled to be coming to Dallas for the USA Film Festival, he doesn’t miss the film industry much at all.
“I don’t understand the business today. I’m not a part of it. They make pictures for young people and are always playing down to their audiences. I did like The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Theory of Everything and St. Vincent with Bill Murray —I loved Naomi Watts playing a pregnant Russian pole dancer!”
But he’s happy tending his horses and aging gracefully. Like the best Westerns, the hero needs to know when to ride off into the sunset.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 17, 2015.