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Tab Hunter's Secrets
By Michael Schulman October 16, 2015 (The New yorker)


Imagine an alternative universe in which being gay in nineteen-fifties America was not just tolerated but celebrated. The hottest couple in Hollywood would undoubtedly be Tab Hunter and Anthony Perkins. The two actors met in 1956, at the pool at the Chateau Marmont. Perkins, brooding and darkly handsome, was doing Friendly Persuasion and was four years away from Psycho. Hunter was a studio player at Warner Brothers: a blond, blue-eyed dreamboat, whom the studio was selling quite successfully as the quintessential boy next door.


Had the three-year romance that followed been acceptable in the light of day, Hunter and Perkins might have been iconic: an East Coast West Coast, sunny-meets-stormy power couple. In real life, of course, the relationship was a potential career-ender for both, and they kept it secret from even their closest friends. As Hunter recalls in Jeffrey Schwarz's new documentary, Tab Hunter Confidential (opening in New York this weekend), he would go out on dates with starlets like Debbie Reynolds, arranged by the studio and lapped up by movie magazines; sometimes, he and Perkins would double-date with women and then go home together.


If you're too young to remember Tab Hunter, ask your mother. For a good stretch of the fifties, his square-jawed image was a staple on teen-age girls bedroom walls. Raised Arthur Gelien, in California, by a mother whom he later had to commit to a psychiatric institution, Hunter was so Adonis-like that the girls in his high school used to chase him around in mobs for reasons that are now obvious, this made him extremely uncomfortable. He joined the Coast Guard to escape the attention, until he was discharged for being underage. Nevertheless, he wound up with a Hollywood agent, who gave him a new name, and he appeared in movies like Island of Desire, Battle Cry, and Damn Yankees! He typically played soldiers and surfers and other totems of wholesome American masculinity. (James Dean, Warner Brothers in-house bad boy, was his mirror image.) He branched out into a recording career, crooning hits like Young Love. For a while, he was dubbed The Sigh Guy.


They labelled me the all-American boy, Hunter said earlier this week, at the Kimberly Hotel in midtown. At eighty-four, he is still approachably handsome, dressed as if headed to a wine tasting in Napa: slacks and a light-blue Oxford shirt, with the sleeves rolled up. He was in town with Allan Glaser, his partner of thirty-three years. (They live in Santa Monica, with two horses and two whippets.) He added, I've always been sort of an anti-label person.


That includes the other label he spent his career carefully avoiding. In the fifties, homosexuality was considered a perversion, and it was particularly toxic for Hollywood leading men. (And, to a large extent, it still is.) The studio kept most of the rumors out of the movie magazines, though Confidential reported Hunter's arrest at a limp-wristed pajama party when his former agent bartered the information to protect Rock Hudson. Itching for artistic freedom, Hunter bought himself out of his contract with Warner Brothers, which quickly gave the blond-heartthrob slot to Troy Donahue. The roles dried up, and, when the fifties gave way to the sixties, a distrust toward prepackaged matinee idols made Hunter a relic. Meanwhile, his relationship with Perkins petered out after Hunter appeared in the TV baseball drama Fear Strikes Out, and then Perkins arranged to star in the movie version himself. We didn't see much of each other after that, he said.


For a while, he was stuck doing B-movies and dinner theatre. ( Between the belching and the passing of gas, we'd do the first and second act of a show. ) While on the road in the early eighties, he got a call from John Waters, who wanted to cast him in his new film, Polyester, opposite the drag queen Divine. He said, One question: How would you feel about kissing a three-hundred-and-fifty-pound transvestite? And I said, Well, I'm sure I've kissed a hell of a lot worse! His appearance in Polyester and in a second movie with Divine, Lust in the Dust (which is how he met Glaser, one of its producers), occasioned a tongue-in-cheek resurgence, in which he played off his clean-cut image. But, for the past three decades, he has mostly focussed on his horses.


Hunter is the opposite of Norma Desmond. He didn't save a still, a lobby card, a poster, Glaser said. He gave his gold record away. He kept nothing. When his movies come up on TMC, he flips past them. He revealed his long-held secret only when he got word that an unauthorized biography was in the works, and Glaser persuaded him to preempt it with his own book, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, which appeared in 2005. Even after that, the documentary took seven years to make, Glaser said, because of how reticent he is to talk about some things. I was brought up very quietly, very privately, Hunter said. My mother was a very strict German, religious, and so you just didn't discuss things like that.


Glaser said that the process had been cathartic for Hunter, but he still seems ill at ease discussing his gay identity, and he disapproves of modern celebrities who are blah, blah, blah, right in your face. You probably won't find him accepting GLAAD awards or riding in gay-pride parades, like George Takei or Ian McKellen. Asked if he would come out of the closet if he were a young movie star today, he said no. The thing that I feel is good about the documentary, he reasoned, is there are a lot of men like me who have lived very hidden lives. And it's got to be hopefully a little step in a direction where they don't feel as bad about it.


One gets the sense that Hunter enjoyed the zenith of his fame, despite the secrecy of his personal life, but that he never really bought into his own stardom. Unlike Perkins, he wasn't ruthless, and his talent had its limitations. Being a teen heartthrob means being a product, and products tend to run their course. What's admirable about Hunter is that, against his long-standing instinct for the quiet life, he is filling out an important part of gay history, when the studios controlled their charges and the celluloid closet was firmly locked shut. That he has lived to tell his tale in an era when the door is creaking inexorably open is a fate not afforded to Perkins. He died in 1992, of AIDS, and left behind a wife and two kids.
Date: Sat March 11, 2017 � Filesize: 59.3kb, 203.9kbDimensions: 1200 x 958 �
Keywords: Tab Hunter

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