As one of the last contract players under the reign of the Old Hollywood studio system, Tab Hunter, the star of Battle Cry and Damn Yankees, was everything a 1950s heartthrob was supposed to be — charismatic, handsome, talented — but also the one thing he wasn’t supposed to be: gay.
After telling all in his 2006 memoir, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, Hunter is revisiting his rise to fame — and the years he spent in the closet — in a new documentary (in theaters now).
The film, directed by Jeffrey Schwarz (I Am Divine), covers much of the same territory as the book, including Hunter’s relationship with Psycho star Anthony Perkins and his arrest after the Los Angeles police broke up what a tabloid referred to as a “limp-wristed pajama party,” but it also features interviews with many of Hunter’s contemporaries, including Debbie Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, and Venetia Stevenson, whom Hunter dated for some time in order to keep up his straight public persona.
“It was the ’50s. Everything was kind of swept under the carpet,” Schwarz says. “To interview one of the ‘beards’ of the era, you get a sense that everyone knew the game they were playing.”
The product of a conservative Catholic German household, Hunter has never been one to talk about messy things like emotions, and as a staunch champion of everyone minding their own business, he’s never felt compelled to tell his story on screen. It took two years to persuade him to make the movie at all, but Hunter understands the curiosity about his life and why it is important for him to share it. “I thought, you know, get it from the horse’s mouth and not from some horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone,” he says. “Because you know someone’s going to put a spin on it.”
Despite being able to freely discuss his sexuality now, Hunter doesn’t see much of a difference in Hollywood today nor in the expectations placed on the modern leading man, but he’s happy that his experiences of hiding from the world can now be viewed more as an artifact of history than as a portrait of the present. “The documentary gives an insight into an era that never will be again,” he says. “That’s something I’m really pleased about.”