Tab Hunter Confidential amounts to a feature-length interview with Tab Hunter, recalling his career across a series of recent chats with director Jeffrey Schwartz. The first half hour is largely superficial and perfunctory, dutifully detailing Hunter as the “embodiment of youthful, American masculinity,” per George Takei, and hustles through a litany of highlights, including films starred in and actors worked with, that brought Hunter near A-list stardom by the end of the 1950s. The second half hour turns to Hunter’s homosexuality and relationship with figure skater Ronnie Robertson and gets closer to locating holes within the historical logic of purely heteronormative movie stardom. But as the doc progresses, Schwartz displays no vision or specific take on the material and is content to overlay Hunter’s interviews with sentimental music and clip reels of moments from talk shows and a time when Hunter was being “rewarded for someone [he’s] not.”
Perhaps more damning, one gets the queasy sense that the film lacks perspective beyond a rather limited preoccupation with the details of Hunter’s personal life, like seeking insights into his relationship with actor Anthony Perkins that do little more than satisfy gossip-mag impulses. There’s even resignation from Hunter, who, when pressed to reveal details from his relationship with Robertson, reluctantly offers: “What do you want to know?” And that, in essence, is the question Schwartz neglects to answer throughout, inching toward a harder examination of his own interests as a filmmaker before retreating into the safer details of his subject’s biography.
Once the topic of homosexuality is raised, it’s soon shelved for conversations on Hunter’s mother’s mental illness, a relationship with French actress Etchika Choureau, his work on live television, hitting rock bottom while working in dinner theater, and so on. The treatment of these plot points is so thoughtlessly linear and devised for passive accessibility that all of the actor’s unmistakable charisma and gravitas is wasted, with faulty conclusions at every turn. When historian Eddie Muller chimes in with “The [movie] business is still like it was in the 50s,” referring to contemporary actors and their hesitancy to reveal their own sexuality, it’s an encapsulation of the film’s comprehensively half-hearted assessments.
A bit recalling Hunter’s work on Polyester with John Waters gets obvious and banal placement. Schwartz cycles through various clips: the Waters interview, a scene from Polyester, and publicity stills taken during production. The effect is a film running on autopilot, operating on a loop and with limited aesthetic deviations. As such, Tab Hunter Confidential is stockpile biography filmmaking. Schwartz has a potential goldmine of subject matter, but most of it is discarded for the sort of name-check historicizing that’s become all too common in contemporary documentary filmmaking.
The recent Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead similarly trotted through dozens of interviews and clips without even momentary regard for its own presentation. Both films feature dynamic subjects whose entire lives are testaments to singular visions of self and existence, but they’re rendered as if needing to be tamed and wrestled to the ground, where even the slightest bit of ambiguity or amorphous formal ingenuity would constitute a betrayal. In not finding an individuated spirit, Tab Hunter Confidential is merely common knowledge.