“He won’t be gay when I get through with him!” Revisiting legendary gay agent Henry Willson via Robert Hafler’s biography Henry Willson, The Man Who Invented Hollywood
His business card read: “If you’re interested in getting into the movies, I can help you. Henry Willson. Agent.” And he could. Most famously, he took the gangly young Roy Scherer, got his teeth fixed, dubbed him “Rock Hudson,” and used his clout to provoke a major studio build-up for the ex-mailman from Winnetka, Illinois. He steered actresses through Hollywood’s career hoops too, like Lana Turner, Rhonda Fleming, and Gena Rowlands, but Willson earned his sobriquet of “fairy godfather of Hollywood” through his single-minded focus on newly arrived young hunks on the Sunset Strip, with whispered enticements like, “You could be a star …. You’re better looking than any movie actor here.” Moving closer, to advance the intimacy, he would confide: “You are a star. Now it’s up to me to let Hollywood know.” What red-blooded college quarterback or figure skater or sailor on leave could resist such a pitch?
Certainly not the 1950s dreamboats who ended up with names like Guy Madison, Rory Calhoun, Tab Hunter, and Troy Donahue. The tender attentions of Willson, including his role in shaping gay or bisexual actors into ostensibly straight-arrow silver-screen idols, were no secret in the business but jealously kept under wraps from the audiences who bought tickets for the fantasy played out in fan magazines. Willson was the face of a cynical system, supported by an unseen infrastructure of fixers and studio connections who enabled the mythmaking. Now, almost simultaneously, two books have surfaced that scrape off the frosting for a look at how Hollywood’s confection was constructed: Robert Hofler’s The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson1 is bursting with impressive research and remarkably frank interviews with surviving veterans of the dreamboat factory, while Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star by Tab Hunter (with film noir historian Eddie Muller)2 gives a unique inside glimpse at the dilemmas of living a double life, straight leading man by day yet conducting a lively after-hours affair with rival idol Anthony Perkins under the very flashbulbs of the publicity machine.
Both books remind us of how far — yet how little — the culture has progressed in half a century. Excellent earlier works like Hal Volley’s Mike Connolly and the Manly Art of Hollywood Gossip and Charles Winecoff’s Split Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins built on the foundation of David Ehrenstein’s groundbreaking study Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000, which shone a spotlight on this hidden sociocultural history of the American studio system just before it ruptured in the early 1960s. At that time, coming out was akin to career hara-kiri, and prosecutable to boot (not just among actors, of course). Lest we smile at yesterday’s unenlightened practices, it is instructive to ask how many gay actors were hired to star in Brokeback Mountain. (Ironically, even the straight stars of Ang Lee’s award-magnet drama of gay sheepherders found it wise to carefully protect their images by taking strategic counter-roles, Jake Gyllenhaal playing with guns as a butch marine in Jarhead and Heath Ledger bedhopping as history’s most notorious heterosexual in Casanova). While certain high-profile producers and directors are now out and presumably proud, more than a few gay actors and their handlers are still saddled with problems that Willson would recognize.
In the early 1950s, as TV antennas sprouted on the nation’s rooftops, the studio system flailed helplessly before the ruinous competition from this techno-upstart, first trying 3-D and widescreen novelties to lure audiences back, and then scrambling to attract new teen consumers by co-opting rock and roll. Manufacturing male pin-ups like Guy Madison (right) was part of a fresh marketing opportunity, an attempt to rescue the business by selling to the newly identified youth market, first called “bobbysoxers,” then “teentimers,” and finally “teenagers.”
With the Great Dreamboat Deception, Hollywood appeased one of America’s waves of conservatism3 by constructing an American mythology that modeled a tamed young adult male, a randier version of the pre-war Andy Hardy good boy, adding some military assertiveness to pose a deliberate alternative to rebellious bad boys like Marlon Brando and James Dean. Embodying the buttoned-down prejudices and repressions of the McCarthy era (upheld by closeted gay figures like Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover, now seen as traitors to their sexuality), the charade played out a dream of middle-class “normality,” depicting only hetero-normal sex among white people, and even that almost entirely offscreen.
Transmitted in America by well-funded fan rags like Photoplay and Modern Screen, and by powerful gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, this was a pop culture world of dubiously wholesome frolics as starlets and studlets lobbed volleyballs on the beach, roasted wienies beside the backyard pool, and double-dated to publicize studio productions. In the parlance of the “greatest generation,” these Adonises were “free, white, and 21,” typically stragglers from the postwar parade of homecoming GIs, the ones who didn’t care to return to the farm or the family hardware store.
Henry Willson made himself a key player by implementing the business model of agent and career coach, investing thousands in living expenses, cosmetic makeovers, fashion guidance, and acting lessons for his hopeful wannabes. (Hofler quotes a callow Rock Hudson marveling to Look magazine that in his acting class “we used to do whole scenes from plays and scripts.” Whole scenes.)
Willson’s distinctive (and enduring) contribution was concocting catchy names for his beefcake stable, often with a comically hypermasculine ring, a sense of trying too hard or insisting too strongly. Thus, he changed Orton Whipple Hungerford III into the suggestively phallic “Ty Hardin,” and Navy boy Robert Moseley morphed into “Guy Madison,” constructed from the generic “guy” plus inspiration from a nearby Dolly Madison Bakery, while the man born Francis Durgin became “Frank McCown” and then “Troy Donahue” until Willson finally settled on “Rory Calhoun.” Later, Merle Johnson Jr. inherited the “Troy Donahue” moniker, freely admitting that “Troy Donahue was a star’s name. Merle sounded like I ought to go out in the farmyard and do the chores.” This name game became a form of branding that Willson enjoyed since “everyone knew that I had named them,” never mind the widespread mockery. The ever irreverent Hofler digs up some choice suggestions from comedian Kaye Ballard: “Grid Iron, Cuff Links, Plate Glass, and Bran Muffin.”
His father a Columbia Records executive, Willson was raised on prosperous Long Island, got started by supplying gossip for Variety, then moved west in 1933, at the height of conservative protests against the film industry’s perceived immorality (resulting in enforcement of the Production Code a year later, arguably the price of repealing Prohibition), and just in time to witness a homophobic campaign waged by The Hollywood Reporter.
Canny mega-producer David O. Selznick trusted Willson’s eye to scout out male talent, but Henry could not persuade his boss to sign Montgomery Clift or openly gay director James Whale, let alone the Italian maestro Roberto Rossellini. He did succeed, however, as Selznick’s pimp, trawling “local beauty contests and photo shoots for underwear catalogues” as well as the halls of Hollywood High. According to Hofler, during the shooting of 1944’s homefront tearjerker Since You Went Away, Selznick “tried to bed all three headliners”: Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones (whom he would later wed), and even bobbysoxer Shirley Temple.
When Willson opened his own agency in 1953, Hofler waggishly remarks that “Many were called . . . and many were chosen.” At peak operation, Henry opened and personally answered “9000 letters per year from hopefuls.” Among those who passed through Willson’s office, if not necessarily his hands, were Robert Wagner (right, with Willson), James Darren, John Saxon, Dack Rambo, and the patrician future ambassador to Mexico (and second lead in Psycho), John Gavin (Henry “knew not to hit on John Gavin”). Of all the postwar heartthrobs, Farley Granger (whose forthcoming autobiography should shine additional light into the shadowy corners of Hollywood history) stands almost alone in escaping Henry Willson’s management.
The heart of the make-believe was the straight date, preferably to attend a studio premiere, so Willson cultivated a harem of beards to facilitate photo ops. Savvy Terry Moore (Mighty Joe Young) understood exactly what she was doing and “even advised her escorts that they need not tire themselves with making conversation, because it was enough to move their lips and go, ‘Blablablablablabla’.” Debbie Reynolds, who used to hang out with Tab Hunter at the New Follies Burlesque, tells Hofler, “Oh sure, I dated all the boys who were homosexual, because I liked them better. They weren’t fresh. They were fun. They were sweet. They didn’t come on to me. All the straight guys were coming on to me. And I couldn’t stand that. I was seventeen. I was a virgin. I didn’t want hands all over me.”4
Stepping deeper into conscious bearding, Natalie Wood and Margaret O’Brien used to play a “game of trying to figure out which of their dates had slept with Henry.”
Too seasoned a Hollywood observer to construct any nostalgic valentine, Hofler instead draws us into this cut-throat business of users, where sexual pleasure is given and taken as a consequence of power. One major Hollywood power broker, Lew Wasserman, said, “When I became a talent agent for MCA, the word ‘agent’ was synonymous with ‘pimp’.” According to the author, Henry “often advised his clients to sleep with an executive or influential director” and not only gay clients. One reporter observed, “It was amazing what some heterosexual men would do to get a career in Hollywood. Many thought nothing of sleeping with another man, if it got them a job.”
Envious rivals groused that Willson had “elevated cruising to a full-time, lucrative career” and indeed he would remind reluctant wannabes that “Tab and Rock and Guy have cared for me personally, you understand?,” though Rory Calhoun (right, with Guy Madison) seemed every bit as compliant. Henry’s longtime assistant Pat Colby told Hofler that “Everyone wanted to sleep with Rock. No one wanted to sleep with Henry.” Yet the star was surprisingly more accessible than the agent: “Henry had his standards, but Rock would sleep with anybody.”
Willson’s full service to his clients also involved spying on them, driving in the wee hours of the morning to monitor any unfamiliar cars parked in his boys’ driveways. In fact, the book’s most spectacular scene stars Rory Calhoun and Guy Madison found in flagrante delicto in a Jaguar, rocking the auto on its tires while a bedraggled Henry watched outside in a rainstorm.5
Of Lana Turner, Willson famously instructed one studio functionary: “I didn’t say she could act. I said she could be a movie star!” In the Hollywood firmament, Hofler sagely comments that “Sex appeal meant more than talent. Maybe sex was talent.” For the unlucky, whose shining hour never shone in towering dimensions on the silver screen, sex might still function as a hook. If nothing else, the gay underground beckoned with jobs for “models” in burgeoning musclemags like Physique Pictorial, an ethos lovingly recreated in Thom Fitzgerald’s 1999 film Beefcake. They could also try to improve their luck by hanging out at Henry Willson’s regular weekend pool parties, attended by key studio players like gossip columnist Mike Connolly, bodybuilder Steve Reeves (Hercules), crooner Johnnie Ray (There’s No Business Like Show Business), producer Lester Persky (Equus), and Jaik Rosenstein, Hedda Hopper’s leg man.
Notwithstanding his hunk-friendly reputation, insiders described Willson (far right, with Selznick and Bud Lesser) as “all pit bull and no poodle.” A Beverly Hills detective tells Hofler that “You didn’t mess with Henry Willson,” considering his established ties with enforcers and scandal containers. At his service was an entire infrastructure of fixers: no one wanted to mess with Fred Otash, for instance, a “leg breaker for the LAPD,” or shadowy lawyer Harry Weiss, useful for “massaging the arrests of homosexuals in the city of Los Angeles,” though his preternaturally speedy arrival at the station house aroused suspicions of his collusion in the arrests, especially since he and partner Lud Gerber owned gay clubs, steam baths, and even an escort service.
The big guns were reserved for serious damage control. If an underemployed Hollywood layabout tried petty blackmail, Willson might get the would-be actor his own TV series so he would have “his own career to protect from the whispers of a homosexual affair,” although Hofler uncovers a case where a lover who had taken sexually explicit photographs of Rock Hudson got his nose broken by a private eye and one witness said “you could hear ribs crack.” Protecting his investments in this private underworld of secrets and extortion, with the IRS auditing Rock, somebody bugging Henry’s telephone, and whispers of an FBI dossier, Henry turned paranoid enough to purchase a pistol.
Any account of Henry Willson must inevitably keep tilting back to Rock Hudson and to the agent’s sacrifice of Rory Calhoun and Tab Hunter to preserve a looming public exposure of Hudson in the widely-read scandal mag Confidential, and both books here take different angles on this central incident. The granddaddy of tell-all tabloids, Confidential magazine constituted the biggest threat to the dreamboat myth. Although Robert Mitchum’s (right) 1949 arrest and jail time for marijuana possession had prophesied the end of his nascent film career, his unflappable public response (“Booze, broads, it’s all true … Make up more if you want”) actually increased his popularity, but no one was willing to risk revelations of man-on-man activity. Hofler notes that “reports have always circulated that Confidential was essentially an extortion operation that collected hush money from the studios.” And it undeniably was peopled by McCarthy-era blacklisters, including Willson’s pal Mike Connolly, who may have fed sub-rosa scandal stories to the rag.
Evidence seems to point to Willson himself offering up the reputations of Rory Calhoun (exposed as a veteran of stints in several federal pens, including maximum security at San Quentin) and Tab Hunter (revealed as an arrestee when police raided an all-male party in 1950) in a bargain move to save Rock Hudson from the predations of Confidential (in any event, the relatively second-tier careers of both men survived while Hudson burgeoned to superstardom).
Was it a coincidence that Tab Hunter left Willson’s agency at that time?
In his book, Hunter admits that “rumors persisted that it was Henry Willson who had ‘given up’ two of his former clients to Confidential,” but concludes that “I don’t know if it’s true, but I wouldn’t be surprised.” He also turns the tables on Willson’s account of their separation: instead of the actor firing his agent, the way Hunter tells it, “Henry Willson left my life.”
After the Confidential scare, Henry understood that dating beards was not providing sufficient cover. Even the fact that Ed Muhl, the General Manager of Universal-International Pictures, was in love with Rock couldn’t guarantee his remaining among the nation’s top box office attractions, especially when the Luce publishing empire jumped into the fray with a Life magazine story of disingenuous gaybaiting: “Fans are urging twenty-nine-year-old Rock Hudson to get married — or explain why not.”
In a panic, Willson forced the faux marriage of Rock Hudson to Henry’s secretary, Phyllis Gates. While she consistently denied any play-for-pay aspect to their short-lived union, one knowledgeable friend said, “Phyllis was too smart not to know what she was getting into.”6 When the strategy seemed to succeed, Hudson dared to tread on mighty thin ice in Pillow Talk, where he pretends to be a straight character pretending to be gay, eliciting guffaws from 1959’s audiences but postmodern frissons today.
While Hofler nimbly sifts the evidence of his subject’s shady connections and personal betrayals, Willson emerges as no queer icon. As public cover for himself, Henry fabricated protracted but blatantly faux engagements with tolerant women, including the acerbic Diana Lynn (“whose tongue could puncture asphalt”). If nothing else, Hofler notes that “Henry Willson had no professional use for effeminate homosexuals, since they had no value in the movie marketplace.”
Like most biographies, this one does not end well. When a new lover prompted Rock to dissociate from Henry (Hofler quotes the star’s complaint: “Every time Henry Willson sucks some cock, I get blamed for it”), the fairy godfather lost his footing and slid downhill from a drunk driving arrest to electroshock treatment in a psych ward. By 1972, only the housekeeper True Delight, a white disciple of cult preacher Father Divine, remained in Henry Willson’s employ. “Instead of giving her a weekly salary, he spent his days bartering with her to cook and clean in exchange for pieces of his valuable antiques and silverware.”
Despite loans from John Saxon and Lucille Ball and even Rock Hudson, he lost his house and entered the Motion Picture Country Home as a charity case, where cirrhosis of the liver finally finished him off in 1978. At the funeral, Rory Calhoun served as a pallbearer at the funeral, but Rock only sent flowers and Tab Hunter skipped the event.
A million golden boys passed through Hollywood, but none looked more golden than Tab Hunter and few enjoyed more luck. The first time he set foot in a recording studio, he came out with the #1 hit record in the country for five weeks, “Young Love” (helped by the background harmonizing of Elvis Presley’s backup singers). With no help from Willson, his own agent, he stumbled into a star-making lead in only his second movie, 1951’s Jamaica-shot desert-island shipwreck drama, Island of Desire, handsomely showcased opposite the long-lashed brunette warmth of established beauty Linda Darnell.
His athletic but still callow presence asserted a kind of pectoral tension that reliably pressed hot buttons in the audience, whether youthful or youth-seeking. Good-naturedly, Hunter (right, with Tuesday Weld) reports the unfavorable critical reaction (“quite inadequate as an actor; his performance is wooden”), but the film turned into big box-office, with the hapless young actor’s mailbox suddenly flooded with a thousand fan letters weekly.
In Hollywood, he soon found himself giving Geraldine Page driving lessons, playing poker with Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth, touring with the Everly Brothers, reassuring an insecure Fred Astaire about his acting, and spilling champagne on Princess Grace. All that and he survived the Confidential scandal too: not bad for a poor boy with a high school diploma from an acting school.
The postwar pin-up prototype was the now forgotten Guy Madison, but Tab Hunter was smarter than Guy, as Willson freely admitted. Laden with embarrassing appellations like Sigh Guy, All-American Boy, Boy Next Door, not to mention “The Squeal Appeal Fella,” Tab could hardly avoid realizing that he was being packaged for straight teenaged girls: ”
In order for lustful adolescent urges to have the culture’s seal of approval, every feature story, every interview, had to conclude with the actor’s wistful admission that, beneath the glitz and glamour, all he truly craved was a simple life of wedded bliss.”7
Hunter reports that he first satisfied his own lustful urges at — where else? — a movie theatre (“This guy knew exactly what he was doing. I let him do it”). And why not play his sigh guy role willingly for the nation, considering that his “door-opening looks” provided him that one-in-a-million chance at stardom? He understood that “I wasn’t so much a person now as I was a valuable commodity. . . . They can put you in the slot they want, and you’re supposed to stay there, performing your trick on demand.”
Unlike Hollywood autobiographies filled with rhinestone profundities, Hunter’s memoir, lavishly illustrated with many unfamiliar photos, paints a vivid picture of life on the business end of the camera lens during the last throes of the big studio system. Admirably straightforward, if not exactly unsparing about himself, Tab settles a few scores (though he got along with co-stars John Wayne and Lana Turner in The Sea Chase, not so with director John Farrow: “I can’t stand hypocrites, and that’s how Farrow came off. Plus, he was just generally creepy, with beady eyes like a pair of piss holes in the snow”).
Dick Clayton, future agent and “the most important person in my life,” spotted a twelve-year-old stablehand named Arthur Gelien (not yet “Tab Hunter”) at a riding academy in LA. At fifteen the blue-eyed lad with unnerving good looks lied his way into the Coast Guard, but spent his leaves at Clayton’s Manhattan apartment, attending sophisticated Greenwich Village parties (with Cole Porter himself at the piano), so it’s no surprise that “I woke up one morning in the swank Park Avenue apartment of an older gentleman.”
Trying his luck in Hollywood meant a few years of pumping gas, soda jerking at Rexall Drugs, and ushering at the Warner Bros. Theater (with Carol Burnett), until Clayton introduced the blond hopeful to his influential colleague Henry Willson. While he knew the stakes — “If you were invited back to his place for drinks, it wasn’t to admire the fabulous, wall-to-wall carpeting in his den. Well, maybe it was. In a way” — he says he resisted: “Henry had a magnetic personality, but it certainly wasn’t strong enough to lure me onto the casting couch.”
By 1955, in one of his numerous roles as a soldier or sailor, Hunter dominated Battle Cry in that film’s steamiest episode, a wartime tryst between a young marine and a straying wife, played by a brunette Dorothy Malone. The year’s number-three hit, it proved his potential and won him one of Hollywood’s last seven-year studio contracts (which he would soon live to regret when he later paid $100,000 to release himself).
It was just at this brink of stardom that Confidential magazine went public with his 1950 arrest (lawyer Harry Weiss had turned up to spring everyone immediately, and the original charges of lewd behavior shrank to “disturbing the peace,” resulting in a fifty-dollar fine and a routine year’s probation). Hunter’s (right, with actor John Bromfield) involvement with the Confidential fracas was less a crisis for him than for Willson, even though he was called to testify in an all-star libel suit brought by Maureen O’Hara, Dorothy Dandridge, and Liberace, among others. The difference was Warner Bros.’ attitude toward their newly minted dreamboat: as long as he played the publicity game, studio boss Jack Warner’s attitude was: “Today’s headlines, tomorrow’s toilet paper.”
Nor did the studio insist on a faux marriage for Hunter: “[I]t was an industry axiom that “Bachelors make better box office.” Didn’t matter to them whether I preferred women, men, or chimps — as long as I didn’t flaunt it publicly.”8
Still, a later long-term friendship with Joan Cohn, powerful and wealthy widow of Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn, resulted in one marriage proposal — from her. When challenged about keeping company with men who were, at best, bisexual, her rejoinder was, “He won’t be gay when I get through with him.” Nevertheless, this proved an idle threat with Hunter, who says, “I loved Joan but didn’t feel the need to qualify, or consummate, our relationship.” Nor did he wish to triangulate into her ongoing affair with actor Laurence Harvey.
In the very midst of the Confidential scandal, Warner bought the hit Broadway musical Damn Yankees as a property for Tab, “a serious display of commitment by the studio,” but the filming of Damn Yankees soon became the arena for widely reported friction between the young star and the Broadway director George Abbott. Co-star Gwen Verdon (understandably not quoted in this book) said, “I don’t know what George Abbott wanted from Tab, but whatever it was, Tab did not agree,” while the film’s co-director Stanley Donen spared nothing: “He couldn’t sing, he couldn’t dance, he couldn’t act. He was a triple threat.”9 Admitting to flares of temperament, Hunter still justifies them as integrity: “Once I decided to lead my own life, as an individual, not a packaged product — I was immediately tagged with other labels: ‘difficult’ and ‘temperamental’.”
Hunter himself indicts an emphysema-wracked Tallulah Bankhead for a “complete lack of professionalism” when they co-starred in an ill-fated revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (lasting only four performances on Broadway), for “shamelessly playing to the crowd [of] screaming queens. . . . A gay man flaunting her kind of cavalier lifestyle would have been deported.” But then what to make of the following lesson in the haphazard nature of the movie business? Arriving in Spain to shoot a western, Tab ran into Jeffrey Hunter (above) who was about to start a thriller. For a prank, they figured: “The producers won’t know Jeffrey Hunter from Tab Hunter. Let’s switch movies! And we did. Jeff did the western. I did the thriller. No one was the wiser.” What price professionalism?
Having spent most of his career in the dreamboat closet, Hunter presents certain drawbacks as a gay icon, though not as many as Willson. His livelihood long depended on concealing the love that Hedda Hopper dared not name (though William Hopper, her own son, and Tab’s co-star in Track of the Cat, more familiar opposite Raymond Burr in TV’s Perry Mason, was gay). Still, whether Hunter’s philosophy seems reasonable or evasive depends on the reader: “Accepting that I was wired differently was no cause for celebration, believe me. We all have our various urges and desires and shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of them. Being “proud” of your homosexuality, however, was a concept still years away. Not that I’d ever feel that way. To me, it’s like saying you’re “proud” to be hetero. Why do you need to wear a badge? You simply are what you are.”10
Though he’s too gentlemanly to furnish details, Hunter documents dalliances with figure skater Ronnie Robertson, ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev (right), and Visconti protégé Helmut Berger.11 But the persistent figure dogging his footsteps here is Anthony Perkins: both were rising stars, living only blocks from each other, but conducted their liaisons either publicly, with suitable feminine “dates,” or privately, using separate cars and never arriving together: “He was afraid of getting the same smear job Confidential had given me.” Put in a nutshell, “nothing came between Tony and his career.” When Perkins gloated that Paramount had bought Fear Strikes Out for him, a role Hunter had created on television, “from then on we weren’t nearly as close.” They later shared supporting roles in John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), but the book doesn’t mention that Perkins again stepped into his shoes, this time from screen to stage, when he played the baseball star in a summer stock production of Damn Yankees.12
Unlike Perkins, Tab Hunter was limited by his lightweight persona, with few opportunities to transcend it. Seeking out spikier villain roles, Tab found them only on TV or in B-pictures (in Columbia’s Gunman’s Walk he played “a sort of Aryan youth on the American frontier”). For a few heady years, the films that teamed him with Natalie Wood — The Burning Hills and The Girl He Left Behind — sold plenty of tickets but have now evaporated from the public consciousness, leaving no residue. Even higher-profile titles like Battle Cry and Damn Yankees are little cherished today, let alone pop-cultural debris like Operation Bikini, Timber Tramps, and Grotesque, although pioneering dreamboat observer Jack Stalnaker would argue otherwise: For “Here’s another performer whose very name stands for an entire era of American movies, and yet you won’t find even one Tab Hunter movie on that American Film Institute list of the “100 Most Tedious Movies Nobody in Their Right Mind Wants to See Again.”13
Arguably his career flourished more on television, as he starred in the premiere broadcast of Playhouse 90, the prestigious dramatic centerpiece of TV’s Golden Age, danced and skated in the musical Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, and enacted the swinging bachelor in his short-lived TV sitcom The Tab Hunter Show (right). In the long years between more respectable film projects, Hunter weathered the dislocations of the campus revolt/hippie era by playing dinner theater, yet he paints a surprisingly ungallant picture of his supporters: “The audiences for these shows were married middle-aged women with grumpy husbands in tow, hoping to relive their youth by seeing their onetime matinee idol in person.” What’s wrong with that? Who did he think would come?
Turning starchy as times changed and the Vietnam War raged, Hunter sided with the kneejerk patriotism of his old co-star John Wayne: “When I saw on television the growing hordes of young people protesting the war in the streets, burning our flag, my blood boiled. If they didn’t like this country, they could all get the hell out.”14
Notwithstanding that his brother was later killed in Vietnam, the star seems oblivious to the incineration of innocent Vietnamese civilians and deaf to the irony of the lucrative expatriate lifestyle he enjoyed during those same war years, knocking around Corfu and the Côte d’Azur to avoid U.S. taxes: “The temptation to abandon the United States forever was surprisingly strong.” Didn’t he want to support the war with his tax dollars? Didn’t he “like this country”?
As Rock Hudson updated his waning credibility in John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966, right, with Salome Jens), Tab engaged a new generation as the definitive dreamboat Todd Tomorrow romancing Divine in John Waters’ Polyester (1981), even as he pursued new career avenues producing television dramas and documentaries.15 Yet there’s no reason to dispute Hunter’s (and co-author Muller’s) shrewd overall evaluation of the star’s career: “I was on the set for the last roars of so many old lions — Walsh, Wellman, Heisler, Tourneur — as well as for the first forays of young turks who’d inspire a whole new style of filmmaking: Frankenheimer, Lumet, Penn. My career fell smack in the middle of the changing of the guard.”16
Nor can we argue with his choice of favorite performance in Sidney Lumet’s unheralded but haunting wartime romance That Kind of Woman (1959), the third and in many ways most grownup version of Shopworn Angel. Again playing a smitten GI, Tab made a significantly more credible consort for Sophia Loren (“a talented and guileless woman”) than Tony Perkins had in Desire Under the Elms the year before, and benefits particularly from the director’s screen-filling close-ups that showcase his all-American chiseled jaw, cleft chin, and boyishly yearning eyes.
Like most autobiographies, this one ends happily, with pleasures savored and lessons learned, friends acknowledged and a lifelong partner found. If Hunter brought the culture several giant steps closer to today’s Abercrombie and Fitch glamour boys, he was part of a legacy that stretched back as far as the silent era, where Ramon Novarro and George O’Brien (star of John Ford’s The Iron Horse and Murnau’s Sunrise, giving fans an eyeful, right) paved the path for later studio-promoted sex symbols like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Tyrone Power, while Errol Flynn stood as a flagpole for polysexual debauchery.
Beauty makes its own rules, of course. Judging from Hunter’s recent personal appearances, instead of looking like a fossil after his stroke and heart attack, the seventy-something-year-old has apparently abstained from surgical relief for nature’s character lines and wrinkles, yet the one-time teen god retains the toothpaste smile, enviable bone structure, and pleasingly natural musculature
17 that furthered his career as a toy in babeland.
Although gay liberation tore down the walls of the dreamboat factory, and Confidential was driven out of business by ruinous lawsuits18, it’s by no means crystal clear that today’s situation is such an improvement. In a newer, crasser conservative economy, the gay population’s hefty disposable income talks loudly, pushing male sexuality to the fore as a commodity. But is the “Sexiest Man Alive” title really much of an advance on the 1950s heartthrobs? Confidential‘s trash torch passed to supermarket tabloids and celebrity gossip TV, yet where’s the progress when gay actors who aspire to leading roles are still forced to wear hetero halos?
1. Robert Hofler, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005. The quotes in the opening paragraph come from page 112.
2. Tab Hunter with Eddie Muller, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2005.
3. The McCarthy hearings coincided with pressure on President Eisenhower from religio-patriots to add “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. A year later Congress decreed printing “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency.
4. Hofler, 209.
5. Consult Hofler, 149, for more details.
6. Since this book’s publication, Phyllis Gates has died, and Hofler revealed to Michael Musto at the Village Voice that Gates tried to blackmail Rock following their divorce but was thwarted when frank photos of her in lesbian sexual activity surfaced. See “Web Exclusive” here.
7. Hunter and Muller, 74.
8. Ibid, 122.
9. Stephen M. Silverman, Dancing On the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Both quotes from page 254.
10. Hunter and Muller, 126.
11. Hunter reports one unforgotten slight and unburied hatchet: Henry Willson’s neglecting to mention that Visconti wanted Tab as the lead in Senso (1954). The Italian maestro, no mean judge of male glamour, tried again, offering the lead in Vaghe Stelle dell’Orsa (1965), but financial backers supposedly insisted on Michael Craig. Still, Hunter allows that “merely shooting tests with Luchino was more fulfilling than making entire features with other directors.”
12. Charles Winecoff, Split Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins. New York: Dutton, 1996, 215.
14. Hunter and Muller, 269.
15. Producing the movie Dark Horse revealed a new, stripped-down Hollywood: “more film stock was used shooting tests for Battle Cry than we now had to shoot our entire feature.”
16. Hunter and Muller, 266.
17. Compare Hunter’s pre-gym-culture physique with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s inflated anatomy, memorably described by Clive James as “a condom full of walnuts.”
18. “Confidential‘s managing editor . . . had been a research director for Senator Joe McCarthy and was obsessed with exposing ‘subversives’ in Hollywood [though later] he shot and killed his wife, and then himself, in a New York City taxi.” (Hunter and Muller, 184).