Tab Hunter, an Eisenhower-era teen heartthrob and prolific pop singer turned semi-legit actor in the ’60s turned coy campster in the ’80s, looks like Glen Campbell, Chet Baker, and Ricky Nelson balled up into one very hot goofy guy. Plus, he’s got an affable redneck sort of voice that makes him sound cherubically sincere, all of which makes him a rather fascinating reluctant gay icon for a rakish documentary. The Hunter you encounter in “Tab Hunter Confidential,” based on his autobiography of the same name and directed by Jeffrey Schwarz (whose previous film was “I Am Divine”), speaks with a no-big-deal distance common with many people who’ve seen a lot and lived a life about being big in Hollywood while being closeted, being a pawn in the studio system, the strange ups and downs of his career, a mother with mental illness, and more. You also get plenty of people fawning over his good looks: John Waters describes his arrival into pop culture as like “a flying saucer landed lookin’ that cute,” whatever that means; and George Takei says he represented “youthful American masculinity,” and sheepishly points out that Hunter was also taking his shirt off in his movies.
Most readers are probably at least familiar with Hunter in John Waters’ 1981 Douglas Sirk-like satire “Polyester,” where he plays Todd Tomorrow, a Corvette-driving, horse-riding dreamboat who turns out to be crooked, and the Hunter you meet here is just as self-aware as that performance, though more reserved. By having Hunter mostly talk about his own life, the movie lacks big dramatic beats and instead rolls along with the stoic wisdom that anyone with 70-plus years behind them would hopefully have picked up along the way. “You learn when you’re in the public eye to compartmentalize,” Hunter explains, and he’s fairly coy about giving the details of his life, though the details are common—Catholic guilt runs him out of the church, heterosexuality is hammered into him because of his occupation in Eisenhower-era Hollywood. And in a sense, Hunter’s story here, though fascinating, is also very much that of many gay men who grew up post-war which makes it even more significant.