Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Making No Sense At All: The News Promo For NBC

By Lars Trodson

It could very well be that this thing has been around for a while, but I recently caught a promo for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams that more or less was another confirmation that perhaps it is time to retire the old news gathering empires to let them make way for the new.

The promo has the tagline "Making Sense Of It", to which Mr. Williams very forcefully says, "That's our job."

Well, no.

Make no mistake. The underlying reason for this kind of PR approach is to give license to Mr. Williams & Co. to pontificate. They are slyly letting you know that this is what they do, and it is what they are going to do, it is what they want to do. It means they want to give you a little bit of information, and then provide you their opinion as to 'what it all means.' So they cloak this desire to gasbag about things under the solemn guise of helping us make sense of it all.

Let's be clear: News organizations such as NBC, ABC, FOX, CBS, Time, Newsweek, etc. are all now in the business of disseminating opinion, about everything. Everybody now is a movie critic, except only they're a political critic, an environmental critic, legal critic, a Presidential critic, a political party critic and so on.

Think of it this way: a movie critic would go to a movie and then, based on what he knew about the screenwriter, the director, the editing process, and how actors go about a role, form an opinion as to whether they had succeeded based on the standards the critic had created for him or herself.

In a movie review there is very little "reporting" done: you just watch the thing, throw in a few facts you have at your disposal, and then form an "opinion."

Today, everybody, as the old adage goes, is a critic. About everything. We are awash - no, floating, drowning, floundering -- in opinion. It's cheap, easy and fun. You don't have to do a lot of work. You can do all your writing at your desk and just throw in a little b-roll.

So now maybe its time for the old guard to go. As far as NBC News goes, I don't see any Frank Blair's or Chet Huntley's or David Brinkley's or Irving R. Levine's around. I see people who I guarantee you spend more time reading the latest blogs (where most of today's real reporting is done), Tweeting, watching YouTube or working out in the gym than doing any actual reporting.

To NBC News, your job is not to make sense of things for me. It is to tell me what facts I need to know about the world, and then let me figure it out for myself.

Here's a version of the NBC promo:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hardcore Troubadours – Steve Earle's Tribute to Townes Van Zandt

By Michael Keating

Steve Earle picks up the phone sounding raspy and apologetic. He’s on what must feel like an endless promotional blitz before kicking off his solo tour at The Music Hall in Portsmouth May 28. He’s just done his umpteenth radio interview and he’s on his way to an in-store gig at a record store in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury.

Continue reading at or at Spotlight Magazine.

Some video clips of Earle and a trailer for "Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zant" can be found after the jump.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Home-made Film Pioneer Sid Laverents Dies at 100

Here's a story of man who made a film simply too cool for words (and there are only a few in it).

Read about him and watch his fascinating and delightful film:

-- Lars Trodson

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Pictures of Youth, Tab Hunter, Part 3

"Once in a while a good opportunity would come along, like the first 'Playhouse 90' ever to air -- working in television afforded me my best opportunities. The (film) industry was going through such turmoil at the time -- studios didn't know where to go anymore, they were falling apart, television was there. They didn't ... know what kind of films people wanted. The European films were making a huge impact because those films wanted real people in real situations." -- Tab Hunter, in his Roundtable Pictures interview.

By Lars Trodson

Laughter still comes easy to Tab Hunter. During our interview he laughed often, and easily. It wasn't necessarily prompted by what he had heard from us, but rather at some fond remembrance, or an anecdote he recalled, or at the thought of someone he had met. Some people have a laugh that has no mirth. Some people have a laugh that is actually sad. Hunter's laugh is joyful.

If I was more skeptical (and I am skeptical), I would dismiss this as some kind of showbiz stance. But, first of all, Hunter doesn't have to try to impress us here at Roundtable. Second -- just to verify my feeling -- I looked up just about everything I could about Hunter on the internet and he was always unfailingly polite, thoughtful and warm. So, as Hunter would often say, what you see is what you get.

We also watched his movies -- the famous and the obscure alike -- and you definitely saw some performances that were trying too hard, but you also saw an actor who had dignity, and who more often than not added to the pleasure of the film you were watching. And you saw his warmth. He was, in the end, the perfect person to record a youthful ballad called "Young Love."

As "Battle Cry" hit the theaters in late 1955, Hunter was making personal appearances, guesting on television, and was receiving a record number of fan mail each week, someone realized there was one corner of the entertainment market that Hunter hadn't conquered: music.

Recording artists seem to take forever to make a new recording today. It is no longer unusual to hear that years have passed between recordings, and that the recording process itself takes an unusually long time.

This is relatively new phenomenon. It seemed unheard of when the Beatles sequestered themselves for a year to make "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in 1967. That not only seemed self-indulgent, but was more probably thought of as an indication that the artist didn't know what they were doing.

But back in 1956 you simply had to get it done. And so Tab Hunter recorded a song called "Young Love", which turned out to be a pretty good career move. As for the speed in which it was recorded and distributed -- three days -- Hunter has a simple explanation: "They wanted to get it out." He was a huge movie star with a youthful following.

The song was recorded on Dec. 15, 1956, a Saturday. When Hunter arrived at the studio he met his backup singers, called the Jordanaires, who sang for a little country act who had the last name of Presley.

"Randy Wood of Dot Records was an incredible man. His whole operation was so down-home and warm and friendly. It was really a refreshing group to work for," said Hunter of the man who started Dot Records in the late 1940s. In his book, Hunter calls Dot Records a "modest musical empire", which is a nice turn of phrase, and right on the money.

"Randy heard about the song. Natalie (Wood) and I were on tour and a DJ in Chicago had heard it and suggested I call Randy. He said this song was going to break wide open in the country field and I should record it for the pop field," Hunter told us. "He asked me if I could sing, and I sang a few bars. That was on a Friday. I recorded it the next day and by Monday there was more than 100,000 copies were already being distributed."

If the recording process was fast, the way a record marched its way on to the charts was something less than that. Although recorded and shipped in December 1956, "Young Love" hit the number 4 spot on Feb. 2, 1957, and wasn't officially declared the number one record in the country on Feb. 16. Tab Hunter had kicked Elvis off the top of the charts.

The film career continued to proceed in fits and starts, and Hunter had another plum part offered to him in 1958 when he landed the lead in "Damn Yankees", which opened to glorious reviews.

Hunter says matter-of-factly about that picture that he was happy to do it "because I always wanted to make a musical" -- which indicates the attitude he had: I am going to take full advantage of the opportunities this life has given to me.

"Damn Yankees" was directed by the dream team of George Abbott (who lived to be 105) and Stanley Donen (who is still with us), and was based on the book "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant." For pop history completists, we note that the book was written by Douglass Wallop, who was, parenthetically, married to the second greatest radio writer of all time: Lucille Fletcher. She wrote "The Hitcher" and "Sorry, Wrong Number", among many others. For the record, Norman Corwin (also still with us at the age of 98) is the greatest radio writer of all time.

OK, so much for that.

"Damn Yankees" today may be most famous for the line, "What Lola wants, Lola gets", and is fondly remembered for giving Gwen Verdon her most famous film role and it gave Hunter, as Yankee Joe Hardy, another hit film.

"Tab Hunter may not have the larynx that Stephen Douglass had as the original hero, but he has the clean, naive look of a lad breaking into the big leagues and into the magical company of a first-rate star. He is really appealing with Miss Verdon in the boogiewoogie ballet, 'Two Lost Souls', which is done in a smoky, soft-lit setting and is the danciest dance number in the film," wrote Bosley Crowther in The New York Times.

Hunter's acting career intersected with some of the most interesting and creative people in the film business. He was directed by Tay Garnett (director of the original "The Postman Always Rings Twice" who Hunter called a "gentleman"), Rod Serling (who wrote the very first 'Playhouse 90', titled 'Forbidden Area'), Joseph Losey, John Farrow, John Wayne, Gary Cooper (who Hunter calls a mentor), the underrated director Phil Karlson, Fred Astaire, Lana Turner, Sophia Loren -- you name it. This lineup alone is fascinating.

Of the directors he has worked with, he said: "some are just traffic cops and others are just wonderful directors that can plan out wonderful scenes."

Hunter also remains clear-eyed about his performances.

"I think there were different performances for different projects. 'Portrait of a Murderer' with Geraldine Page. That's outstanding for me because it was a great role and Gerry was one of the most outstanding people ever. 'Gunman's Walk' because it was a really good script written by Frank Nugent, who had written "The Quiet Man", and I loved working with Van Heflin. It was an opportunity to play something out of the norm. 'Damn Yankees" because I wanted to do a musical. There was a guilelessness to the character," Hunter remembered.

Of all the people he worked with, Hunter has his favorites: "The three men in the business that meant more to me than anyone were Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire and Van Heflin. I knew them, I was a fan of their work, and I understood what their contributions to life were."

And then, by the early 1960s, the famous name lingered but his role as a major American movie star was coming to an end. Hunter is the first person to say he had always "wanderlust" and he began a peripatetic phase of his life: dinner theater, European films, and an occasional role in an American film, such as "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean", with Paul Newman and directed by John Huston.

There was also tragedy. We can't, in this instance, forget the real power of that word. In the mid-1960s, Hunter's brother Walt died in Vietnam.

"He was the one who was able to get me out of my shell because I was afraid of my own shadow. He wad the one who opened up the world to me," Hunter says today.

There was also a decade and a half of semi-obscurity, and then John Waters gave Tab a call.

John Waters has achieved such a reliable layer of respectability in the past couple of decades that we need to go back 10 years before that to realize that when Hunter signed on to "Polyester" (1981) Waters was still very much on the fringe, very much underground, and very few stars with Hunter's name recognition had ever signed on to this kind of project.

"Polyester" was decidedly not an underground director's bid for respectability. If that had been so, Waters would have cast Shelley Winters instead of the great Divine (as the gorgeously named Francine Fishpaw), and he wouldn't have asked Hunter to play a freaked out cokehead. No, the movie is screamingly anti-establishment.

It's pleasure has been somewhat dimmed if only because it's garish take on middle class suburbia has been cloned so many times, in almost every phase of entertainment from lounge singers to such important video artists as Ryan Tecartin ("I-be area", 2007), but it's funny.

From the faux-documentary opening, to the gross out humor, to the wonderful "Odorama", its Waters at his best -- it is a pure Waters film. He may have "toned down" the shock tactics, as Variety noted, but Waters really found his soul with this film. It's gross, kitschy and sweet. There's Mink Stole, and the astonishing Edith Massey (thank goodness), Divine and Tab Hunter -- who was about to have a moment when he once again, 25 years after he started, connected with young audiences.

I have a personal affection for Divine. I love the character, and I like the actor (not ever having met him) behind the persona. I told Hunter that I just liked Divine, plain and simple.

"There was a sweetness about him, a vulnerability. Vulnerability in people is such a jewel and he certainly had that. He was an incredible person," said Hunter.

Hunter also had an opportunity to record the title track, which was written by Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, who at the time were heading up Blondie.

"That was just a lark. They asked me to do it and I said I'd be glad to. It was kind of weird. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were so nice. And of course I had a great time working for John. He's like your friendly undertaker. He's just the best," Hunter said.

"Polyester" was famously shot for $300,000 -- giving every independent filmmaker hope.

"I remember when John called me and I was really pleased I could do that. He allowed me the freedom when you go out on that stage and you wanted to do everything for him because he was so open to what you brought. I was out doing dinner theater and I had a few weeks off and that's when I did the picture," said Hunter. "I had an agent in California who said you can't tell anyone you're doing a picture with John Waters and I said, 'Why not?' I've got nothing to lose and everything to gain.'"

Which was exactly correct.

"All I know is that it was a fun project. I love Divine and I was a big fan of John Waters. When he introduced himself to me on the phone, he said: I don't know if you know me. I said, know you? I'm a major fan," Hunter said.

Hunter was back in the limelight, and he was able to produce a movie that had been close to him for some time, even if the results were less than he wanted them to be. The project was "Lust in the Dust." (The title has a famous Hollywood origin. David O. Selznick, famously looking for a project to rival his own "Gone With the Wind", tried for greatness once again with a film called "Duel in the Sun" -- but it was mockingly called "Lust in the Dust" by some wags who were less than impressed.

Hunter wanted Waters to direct "Lust", but it did not come to pass.

"I'd have given anything if he had directed 'Lust in the Dust', anything! But he only does his own material. I liked (director) Paul (Bartel) but he didn't get what I wanted. I wanted Divine in a Sam Peckinpah western," says Hunter of his vision of the 1985 film. "I wanted Divine in 'The Wild Bunch.' I wanted him as a Mexican slut who was deadly. It would have been perfect. He and Lanie (Kazan) were wonderful together. We loved doing it. Paul handled it delicately and I wanted balls."

The reviews for the film were mixed, but Hunter was getting his due:

"'Lust in the Dust' has no comic center, being a series of rude, random gags and sketched about a search for buried treasure in and around the desert town of Chile Verde. Among the competitors for the prize are a tall, handsome, taciturn gunman named Abel, played by Tab Hunter in what is the film's funniest performance for being played completely straight...", wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times in 1985.

The picture was produced by Hunter and his current companion, Allan Glaser.

And, then, that was pretty much it -- at least for the movies. This is not a sad ending. Please. There is too much life to be lived.

When I asked Hunter how he happened to remember everything, he said "For years I kept a little Brooks Brothers diary, so I knew exactly where I was on such and such a date, and I was going to throw them out but Allan (Glaser, his companion for many years) kept them, so they were very important when I was doing the book. Plus all the Playbills from the theaters, and fan magazines. You see I never kept anything."

When I mention a lovely portrait of Tony Perkins Hunter had taken in 1960 that appears in his book ("That just happened," Hunter said, "I think I was given a Polaroid and that was a snap I took..."), I had also assumed that he had kept it all these years. But, no.

"I was driving down Crescent Heights and there was a yard sale... and there it was in the 50 cent table. I don't think anyone knew what it was, but I said, 'I took that,'" says Hunter.

This is a sign of the wanderlust, of moving on, of remembering the "operating manual" of his mother from so many years ago: DO NOT GET CLOSE.

But he did get close, after all. He calls Dick Clayton "the most important" person in his life. "He discovered me when I was shoveling the real stuff at the stables," he says. And there was Van Heflin, his co-star in "Battle Cry" and two other films. A mentor.

He remains a fan of movies, and has special praise for Kate Winslet, didn't like the latest Bond film ("Quantum of Solace") or the fourth "Indiana Jones" movie, but loved "Slumdog Millionaire."

He doesn't ride so much any more, and has settled into a life of domestic happiness, and has clarity about what has come before.

We had talked about many things in the hour we were on the phone, but in the end the talk rounded out to family, to friends, and to horses, and to his mother, and about what he had learned. "I've been fortunate," he said. "I've led a wonderful life." He mentions that "there should have been some bad things that could have happened, but you just get on with it."

This is not a cliche, as odd as it may sound. So many people have regrets, have hated what they have done, have felt as though they have accomplished next to nothing. Not so with Hunter.

We talked about a few more things, and I randomly asked how long his mother had lived, and he said she lived to 92. This sparked an anecdote.

"My favorite is one day we were sitting on the porch, we'd have breakfast after church on Sunday and she's sitting out there looking at the yard and in her heavy German accent she said, 'Was I that difficult when you were growing up?' Now how the hell do you respond to that," Hunter recalled. "But I looked at her and said, 'Well, let's put it this way: If you were on the drugs 40 years ago that you're on today we'd have had the best relationship!' And she had a big smile on her face, and said 'I love you.'"

And Tab Hunter, thinking of the memory, laughed out loud. Again.


For part one of our interview with Tab Hunter, click here:

For part two of our interview with Tab Hunter, click here:

Visit Tab Hunter's official site:

Here are some clips:

An interview with the actor who played Gunther on "Friends":

The trailer for "Damn Yankees"

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Pictures of Youth: Tab Hunter, Part 2

"I was a major fan of people in the industry, I was a major movie fan and I was just thrown into it. I was never a gregarious kind of a young man. I was very frightened. It was difficult to divorce myself from myself." -- Tab Hunter

By Lars Trodson

There is some measure of irony -- small, but worth mentioning nonetheless -- that the child who was identified only in the most perfunctory manner when he was born would end up in an industry where identity is everything -- where your name is your brand. Where your name is it.

The movie industry is a parade of brands, of logos and monikers that seal a name to a face. You can't escape it, and most people who get into it don't want to. It is what movie stars strive for.

Too often, however, one gets the feeling that the brand consumes the person. Maybe the brand obliterates the person. When did Madonna stop being Madonna Louise Ciccone? When did Rock Hudson stop being Roy Harold Scherer Jr.? Someone like Marilyn Monroe maybe never figured out how she morphed from Norma Jeanne Mortenson into that object of desire.

As noted by the quote above, Hunter was always conscious of the fact that he may not have wanted to be completely subsumed by this persona. He worked to stay his own person. He became a movie star -- and all that went with it -- as Tab Hunter, yes, but he seemed to always want to know where Tab Hunter left off and where Art Galien still resided.

So by the time the movies came around he had already experienced, and was experiencing, a few lives. He had been a son, a brother, a rider, a member of the Coast Guard (he made up a new birth date to get in), and a rising professional skater. He had been Baby Kelm and Art Galien.

But -- and this is important -- his mother had taught him that the world was to be enjoyed, to be lived in, to contribute to. You get the feeling that Tab Hunter said quite simply to himself: If I can mingle inside this world of Hollywood that I admire and truly love, if I can try my hand at a craft I want to learn and be good at (and maybe make some pretty good money), then I'm your man. I'll be named Tab Hunter.

"I was always like an outsider," Hunter says of his movie-star days. "Whenever I would go to fancy places, I would say, 'Oh, my gosh", I can't believe I'm able to go to these places. I was a big fan of all these people, and what the hell am I doing here?"

He also adds: "I was sort of living two lives, really. You know, my reel life, which is r-e-e-l, and trying to cope in that, and then my real life, which was my horses, and my foundation to keep me grounded as much as possible."

And that was it: stay grounded in real things while the movie star machine rolls on. So let us get to the movie part now.

Hunter's movie career prefigures another modern-day phenomenon, but in his case it was more of an accident rather than design, as it today.

In his interview with Roundtable Pictures, Hunter lamented that he did not serve what he called an "apprenticeship." But what he means by that is that he did not have the kind of local theater or radio or Broadway and theater experience that so many of his peers had undergone before they got to be famous, and which was the usual path to success. You had to learn your craft.

That's more of what happens today. No real training or experience -- you can be a star overnight!

As Hunter says about an early picture, "Island of Desire": "I was so bad I couldn't get arrested." There were others, such as "Return to Treasure Island", which is also forgotten.

"I had to learn on the job, so to speak. I was thrown into it," Hunter said during the phone interview. "I had to learn while doing, which was totally different."

And Hunter wanted to learn, in part because he was surrounded by some serious company. Coming into their own in Hollywood in the mid-1950s were Anthony Perkins, who was a companion of Hunter's later on, James Dean, Paul Newman, and so many others. And new directors, such as Sidney Lumet, were undergoing their own apprenticeships on live TV.

"In Hollywood, a lot of people I really respect and admire were the actors who came from New York, because they had a base to their work -- Jimmy and Tony and you could just go on and on," said Hunter, "People like Julie Harris, Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Paul Newman. Marlon. Those were people you could really look up to and say, wow, they're contributors -- they were real people in real situations."

Hunter was trying very hard to learn his craft and by his own admission not always succeeding. Sidney Lumet, who directed Hunter in a film with Sophia Loren, "That Kind of Woman", had some advice for his young star.

"Sydney said to me one time, and of course he's a brilliant director, he said, 'Tab, you're playing it safe in that scene. If you're going to play it safe then stay in bed all day long. It's the safest place to be, but it's also the dullest.' And I said Sidney, I will never forget that. I will never forget that because so often we don't want to make mistakes, and don't be afraid to make the mistake -- make the mistake and learn from it."

So Hunter made some mistakes, and in public. If you think that Hunter should have been better at his craft than he appeared to be in 1959 when he worked with Lumet, after he had been a star for about four years, then it does well to remember that Bob Hope didn't make a major motion picture until he was 38 years old and had been a performer for about 35 of those years.

In some of the early movies he appeared in, Hunter's name was hardly mentioned in reviews. And if it was, the reviews weren't always favorable.

In an unbylined review of the movie "Gun Belt" in The New York Times in 1953, Hunter receives this ambiguous assessment: "The handsome Mr. Hunter, for instance, rates full sympathy for having to match a perfect profile with a two-gun strut and some post-adolescent yelping."

But it hardly mattered what The New York Times said. By 1953 Hunter was on his way. He appeared in "The Steel Lady", "Return To Treasure Island", and "Track of the Cat", the latter of which was directed by William Wellman.

In 1955, there came "Battle Cry", the film adaptation of the Leon Uris novel that many felt (just as they had felt about "From Here to Eternity") was unfilmable. It couldn't be released to a general audience because the book offered up a raucous and raw portrait of men in uniform. Whatever the obstacles, Hunter felt a kind of kinship with Danny Forrester, the young gyrene who falls in love with an older, married woman (Dorothy Malone).

The film was directed by Raoul Walsh, who was still enjoying success despite the fact that he made his first movie in 1913. He was a tough old coot who lived to be 93 and directed another unfilmable novel, Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" in 1958.

It is an unbearable cliche to write that they don't make movies like "Battle Cry" any more, but they don't. The battleships you see in the background of this movie are real, and the line of marines snaking over a verdant hill on the way to battle is not CGI. And you know that many of the actors, extras and crew who made the movie were actually in the military.

Yes, yes, some of the dialogue is corny, and perhaps, as Bosley Crowther noted, maybe it wasn't the most realistic portrayal of men in battle or in the saloon or in the bedroom. But so be it.

These movies were, first and foremost, directed. They were the product of a vision of a director and a producer, and the screen is wide open: you can see the sky and the sea and rolling hills and the frame is filled with the movement of real people.

So Raoul Walsh, more than 45 years into his career (Steven Spielberg has been a major film director for 10 years less than that), decides to make a sprawling World War II drama, and he knew enough to juice up his box office by hiring a certain Mr. Hunter. It worked. "Battle Cry" was a huge hit, and it began a series of events that results in the fact that we still know the name of Tab Hunter today.

"By the time of 'Battle Cry' I was really, really serious. I wanted to do the role of Danny Forrester. He reminded me of my brother," Hunter told us. "It was a very, very good role written by Leon Uris, his first novel. A wonderful book."

And he's very good in the picture. Danny is earnest, honest, young -- and I loved the scene in which he calls his girlfriend back home and nervously flutters the pages of a phonebook while he's on the phone. He uses his environment here. He's -- to use a modern term -- very present. And even though the picture was made almost 55 years ago, it is not difficult at all to see why young men and women reacted so powerfully to him.

"I was very popular, but I was popular with the young people," Hunter said.

It is indicative of Hunter's seriousness about his craft that he decided, at the height of his fame, to move back and forth between movies and television. In the 1950s, artists were still very much quarantined by their respective fields. Even as the new medium emerged, it was understood that television was a stepping stone to the more serious work in either the theater or, more importantly, the movies.

But Hunter decided he would take advantage of the guidance anyone could offer him.

After "Battle Cry" he appeared in a succession of both movies and television dramas, including "The Ford Television Theater", "Lux Video Theater", "Playhouse 90" (the very first one to air), and "Hallmark Hall of Fame."

It did not help that the notion of "two lives" he mentioned before also touched upon Hunter's sexuality, specifically when it came to the conformist aspect of the 1950s.

There are any number of appellations for gay people today: including the more formal homosexual, as well as gay, and GLBT. There is also the provocative "queer", as well as any number of the familiar yet derogative terms that we all know.

In the 1950s almost every term used in the public vernacular about gay people was perjorative, which is a precise reflection of just how society viewed anyone who was attracted to someone of the same sex.

And the idea that a movie star could be anything other than heterosexual (despite many scandals and innuendos in the past, prior to 1950), was still anathema to the studios.

But prevailing wisdom is often wrong. Just as those who predicted that Robert Mitchum would not survive his pot bust in the 1940s, they were also wrong that Hunter wouldn't survive an article in the tabloid "Confidential."

Let's learn a little bit about "Confidential." This is from Wikipedia: "Confidential was a bi-monthly magazine published between 1952 and 1978. It was founded by Robert Harrison and is considered a pioneer in scandal, gossip, and exposé journalism, featuring what Newsweek called "sin and sex with a seasoning of right wing politics.

"Its journalism comprised of just as much innuendo as of exposés. For example the magazine alleged that Bing Crosby was a wife beater, that Rock Hudson and Liberace were homosexuals (”Lavender Lads”), and made publicly known that Robert Mitchum had been charged with smoking marihuana. Apart from spreading gossip and outing homosexuals Confidential combined their exposés with a conservative agenda especially targeted at those who sympathised with the left and which celebrities that were engaged in so called miscegenation”.

Hunter appeared on the cover in September 1955, at the height of his "Battle Cry" success.

He quotes the article at length in his book, but just a few sentences will suffice to get the tone. (What is amazing to think about is that someone actually sat down at a typewriter and wrote this stuff):

"It all started with a vice cop who was drifting in and out of Hollywood's queer bars ... looking and listening for tips on the newest notions of the limp-wristed lads. Pausing for a Scotch and water in one gay joint, the deputy struck up a conversation with a couple of lispers..."

The cop fell in with the crowd, got invited to a party that Hunter was attending, and the place was busted by the vice squad. The interesting thing is that Hunter's arrest was in 1950 - five years before -- but, hey, now he was a movie star.

The writing in "Confidential" is so ludicrous that it almost seems funny, but as Hunter points out in his book, "Confidential" sold 4.5 million copies every month, and the article, he wrote, "was as serious as a heart attack."

It is also an intersection with another figure in Hunter's life: Henry Willson. Willson was an agent, a discoverer of talent, a personal manager. As Hunter explains in his book, Dick Clayton introduced Willson to Hunter around 1948. He warned Hunter that Willson didn't have the most "sterling reputation" and that there were jokes about "Henry and his boys" but Willson also directed some very successful careers.

Willson was the one who renamed his clients. Robert Mosely became Guy Madison, Rhonda Fleming was once Marilyn Louis. A young actor named Francis Durgin became Rory Calhoun, and so on. Tab Hunter apparently came about quite simply. "We've got to tab him something," Willson mused aloud one day. When he asked "Tab" what he liked to do, Dick Clayton piped in, "He loves horses. Rides hunters and jumpers." And so, like that, Tab Hunter was born.

"I hated it," Hunter writes in his book.

Hunter eventually grew away from Willson and Dick Clayton took over Hunter's career. But Willson, according to Hunter, had to have one last word, and so the "Confidential" story came about.

"Henry Willson gave them that story. I had left Henry when Dick Clayton became an agent. and he fed them that when I left him to save Rock -- because they had a story on Rock," Hunter says today. "Henry was an interesting character, very complex, but he was an amazing man. He really was. He gets a bad rap from an awful lot of people, but he knew what he was doing. He was a Svengali-ish kind of person. Whereas Dick Clayton was this incredible human being."

The "Confidential" article came out and was quickly forgotten. Hunter was nominated for the 1955 Audience Award for Most Promising New Male Personality, which he promptly won.

He escorted Natalie Wood to the ceremony, and the studios were determined to make the two of them into "the ideal couple."

"Well, the studios only had a few people under contract and Natalie was such a hit in the film that she did, in "Rebel," and I was such a hit in the film that I did, 'Battle Cry', and they said, My God, they're so popular, what are we going to do about it?" Hunter remembers today. "So they threw us together in a Louis L'Amour thing called 'The Burning Hills.' The best thing in it was my horse."

Next: How to make a hit record in three days, Divine, and leaving the Hollywood life behind.

Read Part 1 here.

Read Part 3 here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Pictures of Youth: Tab Hunter

Still burning bright at 78, Tab Hunter talks to Roundtable Pictures about life

By Lars Trodson

Tab Hunter is probably not the first name you would put at the center of the major sea-change that occurred in American movies in the 1950s -- but then so much about that decade is misunderstood. His name may conjure up a kind of manufactured time -- candy-colored appliances and thick-finned automobiles.

But if Tab Hunter hadn't made an impact, in some way, how could he possibly have penned a memoir -- "Tab Hunter Confidential" -- 30 years out of the limelight and have it end up on the bestseller list?

Sure, you can say that we are a celebrity-crazed society and we'll read anything by someone famous. But the bargain bins in bookstores are filled with books written by people trying to recapture the buzz of some forgotten past.

But there is also something about the very mention of Tab Hunter that resonates as the mention of so many of his contemporaries do not. "Tab Hunter!", was the reaction of many when we mentioned we were speaking to him. Maybe James Dean was the better actor, maybe Rock Hudson was the bigger movie star, but their names inspire a respectful nodding of the head, as though you want someone to know you've read an important book.

But mention Tab Hunter and there is a burst of recognition, it's something much more personal.

Dean and Newman and Brando had a dark, serious cloud over their head. Hunter was the corrective to that: like the southern California sun.

He was also one of a handful of actors that shifted major studio fare away from the idea that movies were only for adults -- that adults were the only people with money to buy a ticket. Hunter was an actor -- a presence -- that helped studios realize they could make sophisticated entertainment and still have it appeal to kids. In the 1950s, for the first time, there was money in the suburbs and in the pockets of the young postwar generation, and Tab Hunter had such massive appeal that he helped create a business model for movies that of course exists to this day.

Not just anyone could do that. Hunter had ethereally good looks, yes, but he seemed accessible, a pleasing essence that few people possessed. He was the necessary bridge between the rigid confines of the recent but self limiting phase of post-war realism and film noir to the more daring, wideopen prospects of a Cinerama future. Just as Marlon Brando could push the boundaries of realistic acting because he looked like a movie star, Hunter could help the studios tinker with the boundaries of the censors because he gave audiences the sense that everything was going to be fine. Tab Hunter helped usher in this area -- and if you think about it, he was really the only one who could do it.

There is a misconception about the 1950s that still exists, and that is the idea that it was a complacent, conformist, content decade. Almost every fact about the decade belies that -- and mass entertainment tried its best to suppress the turmoil until no one could really ignore it any longer.

As the 1950s rolled in, movies had yet to discover CinemaScope and color film was still an anomaly. Television was in its infancy, live, shot on video tape out of New York -- and popular music was so in flux Frank Sinatra was recording novelty tunes.

But as the decade bubbled on, rock and roll and jazz started to hit the airwaves, white kids were getting mass exposure to black music, and TV launched into its golden era -- live dramas and situation comedies that pioneered the medium. Movies were also slow to mature, but "From Here to Eternity" and "The Moon Is Blue" were released to great success in 1953 -- an unthinkable prospect just a few years before. A long and arduous trek outside the shadow of the old Code, that series of arcane rules that tried to make an artform into a role model, was just beginning.

Everyone, including audiences, were tired of the restrictions imposed on the studios.Young writers who had come home from the war were exploring themes influenced by their time overseas and they were interested in using film to portray life in its many forms, much of it awkward, delicate and private. And what is the most awkward and delicate and private time of life? Youth. And who had both a little money and leisure time for the first time in American history? Youth.

But don't take my word for it. Veteran New York Times critic Bosley Crowther reviewed "Battle Cry" when it came out in 1955. In his lightly dismissive review, Crowther closed out his column with his doubts about the veracity of the film, but no doubts about who the movie appealed to: "This, we might add, is not exactly the way we heard it was with the Marines in the Pacific in World War II. But a predominantly youthful audience at the Paramount yesterday morning ate it up."

There you are.

Tab Hunter was born just at the right time. We have to spin back to the raucous, careening, Tower-of-Babel atmosphere that must have been New York City in 1931 -- a time when dance music wafted from the ballrooms of hotels, gin was served out of a sink and every borough of the city might as well have been its own country. In that year a shy, beautiful baby was born to a German mother and an absent father. The baby was named Art Galien, the first incarnation of Tab Hunter.

And yet it is not quite accurate to say the baby was even born Art Galien. That name actually came later. The birth certificate simply called the child “Male Kelm." Kelm was the birth father’s last name -- the last name of a man who was not around to provide his own child a first name.

This could have been an obstacle, but not to the child, who seemed to have been born with a preternatural ability to withstand adversity, to make a go of it. Tab Hunter has approached the world in the 78 years since with enough eclat to let other people name him, and to let others affix to him their own desires and needs.

But throughout the years he has also been strong enough not to allow others to shape his own path, and that was the most important thing.

And that could be why he alone -- who was there at the creation of all the Rocks, and the Rorys and the Tabs and the Troys -- is the only one still standing.

The voice on the other end of the line is happy, convivial. We're talking to Tab Hunter.

"How are you," Tab Hunter asks and the voice has that same timbre as it did in "They Came To Cordura" or "Damn Yankees"; not slowed or dulled by age or experience.

What started this conversation was simple. I was reading about the filmmaker John Waters online, and remembered the movie "Polyester", which clicked in memories of Tab Hunter, who so famously shared the screen with Divine. I went to Hunter's website, saw that he had written his autobiography and went out to buy it at the Barnes & Noble. I picked out "Tab Hunter Confidential" and there was his face on the cover: gleaming, sheepishly aware of his powerful allure, as though he had just come walking out of the sea. The women I knew who looked at the photo said simply, "Ahh, yes."

This was not an unusual reaction. Even at the beginning, before he was a movie star, when he was still just Art, and he was heading off to DuBrock's Riding Academy in Southern California to tend to his beloved horses, he had young women who would simply follow him around, and who got to be known as "Art's Harem." "People used to joke about 'Oh, there goes Art and his harem," Hunter says of the memory that is now more than 60 years old (and using the name he was known as when he was a kid).

And that was where he was "shoveling shit", as Hunter says on the phone, when a young actor by the name of Dick Clayton -- who was later to become his manager and was a lifelong friend -- walked up to him and asked if he ever thought about being in pictures. Tab Hunter was not even a teenager, and he was standing in horse manure, and yet he still stood out. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a movie star.

When I mention that I enjoyed his book, he said, "Well, thank you. The only reason I wrote it is because I didn't want some schmuck writing it when I was dead and gone. I don't want someone putting a spin on my life that didn't know, that didn't have any idea."

He calls his first chapter "Baby Kelm", and immediately we're drawn into the tricky idea of what is identity and how we identify ourselves. We learn what is important to Hunter -- and so often it is something outside the movies, outside Hollywood, such as Hunter's love for his family, which is his mother and brother Walt, friends and his other passion, horses. "I was extremely shy. I could only communicate with the horses when I was down at the barn," he said.

And we learn that Hunter was lucky to have a guide in a strong-willed mother named Gertrude who was present at the beginning, and who lived into her 90s.

"I had a German mother who was really good at planting a helluva lot of seeds. The only important thing is whether you cultivated them or not, you know," he says today. "She's a pretty interesting character. Someone once said -- we're doing a screenplay on the book -- and someone said who will play you, and I said, no, no, no, no - the important thing is who will play my mother? Now that's the role." (A delicious part for Meryl Streep.)

The seeds were homilies in the form of everyday advice ("For every door that closes, two open") that seemed to have shaped Hunter's attitude that almost anything that happens to you can can be positive. Even the title of his book, "Tab Hunter Confidential" is a playful nod to a scandal involving the most notorious tabloid of the 1950s that tried to "out" Hunter as gay.

Leaving New York for the west Coast came in short order, and even in his teens he felt the need to keep moving. He calls his childhood "nomadic" and writes about his mother and his upbringing this way: "I later came to think of my mother as a self-sufficient survival machine. In her operating manual, it said in big capital letter: TO AVOID SERIOUS INJURY, NEVER GET CLOSE. My childhood lessons came from the same manual...I never got close to anyone, knowing I was going to leave them behind in a few months."

It's no wonder that the chapter in his book that brings Hunter into his teenaged years is called "At Sea."

And so it was. He says today: "I left home at 15 to join the Coast Guard, I just lied about my age. I was thrown out to sea for 30 days on a weather ship and we went out to the Pacific. That was all right," Hunter says in his light, dry sense of humor, "if you like chipping paint."

The same young actor, Dick Clayton, who saw him at the stable, was now his friend and would introduce the young seaman to another new world.

"Dick Clayton had gone back to New York and was doing a play there on Broadway. When I went back to Connecticut to training station, I would go into New York and Dick would introduce me to Broadway people, Broadway shows and all of New York theater. He opened up my vistas to so many things -- a style I had never known existed. For a kid to be exposed to that, it was fantastic," Hunter says today.

In short order, however, Hunter gets booted from the Coast Guard for being underage. He finishes his education, and starts a new chapter in his life: ice skating.

What we often forget about movie stars -- or people in show business in general -- is how hard they work. The great appeal of movie stars is also a part of their act: so much of it looks fun, effortless, stylish and pampered. What we almost never see -- and why so few people actually ever make it -- is because of the discipline and sheer work that must be done.

Hunter, a born athlete, shows us the kind of drive it takes to make it. Anyone can simply "decide" one day to be a movie star, or an ice skater, or a writer or a professional rider, but it is another thing to actually head off and do it.

There is an amazing picture in "Tab Hunter Confidential" and it shows Hunter (then known as Art Galien) in mid-air, dressed in a neat bow-tie and suit, arms gently spread out for balance, skates on his feet. Not a hair is out of place, and even in the still shot he looks like Fred Astaire, and even in motion he looks poised and in control.

There is some natural talent to this, of course, but you also need to stick to it. The control and discipline that took this young man from New York to California to the Pacific Ocean to New York and then back to the sun-dappled west coast, from awkward boy to rising skating star, from Art Galien to Tab Hunter, requires a kind of steely discipline that few people have.

Because Tab Hunter isn't going to be a rising skating star much longer. He's about to become a movie star.

For Part 2, click here:

For Part 3, click here:

Monday, May 4, 2009

New Doc Has Heart of Metal

By Mike Gillis

There was a time when I had no trouble distinguishing Stryper from Slayer or Metallica from Megadeth. The real challenge was often telling those bands apart at first sight. Obscured as they were under cloaks of teased hair, shredded Spandex or leather and chains, I remember being able to pop on the headphones and quickly peg the music that made the best of those bands unique.

My fascination with metal music rapidly waned but many of the bands that were virtual unknowns or small-scale successes became mainstream commercial successes or carved out lucrative new genres: glam rock, thrash metal and even rap metal. The Scorpions, Metallica and Anthrax were among the bands that enjoyed robust record sales and a growing fan base well into the 1990s or still do today.

So when "This is Spinal Tap" appeared in 1984, and after having witnessed what I thought was the implosion of a genre, I was able to consider with laughter my own musical misfortune as a child of metal.

Then, this week, I see "Anvil: The Story of Anvil," which is out in theaters now and find myself longing for my old three-quarter-sleeve, heavy metal concert shirts.

Well, not longing, really. But I'd be hard pressed to push a better rock and roll documentary in recent years, if ever. It's that good.

Canadian metal band Anvil surfed the first wave of riff-heavy thrash rock, churning out loud anthems to youth, vice and bubble gum occultism with the best of them. They toured the world and helped fill sports stadiums. They appeared on talk shows and made the cover of metal magazines. Then, as quickly as their fire ignited, Anvil was snuffed out.

It was not unusual for metal bands to spiral downward into bargain bins and obscurity, particularly in the 1990s when the patriarchs were put to pasture. But Anvil is still considered to be a band that kick-started the modern metal movement and influenced some of the biggest names in the industry.

Whatever. I know. Who cares if you're not a metal fan or swept up by misplaced nostalgia?

That's what makes "Anvil: The Story of Anvil" a real gem of a movie. It's not about a metal band that missed the boat. Yes, that's part of this story: The film begins with Anvil, more than 25 years after its 15 minutes, trekking across Europe on a poorly managed, little attended tour in a desperate attempt to resurrect the glory days of 1982.

More than that, this is a story of perseverance -- blind, sad, comical, honest and poignant perseverance -- that finds two men in their 50s unwilling to give up a dream forged as two teenagers. Those two men, Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner (same name as "Spinal Tap" director Rob Reiner, ironically) have carried on as Anvil for almost 30 years, recording more than a dozen albums, and pressing on under a shadow of obscurity in the name of "art."

The "art" in this story may be subjective, but what art isn't? The wounds, the slights, the neglect and the loneliness are real here, but so are the heartbreaking and heart-warming moments. Here are two men with families and children and day jobs, long after fame, still looking for the grace note to a career -- with raw grace.

See the movie and judge yourself whether they find it.

Forget Mickey Rourke and "The Wrestler." This is the real deal.

Perhaps "Lips" says it best in a recent interview with Rolling Stone:

"People go, 'Wow, man, 30 years. You guys didn't make millions of dollars, why did you just stay together?'" Lips says. "What, you have to make millions of dollars to have enjoyment in your life? What's wrong with people? It's not that I'm crazy, I think the rest of the world is crazy.
If everything was motivated strictly by cash, we would have never gone to the moon. We'd still be living in caves!"

See the trailer for "Anvil" here:

Friday, May 1, 2009

Introducing The Book Museum

Roundtable Pictures has started a companion site, called The Book Museum, which can be found at

What we hope to do is rescue the forgotten and honor the obscure in published books and other materials. You'll see ephemera, oddities, the covers of annual town meetings published 100 years ago, the illustrations used to decorate cookbooks put out by Heinz ketchup in the 1950s - you name it.

Much of it will be beautiful, a great deal will be curious, but we won't publish it if it isn't interesting and entertaining.

Plus, we think these bits and pieces of published works form a kind of historical record. You can get a better sense of what styles dominated the moment, or what people were thinking, or what they laughed at, if you look at things that exist beyond the official public record. That's what we hope to highlight here.

So this will be a kind of alt-history for publications. We all love a first edition of "For Whom the Bell Tolls", but did you ever see the cover of the English paperback edition of Peter Heaton's "Cruising" from 1959?

You will at The Book Museum. Enjoy all of it, please.

-- Roundtable Pictures