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: