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Knight at the Movies: Tab Hunter Confidential
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2015-11-25

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There have always been movie stars who attained that rarefied status simply because they were drop-dead gorgeous. ( And isn't objectification the primal reason why we go to the movies—or at least, used to )?

The list of raving beauties who have lit up the silver screen without much talent is long: Hedy Lamarr, Raquel Welch and Sharon Tate come to mind immediately. So does Tab Hunter, the epitome of American hunkitude circa 1950s. Blonde, blue-eyed, square-jawed and ripped in an era when that was the exception rather than the rule, the statuesque Hunter was the polite, sweet-natured boy next door who made all the girls swoon—and ( secretly, in the dark ) a lot of the boys, too.

Hunter shared that secret for he, too, was gay and in Jeffrey Schwarz's entertaining and mostly hagiographic documentary portrait, Tab Hunter Confidential, the onetime heartthrob, now 84, reflects on his decades-long closeted public life with a mixture of understated self-deprecation, glib humor and brief glimpses into the emotional toll being quiet about his sexuality had on his psyche. Called out at the height of his stardom by the notorious gossip rag Confidential ( the TMZ of its day ) for being arrested for attending a "limp-wristed pajama party" at the beginning of his career, Hunter survived relatively unscathed, didn't bow to pressure to enter into a marriage of convenience, and emerged from the claustrophobically repressive 50s, head held high—a testament to Hunter's quiet fortitude.

Hunter's initial blitz of fame found him co-starring with John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Sophia Loren and other top stars of the era in westerns, war pictures and the screen adaptation of the Broadway smash musical Damn Yankees. A successful singing career, kick-started by his crooning of the saccharine pop smash "Young Love," happened concurrently. So did his clandestine and sometimes tempestuous affair with another rising young male star: Anthony Perkins. But Perkins apparently wanted stardom more than he wanted romantic bliss, and the affair soon cooled.

As the '60s got underway, a new crop of Golden Boys appeared on the scene. ( Troy Donahue is mentioned as Hunter's direct replacement. ) But enough stardust clung to Hunter that he was able to keep his career going for years thanks to failed TV sitcom, dinner-theater engagements and some grade-Z movies. Ironically, it was John Waters—the outrageous auteur of camp—who brought Hunter back into the limelight when he convinced the still-handsome hunk to co-star alongside 300-pound trans star Divine in 1981's Polyester. The film's success led to a reteaming with Divine ( and Lanie Kazan ) in the western parody Lust in the Dust. That film was produced by a young studio executive, Allan Glaser, who became Hunter's lover and life partner. The two eventually settled down in Palm Springs as Hunter's career wound down. In 2006, with the release of his best-selling memoir ( co-authored with Eddie Muller ) also titled Tab Hunter Confidential, the actor—for the first time—frankly discussed his sexuality.

The openly gay Schwarz—who has made documentaries about other gay icons including Divine, Vito Russo and Jack Wrangler—adds another likeable film ( which was produced by Glaser ) to his resume. Chock full of vintage footage and the expected talking-head interviews from Hunter's contemporaries, Schwarz's movie is as slick and well-paced as the others in his oeuvre, while not quite having the depth of Vito, his best film. But with someone who is clearly as private as Hunter as its focus, that's to be expected. And there's always that angelic face and dreamy body to drool over. Those with an interest in both Hollywood and queer history will find much to like here.

The film opens Friday, Nov. 27, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Hunter will discuss the film with critic Steve Prokopy via Skype after the opening-night screening. http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/tabhunter

The queen of rock 'n' roll

It's been 45 years since the death of Janis Joplin but her reign as the queen of rock 'n' roll continues unabated. Joplin's meteoric rise, her life in the fast lane and sudden death from a heroin overdose have provided material for a multitude of biographies, reissues of her music, an off-Broadway show and a quasi-biopic—1979's The Rose, with Bette Midler's searing Oscar-nominated performance.

But there's never been an in-depth film look at the flagrantly bisexual singer's electrifying though troubled life. Now filmmaker Amy Berg ( Deliver Us From Evil; West of Memphis ) has helmed Janis: Little Girl Blue, which promises to offer a rounded portrait of this complex woman. Joplin's letters to her family members back in Port Arthur, Texas and other correspondence provide much of the story, read in the film by indie rock star/actor Chan Marshall aka Cat Power. It opens Friday, Dec. 4, at the Gene Siskel Film Center. http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/janis

Of related interest: In Ricki and the Flash, Meryl Streep does it again. As an aging rock 'n' roll singer who's down on her luck and reconciling with her ex-husband and her grown kids on the occasion of her snobbish, conservative daughter's wedding, Streep once again manages to convince all and sundry that she's the real deal. Miraculous Meryl, as usual, finds moments of real, gut-wrenching emotion that transcend this mostly old fashioned but very entertaining nonsense. Jonathan Demme's film has just been released on Blu-ray and DVD with the usual assortment of special features.

Upcoming movie calendar

Highlights from films opening in Chicago, Nov. 27 and Dec. 4 ( or available digitally ):

Victor Frankenstein ( Nov. 27 )—It's yet another take on the classic man made monster, his mad-scientist creator ( James McAvory ) and his slavish assistant Igor ( Daniel Radcliffe ). This time out, the story is told from Igor's perspective. Lavish special effects and a jokey tone ( "Meet your makers" is the film's tagline ) are on tap in director Paul McGuigan's adaptation.

Legend ( Nov. 27 )—Tom Hardy plays both the Kray twins ( one straight, one bisexual ), who are infamous English gangsters, in Brian Helgeland's film.

Tab Hunter Confidential ( Nov. 27 )—See details above.

Chi-Raq ( Dec. 4 )—Spike Lee's latest is an indictment of Chicago's gang violence, a satirical take based on the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes. Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes and Jennifer Hudson co-star.

Janis: Little Girl Blue ( Dec. 4 )—See details above.

Krampus ( Dec. 4 )—It's a comic-horror take on the usual heartwarming Christmas movie. Based on the monstrous figure from German folklore, this looks to make Bad Santa look like a kiddie picture. Toni Collette and Adam Scott head the cast.


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