Tab Hunter Confidential
Tab Hunter was a pretty boy, athletic and blond, who made a name for himself on the big screen despite the nagging suspicion (his) that he really couldn't act. In the 1950s movies were a form of entertainment that was growing like a mutant life form, and there was a place for Tab (born Art Gelien) as a teen idol.
Dating starlets went with the idol's territory, and Tab didn't mind. He was an outlaw in his personal life but extremely discreet, and only rarely got caught in scandal. When he did, Confidential Magazine was always there. In this detailed autobiography, Tab has trumped the scandal sheets by creating his own story. As he puts it, "Better to get it from the horse's mouth, I decided, and not from some horse's ass."
Snapped up as a beach boy to star with Linda Darnell in Island of Desire, the kid formerly known as Art Gelien, son of an immigrant single mom who was noted for her many absences from the childhood home, became an instant heartthrob --- "The Squeal Appeal Fella" --- among the bobby-sox and penny loafer set. And that was just the girls.
In adolescence Art had been drawn to several clandestine homosexual encounters. A practicing Catholic, the boy tried to pour out his guilt in the confessional but was so scathingly condemned by the priest that he was forced to realize that God indeed had given him free will --- "I was also learning, the hard way, the price you paid for using it."
Then followed many frenetic years in which the persona of Tab Hunter rode the high waves of popularity, if not outright stardom, with macho roles in Westerns and war flicks playing alongside such masculine icons as Robert Mitchum and Big Guy John Wayne. He was constantly photographed with new cars and new starlets, some of whom were real friends, like Natalie Wood, Lori Nelson, and the only candidate for possible marriage, the sophisticated French doyenne Etchika Choureau. Etchika won the primaries but lost the election. While Tab Hunter kept fans speculating about which girlfriend would win his heart, Art Gelien remained closeted in the secret gay underworld.
In the middle years, when the teen bloom was off the rose, Tab had some minor successes, lauded by Tennessee Williams for his stage role in "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" with the aging Tallulah Bankhead. He had small roles in good movies like The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, and did a stint on television in "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." In private he was enjoying the grown-up life of a gay man, ranging from both coasts of the U.S. to the cool haunts of Europe.
Though it's a big ho-hum these days, it must be recalled that in the mid-twentieth century, even the tabloids had no euphemisms for homosexuality, and no polite person spoke of it. The artistic crowd in Hollywood accepted the fact that many creative people were of the same-gender persuasion, and there let matters rest. The loss of Rock Hudson --- a homme fatal whose stardom was of the same vintage as Tab's --- to AIDS made the subject a talking point. The chat was hardly civil, however, with many in the media choosing to style AIDS as "God's vengeance on homosexuals." Later, Anthony Perkins, by then apparently happily married, also succumbed to AIDS. He and Tab had been lovers years before.
The public acknowledgement of the fact that some men prefer other men allowed Tab, in his mature years, to spoof himself and come swishing out of the closet with such innovative and offbeat hits as Polyester and Lust in the Dust, both co-starring the inimitable drag darling Divine. While it can be argued that these cult faves did nothing to make his reputation, it can also be said that his reputation was as made, and as sullied, as it would ever be. Tab by this time was a seasoned star, openly outed, with little left to prove.
Art Gelien comes through the pages of this book about his alter-ego Tab as blessed with a hefty dose of optimism and tolerance that stood him good stead. He happened into his acting career without any premeditation and spent time catching up, trying to learn the craft. He was proud of his good reviews, laughed off the bad ones, and kept on pushing for roles that would highlight his strengths and pay the bills. He's a fascinating subject for a book in which he claims, on balance, to be "happy to be forgotten."
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 23, 2011