Saturday, August 20, 2016

Tab Hunter Confidential

I've complained more than once about Netflix's poor selection of classic films, so I was surprised to find that there is a documentary streaming that centers on a classic film star.

I must admit that since I am so partial to the films and stars of the 30's and 40's, I don't know a whole lot about the ones that followed this period. Tab Hunter was a teen heartthrob for American girls throughout the 1950's, and I hadn't realized how wide his influence was, from song recordings to film and television. It's easy to see girls flocked to watch him on the big screen:

He's definitely easy on the eyes

However, Hunter had a closely guarded secret that could have killed his career- he was gay. Or rather I should say, he IS gay because as seen in the documentary, he's alive and well. Homosexuality in Hollywood has always been a very charged topic, and the socially conservative era of the 1950's was certainly not the ideal time for trying to raise awareness or approval for something that was seen as threatening or subversive.

Indeed, I have a book that I picked up at a flea market a few years back titled On Becoming a Man, which was a book on sexual development and other lessons of adolescence that was written for teenage boys. 
The guy on the cover even resembles Tab Hunter

This book, published in 1951 warns the young reader about the "freakish manifestation of human friendship" known as homosexuality. The writer continues to claim that this topic is being addressed because it's confusing to"normal people with wholesome personalities" to think that a person could be attracted to another of the same sex. The following chapter opens with the line "The female figure is fundamentally attractive to a young man, clearly reinforcing the heteronormative expectation.

Again, this isn't really a shocker, but it's fascinating to explore the world of the underground. Years ago, I read Scotty Bowers' memoir of illicit affairs during the Golden Age, and his role in this side of the screen stars' lives. Bowers claims that he arranged liaisons for film stars of all different sexual orientations, and that he had sexual encounters with some of the biggest stars of the time.

The book is in the style of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon books, which detailed the scandals of Hollywood, from Charlie Chaplin's very well known preference for teenage brides to the unsubstantiated rumors, for example the one that claims that sister starlets Dorothy and Lillian Gish shared an incestuous relationship. Bowers book differs from Anger's because while Anger merely collected tabloid headlines and hearsay and compiled them, Bowers is allegedly recounting his own experiences. That is to say, if he's telling the truth.

Anger's books have been largely dismissed as fiction, and although many seem skeptic of Bowers, the stories contained within do make for a good read if one is willing to consider them possible. Some of the people he claims to have had encounters with aren't difficult to understand why; Cary Grant's sexual identity has been speculated on since the 1930's. However, in the chapter where Bowers claims to have satisfied Spencer Tracy.  .  .I found myself dismissing the possibility. I know that Tracy had also been questioned in this respect, but it's just much more difficult to imagine.

I thoroughly enjoyed Hunter Confidential because it introduced me to a whole new world of films that I can watch now, appreciating them more because of the insight I've already gained. The film doesn't really provide a huge timeline of Hollywood history because it focuses on Hunter's own accomplishments rather than his fame in context of the time and industry, but I think a viewer who is even vaguely familiar with classic films would be able to appreciate the many photographs, tv spots, film excerpts and sound clips that make up this documentary. And obviously, the most valuable asset in this documentary are the interviews with Hunter himself, during which he speaks both nostalgically about the people he met during his fame and also frankly about his decision not to let his sexual identity define him. The filmmakers did an exceptional tying all the media together to illustrate the information being narrated. The producer, Allan Glaser, is actually Hunter's long-time partner, which lends an authentic sense of love and admiration to the piece.

Definitely worth watching.

And I also want to mention that the author of On Becoming a Man, Harold Shryock, also penned a manual for teenage girls:

Indeed, this book also contains a chapter warning young readers about "unhealthy friendships", claiming that "homosexual tendencies usually occur in persons who are otherwise poorly adjusted." It also reminds the readers to be grateful for the privileges of being [straight, white, middle-class] women in saying that:

Remember ladies, washing the dishes, ironing your husbands shirts, giving birth and changing diapers are your "cherished daydreams"!

Ahhhh, the 50's.  .   .  .

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