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‘Tab Hunter Confidential’: A screen idol looks back on his closeted life

“Six feet of rugged manhood to stir the heart of every woman.” – PR copy touting up-and-coming star Tab Hunter in the 1950s.

Back in the days when handsome leading men had manufactured names such as Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson and Cary Grant, a young actor of unlimited good looks and decidedly limited talent who was born Arthur Gelien, changed his name to Tab Hunter and became a sensation of song and screen who made the girls swoon.

Hunter starred in films such as “Damn Yankees” and “Battle Cry,” appeared on the covers of movie fanzines and even had a No. 1 hit song called “Young Love” in 1957.

He was quite the catch and was considered a safe, All-American alternative to that dangerous Elvis Presley, but the private Tab Hunter wasn’t interested in all those swooning girls. He was a gay man in Eisenhower-era America, and though that fact was well known in Hollywood circles — and Hunter’s career was damaged by a nasty rag naming him as one of those arrested at “a limp-wristed pajama party” — it wasn’t until much later in life that Hunter came out.

Based on Hunter’s 2005 memoir, director Jeffrey Schwarz’s “Tab Hunter Confidential” is a well-crafted if not particularly deep bio-documentary of the genial actor, who is now 84 years old and provides a number of on-camera recollections in which he freely admits he was no great talent, talks with great candor about some personal tragedies, speaks openly about some of his former relationships — and makes it clear he’s much happier these days, out of the limelight and spending time with his beloved horses.

We get some great footage of the young Tab Hunter, and current-day recollections from 1950s and 1960s stars such as Connie Stevens and Robert Wagner. (Even Clint Eastwood shows up for a moment.)

While Hunter’s studio publicized staged romances with likes of Natalie Wood, the heartthrob actor was involved with a champion figure skater named Ronnie Robertson and with Anthony Perkins, who beat out Hunter for the role of Norman Bates in the film version of “Psycho.”

“Tab Hunter Confidential” is a fine companion to Hunter’s revealing and candid book.

[s3r star=3/4]

The Film Collaborative presents a documentary directed by Jeffrey Schwarz. Running time: 91 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.