INTERVIEW | Jeffrey Schwartz
In the 1950s an exceptionally handsome young man was the biggest box office star at Warner Brothers Studio in Hollywood.
This major heartthrob matinee idol, made over 40 films was also a very successful pop singer, his debut number one single, Young Love, was the genesis for Warner Brothers Records. He was one of the world’s most sought-after bachelors. He never married. He also had a secret that he tried to keep from his fans for decades, but in 2005 at the grand age of 73 he published his autobiography and finally came out of the closet. The man is Tab Hunter and in a new documentary on his life Tab Hunter Confidential we finally get to learn about the man behind the star and find out what a real charmer this former member of Hollywood royalty is all about.
Tab was in London recently for the international premiere of the movie and before we met the man, we caught up with award-winning Director JEFFREY SCHWARTZ to ask what it was like telling the story of such a great gay icon.
RWD: So why Tab Hunter?
JS: I thought he was one of those people that never got his due. He was known as being the most beautiful man in the world but I really respected all the work that he put in to further himself as an artist and actor. It was after reading his memoir that gave me a real appreciation of the fact that he was part of the Hollywood star-making machine. They invented this persona for him, yet his private life was as different as could be. I wouldn’t say he was leading a double life, but he was living in a box at a time where he couldn’t really express who he really was as he was being controlled by the powerful Jack Warner and his studio. I felt that I really fell in love with him watching the films and reading his book and then interviewing him for my movie I Am Divine. I thought that this is a man who needs to be reinvigorated and reintroduced to the public. Also how many people can talk about being a product of a star-making machine from that period? We can’t talk to James Dean or Monty Clift or Rock Hudson but Tab is still with us and he can talk about these things. The fact that he came out the other side as a happy healthy survivor of it all is so very impressive and unusual and so I just wanted to tell his story.
RWD: So far you have now made four documentaries on gay icons: two of who are dead and two alive. What’s the difference with the ones who are still living? Do you have to tread carefully and be more sensitive?
JS: It’s very different to have a subject who is still alive. Jack Wrangler the iconic porn star was happily part of his film (Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon) and got to tell his entire story but he sadly passed away before we had its first screening so he wasn’t able to see the reaction to it. Divine obviously had been gone for 25 years by the time I made the film. Vito Russo (Vito) had gone, but Tab was around and was ready to tell his story and I got to ask him everything.
RWD: Did you hold back at all?
JS: No I didn’t, but the whole process was difficult for Tab because he is such a very private person. He does not think that it’s appropriate to talk about certain things because that’s how he was raised and that’s the culture he grew up in. It was a time when you just didn’t talk about your personal life.
RWD: Tab says in the movie that he has never been as open about anything as he is with you. My question is, why you, and why now?
JS: He wrote his memoir Tab Hunter Confidential about 10 years ago so he already had the trial by fire so to speak. We used the book as the general backbone of the film and so we could talk about everything that he had written about, but we also had to appreciate that the book actually marked the opening of the closet for Tab. He had never talked about being gay prior to that and it was very difficult for him to do so, but by the time I first sat down to interview with him he was slowly getting used to it.
In the film he had to go back to talking about things that are difficult for him to discuss but I definitely did not hold back in my questions and sometimes you can even see his discomfort during the course of the film. We have to appreciate that even though we are in 2015, here is a man who had been trained from a very early age to keep certain things hidden, and I found it so touching that now at 83-years-old he is finally able to talk about these things.
I think it is very healing, not just for him but for an entire generation of people who were of his time, and also for younger people to sort of take a look back at the time where people could not be open and see how far we have come in just a few decades. It was a completely different world in Tab’s day.
RWD: Were there any restrictions because Allan Glaser, Tab’s partner of 30 years, was on board as a producer?
JS: None at all, and in fact the film would not even exist without Allan. He was the one who pushed Tab to write the book, and when it came time to develop the documentary, Allan was the one who told Tab that he needed to do this, and without Allan’s encouragement, Tab would not have been so forthcoming. Allan was certainly wanting to have Tab to go further than he ever had before, and in fact there were some areas where I wanted Allan present and some interviews when I didn’t want him around. For example when we interviewed one of Tab’s ex-lovers I told Allan that I didn’t think he should be around for this one and there were also certain parts when Tab was talking about his relationship with Allan that I thought maybe he’d like to go into the other room.
RWD: You portrayed Tab as a gay man who preferred to have a steady boyfriend, rather than one who slept around. Was he really that monogamous?
JS: Even though he is not comfortable necessarily talking about having affairs, he did have them and wrote about them in the book. Rudolf Nureyev was just one of them. Within the periods when Tab was in a relationship he was a very old-fashioned guy, but he didn’t have a long-term boyfriend until he met Neal Norlag in the 1960s. He never defined his ‘relationship’ with ice skater Ronnie Robertson as them being boyfriends and he would never consider themselves a couple, and it was the same thing with his extended fling with Tony Perkins when they were seeing each other. It was all such a different mentality then.
Allan is Tab’s longest relationship and has lasted decades and it’s sort of an aspirational kind of relationship, which everybody would love to be in. So yes, Tab certainly had his affairs but I would never call him a libertine.
It’s funny that now so many people are coming out of the woodwork and I get emails and notes on our Facebook Fan page with people wanting to tell me a story about them and Tab. Like: “I was at a gay bar in Key West in 1973 and I saw Tab and we went home together!” Ninety-nine per cent of these stories are however total BS, but I am very entertained by them. First of all Tab would never go to a gay bar and I don’t think he has stepped inside one more than twice in his entire life. I think people like to imagine this fantasy and maybe it was somebody who looked like Tab, or maybe it was Troy Donohue, (the Studio eerily shaped him into a Tab lookalike replacement after he left) we just don’t know.
RWD: For a man who was closeted for such a long time, Tab comes over as well balanced and sane and without the usual neuroses. Is that really the case?
JS: Yes, but it took a long time. He was raised in an era when being gay was considered a mental illness and a disease and was against the law. You would never get any encouragement from any aspect of society at being gay. He was a victim of self-loathing that so many gay men and lesbians felt at that time. He was raised as a strict Catholic and when he tried to get some peace of mind about the feelings he was having, the priest that he confessed too rejected him, and he carried that with him for many years.
For years he carried the feeling of being dysfunctional and in fact when he did come full circle to accept himself, part of the irony was how he was able to do that was through the Church and through his spirituality. He is a very devout Catholic but he found a way to reject the dogma of Catholicism and accept the Church’s teaching about love and self-acceptance. I find that fascinating because so many gay people have a knee-jerk reaction to religion because of the attitude of the Church towards homosexuality. Tab decided to ignore the condemnation part and although I wouldn’t say that he is now running down Santa Monica Boulevard with a rainbow flag or anything like that, but he does completely accept who he is.
Tab was a major box office star for 10 years. When that part of his life ended he didn’t try to desperately hang on to the stardom, he just wanted to keep working. So many stars go a little cuckoo once their stardom fades and they dramatically try to hold on to the fame. Tab never did that because he didn’t buy into the whole movie star bit, so when it ended he was perfectly happy doing something else.
RWD: Was he ever part of the old Hollywood ‘gay’ set like Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy?
JS: He knew Rock Hudson certainly, and he knew Monty Clift, and he was very close to Roddy McDowell. These are men however who kept secrets even now and so if you would ask Tab: “Tell me about Roddy McDowell, tell me about the gay parties you went too…” he is still protective and will remain silent. Just the other day in Boston a journalist was trying to get some dirt on James Dean and he said to Tab: “Everyone thinks that Dean was gay or bisexual” and Tab just responded with: “I don’t know as I always saw him hanging out with Natalie Wood or Pier Angeli a lot.” Even if he knows he’s certainly not saying. He just doesn’t dish.
RWD: He chose though to remain closeted and not have a double life by marrying a woman, was that because of his faith?
JS: Tab is a very moral person. He did think about marriage and that would probably have made things a little bit easier for him, and the rumours would have stopped. However he chose not to go to that extra step like Rock Hudson or Antony Perkins. Rock was a good example of someone who was a big star with whom the rumours about his sexuality were getting out of hand, and so there was a decision made to dispel them once and for all. Tab also had the opportunity to do that and he could have gotten serious or even married any number of different women that he was close with. He decided however not too as it would be hurting the woman and it would be dishonest. That All-American boy, straight-up, honest image that he portrayed in the films is really him. He really was that guy, and I have so much respect for him because of that.
RWD: The bulk of your movie deals with his discovery in the early days and then a great deal of his decline. Did he feel he got to fulfil his potential as an actor?
JS: I think that when Tab started out he was laughed at. People looked at him as just a very pretty boy. If you look at those early films you will see that he was quite terrible, and he will readily admit to that. He wanted to be taken seriously so he made a conscious decision to work his ass off. He did serious theatre, and he had some wonderful acting coaches, and did some great work to prove himself. He made films like Gunman’s Wharf where he got to go against type, and he also did a wonderful TV Program called Portrait Of A Murderer where he played a very tormented man. I think once they happened he saw that Hollywood looked at him in a different way, and I think he would liked to have continued down that road.
There were so many roles that he would loved to have played. When Midnight Cowboy was being made, he desperately wanted to play the lead role and actually tried to persuade John Schlesinger to give him the part. He also wanted to be cast in the movie version of West Side Story. When he looks back he would have liked to have done more, but when I talked to him about the past he always mentions Gunmen’s Wharf and That Kind of Woman he did with Sophia Loren. He was very happy in his work, and that’s all that matters to him now. He’s also so proud of the fact that he got to work with renowned directors like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer.
RWD: George Takei said that they made Tab take his shirt off in every single movie. Is that true or just wishful thinking on his part?
JS: (Laughs) If we count the number of movies he was in I think we will find that in the majority of them he did do just that. We wanted to talk to people who had grown up watching Tab and everyone knows that the number of teenage girls who loved him was infinite, but of course all the gay boys were watching his movies just as much. Takei was one of those kids who were obviously deeply closeted as a very young person and buying the movie magazines and fantasising. The irony is that the man who created Tab’s ‘straight’ image was gay himself. Henry Wilson his agent also created Rock Hudson and he had his finger on the pulse of what people found attractive. Gay men are always at the forefront at putting forth a beauty and Tab is no exception. It takes a gay man to create God’s gift to women.
RWD: If this film continues to receive such great reactions do you think that Tab would ever consider becoming an advocate for the gay community?
JS: Tab would never ever want to consider himself an advocate or an activist in any way. Having said that, just by the very fact that he has lived his life the way he has, he is very much a role model. If you look at Tab now you will see how he has come out of all of this in a beautiful way but even though he happily identifies as gay, I still don’t know though how comfortable he is with the whole LGBT community as a concept. In fact I’m not sure that he had even said LGBT before in his life until he started this round of gay film festivals. When women come up to him and say: “You were my first crush!” he’s fine with that, but when men come to him and say the same, he still has a little discomfort even now.
Interestingly enough for young people his look is so contemporary and although I think people are drawn in by the physicality, they all then, without exception, fall in love with his charm.
RWD: One silly question, but what on earth was on (ex Hollywood star and now a nun) Dolores Hart’s head in the movie?
JS: She has these pins on her Nun’s habit and one of them is from the Motion Picture Academy because she is still a voting member. She always wears it, as she is still very proud of her years that she spent in Hollywood as an actor. (There is another short film about her that I love called God Is The Bigger Elvis!) We had her in the film as she was one of the women that Tab went on dates with and did the photo layouts with, but she was also there to speak about Tab’s spiritual side and the fact that he was able to reconcile his faith with his sexuality. That is not often the kind of message you often hear from a nun, as she is so very accepting. I would love for people who are in the religious or the evangelical community to see this film because it might help bridge a gap of understanding.
I’ve seen some comments on our Facebook page from fans that are only just now finding out that Tab is gay, and one woman said how very disappointed she was to discover this. These are the kind of people that I want to reach with this film because Tab, aside from his sexuality, is the very same boy next door that they always loved.
RWD: What happens next for the movie?
JS: We are booked in many Festivals and we will ultimately be picked up for distribution later this year. London was the most perfect venue for our international premiere.
RWD: We Brits have always loved Tab here because his TV show The Tab Hunter Show, in the 1960s was an enormous smash here in London, even more so than in the US.
JS: He’s very proud of that.
RWD: What’s next for you?
JS: I’m still figuring that out but I cannot seem to get away from gay icons. I’m developing a film about Allan Carr the producer of Grease and Cant Stop The Music who was a very colourful Hollywood figure. I’m also developing a sequel to The Celluloid Closet with Rob Epstein and Jeffrey because Vito Russo’s wonderful book ends in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The sequel starts with New Queer Cinema and brings us up to date. Actually this is the first time that I am talking about it publicly.
P.S. Tab himself was also on this whirlwind tour in London to promote the movie and we managed to get a few words with the man himself about life then and life now.
TAB: To answer your question regarding those Hollywood days of the 50s, and what it was like for a young leading man who was gay, I can only say that the studio and I never discussed it. One never talked about their sexuality openly. Being gay in those days was not only illegal; it was considered a mental illness. Everything was very hush-hush. When someone signed a contract with a studio, they also signed a morals clause and if they found out you were gay, they would terminate you.
If word had gotten out about a star being gay, it would have killed their career. Studio heads protected the actors they were building. Contract players did as they were told. If they didn’t, they were out and someone else would take their place.
RWD: What advice would you give young gay people coming out today?
TAB: For young people coming to terms with their sexuality today, all I can say is, be true to yourself… Geraldine Page once told me… (The press loved her. They hated my guts.) She grabbed my arm and said, “If people don’t like you, that’s their bad taste.” I needed to hear that, and I’d like to pass that on to all of you. Just remember… If people don’t like you, that’s their bad taste.