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.