He walked among us in the 1950s, a golden god too good to be true. And he wasn’t, Tab Hunter Confidential reminds us.
As a young guy in Hollywood, Arthur Gelien was rebranded with the shiny marquee name by which we know him, and was added to the roster of Henry Willson, a borderline predatory gay talent scout who specialized in managing the professional lives of other pretty boys like Rock Hudson. Boys with secrets like Hunter’s.
After a fling with a professional ice skater, Hunter spent much of his early private life with Psycho’s Tony Perkins, though their romance was complicated by career rivalry for screen roles. For instance, when Hunter got attention for starring in the live-TV version of the drama Fear Strikes Out, Perkins got his managers to grab the rights to the screen adaptation, which he starred in — meow.
Jeffrey Schwarz’s engaging documentary presents Hunter as a sweet and honest man who’s very clear-eyed about the limits of his talents as both an actor and singer during his heyday. As much a coming-out tale as a fascinating look at Hollywood at the frayed end of the studio system, the movie includes invaluable talking heads including Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner, George Takei and, of course, John Waters, who gave Hunter a second life onscreen “kissing a 300-pound transvestite,” the late Divine, in Polyester.
The movie is an informative look at the ways in which actors of both sexes were treated like prize horses in the studios’ stables — and this week’s prime horse flesh could easily be replaced by a fresh batch the next. When Hunter decided to break his contract with Warner Bros., for example, all his beefcake roles were simply passed along to the interchangeable Troy Donahue (another Willson client).
As a documentary, Confidential is more amiable than enlightening. Partly that’s because, even now, Hunter recalls his Hollywood career with a gee-shucks niceness. He’s not a kiss-and-tell kind of guy. That’s both a strength and a small flaw of the movie built around him.
Also opening, a few weeks late for an ideal Halloween slot, is the Irish flick The Hallow. Despite a low budget, it earns some decent scares from atmosphere and practical creature effects that remind us that, just because you can do anything with CG these days, that doesn’t mean you should.
Joseph Mawle plays Adam, a biological scientist studying the trees of one of Ireland’s rare, untouched forests in the final days before it’s slated to be sold into private hands and chopped down for profit. Living in an old millhouse with wife Clare (Bojana Novakovic) and their infant son, Adam discovers icky, black fungus seeping from some of the tree trunks.
Even scarier is a local fellow, Colm (Michael McElhatton, aka Roose Bolton to Game of Thrones fans), who keeps turning up at the family’s home, warning Adam to keep out of the woods. It’s a local preoccupation. As one tradesman in the not-so-nearby town says, “If you trespass upon them, they’ll trespass upon you.”
The “them” in question is what they call the Hallow — a breed of otherworldly creatures who dwell in the woods, the old ones sometimes referred to as fairies. There are no butterfly wings here, or anything twee that the word might summon up.
The night-dwellers in this movie are nasty, oozing, eye-gouging beasties. They’re literally sticky, with black twig-like spines erupting from their corpse-gray skins. And they like snatching human babies, changeling-style. (This is a rare movie where the creatures, when finally revealed, don’t seem lame; they continue to be freakish to the very end.)
Director Corin Hardy makes the most of his limited money and setup. The actors are game, and the wet, dark Irish landscape will give you a chill no matter how warmly you’re dressed. The only drawback? Only half an hour in, just when we’re starting to get to know and care for Adam and Clare, the climactic siege of the family begins … and goes on and on, inside the house, in a car, in the woods.
It’s as if the tingly dread of Alien morphed suddenly into the action-film overdrive of Aliens only a third of the way in. But maybe it’s churlish to complain about a movie that tries to give us too much, rather than too little.
Tab Hunter Confidential. A documentary. Unrated. 90 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
The Hallow. With Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic. Directed by Corin Hardy. Unrated. 97 minutes. At the Plaza.