MOVIE REVIEW: A Week of Legends with
TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL and STEVE McQUEEN: THE MAN & LE MANS
November 12, 2015
This week in movies is, once again, all about legends, Hollywood legends. But whereas last week’s focus was on the narrative feature “Trumbo”, this week attention turns to documentaries. And thanks to two superlative documentaries, the spotlight once again shines bright for Hollywood’s All-American Boy and The King of Cool; namely, Tab Hunter and Steve McQueen, in TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL and STEVE McQUEEN: THE MAN & LE MANS, respectively.
TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL
In the 1950's, the tall, lanky All-American boy next door, born Arthur Gelien but now known as Tab Hunter, was a matinee idol and hit recording artist. Girls swooned for him. His pictures covered school lockers and bedroom walls. Turntables and radios played his songs over and over and over. He was romantically linked to some of the greatest starlets in Hollywood, Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood among them. He was #1 at the box office, #1 on the record charts and #1 in the hearts of millions. But just how did young Art Gelien become Tab Hunter? And at what cost?
Based on Hunter’s 2006 autobiography co-written with Hollywood historian Eddie Muller, director/editor Jeffrey Schwarz adapts Hunter’s story for the big screen in this candid and engaging documentary. Now 84 years of age and having long retired from the public eye, making TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL “special” is Hunter’s own involvement in the project with countless interviews and recollections from him which provide the backbone of the documentary; in fact, it took seven years for, Allan Glaser, his partner of 30+ years and a producer here, to convince Hunter to allow the documentary to be made.
The title of the documentary, and the autobiography, serves as the entry point into Hunter’s story as we learn about his arrest at age 19. Fresh-faced newcomer to Hollywood, Hunter was caught at a private gay party; a taboo in the 1950's. Agent Henry Wilson stepped into the picture and covered up the story and the fact that Tab Hunter was gay. Unfortunately, that cover-up would come back to haunt him years later when Hunter “fired” Wilson and out of revenge, Wilson sold the story to one of the biggest gossip rags of the day, “Confidential Magazine.” But there’s one thing that we learn early on in TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL, and that’s Hunter’s survivability, positivity and ability to roll with the punches. And it’s those qualities that not only kept him aloft, but helped his star rise even higher; well, that, and Jack Warner. But be careful, because what Jack Warner giveth, Jack Warner taketh away.
While Hunter’s sexuality is addressed throughout the documentary, along with his long term relationship with Anthony Perkins, as well as his decades long happy partnership now with Glaser, TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL is not Hollywood tell-all filled with tension, doom and gloom. Hunter’s story focuses on his career, not his personal life. His personal life remained just that thanks to the “gentlemen’s agreements” of the day. As one of the last crop to come through the studio system, Hunter’s recollections and anecdotes are engaging, insightful and refreshing.
Structured chronologically by director Schwarz, we follow Hunter’s career from that early arrest to a one line walk-on in the John Wayne-Lana Turner vehicle, “The Sea Chase” and on to films like “Battle Cry” and “Track of the Cat” before ultimately landing the roll of a lifetime in “Damn Yankees”. Sweet and poignant are Hunter’s recollections of his mother (many of which are not even in the film but which he relayed to me during an exclusive interview), including her telling him, “You were lousy”, after seeing his first film, “Island of Desire” with Linda Darnell. Hunter keeps no secrets from us.
Interviews with former co-stars, contemporaries of the day, and friends like Robert Wagner, Debbie Reynolds, Connie Stevens, Darryl Hickman, Don Murray and Mother Dolores Hart speak volumes as to Hunter’s character, his kindness, his professionalism, his genuineness and his talent, while also shedding light on the mores of the day with staged studio romances and the protective nature of the studios not only for their stars, but their private lives. Insightful and welcome commentary on Hunter’s films themselves and Hollywood history comes from Rona Barrett, Rex Reed and of course, TCM legend, Robert Osborne.
We learn of Hunter’s value to Jack Warner, so much so that when Hunter’s records were skyrocketing to the top of the record charts for Dodd Records, Warner started Warner Bros. Records just to keep one of his top properties in the Warner stables. But we also learn first-hand of Jack Warner’s power when Hunter buys out the remaining time on his contract hoping to work on meatier projects for other studios over what Warner was giving him. No one would hire him. Ever the survivor, Hunter broke ground on the dinner theatre circuit and television, the latter in which some of his greatest work would appear with shows like “Playhouse 90.” And then came John Waters, who also lends his voice to the Hunter story, with Hunter’s re-discovery by a new generation with Waters’ cult classics, “Polyester” and “Lust In The Dust”, which also showcased something not seen in Hunter in the 50's - comedic ability and self-parody .
TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL addresses Hunter’s youth and early family life, while staying true to Hunter’s belief that not every detail of one’s life be shared, there is no deep probing into his very private past, yet his love for family and his Catholic faith are evident throughout the film.
Although the 2006 book was much more explorative and in depth, the adaptation to documentary is well done and topically inclusive. Schwarz keeps the film moving and light, with Hunter’s own affability as the anchor. Pacing is exceedingly well done as is the editing and the documentary’s construct with segments and interview placements.
As Tab Hunter rides into the sunset on his beloved mare Harlow (had he not become an actor, he would have become a horse trainer. And yes, he has always been a champion equestrian.), stating “I’m happy to be forgotten”, thanks to his still legions of fans and admirers, and now TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL, Tab Hunter will never be forgotten.
STEVE McQUEEN: THE MAN & LE MANS
As we saw earlier this year with the acclaimed documentary, “Listen to Me Marlon”, an effective storytelling tool with a documentary where the main subject is no longer among us, is interspersing known and newly discovered audio archives of the subject to give a real sense of an individual. With STEVE McQUEEN: THE MAN & LE MANS, we get just that and more, including interviews with McQueen’s son Chad, his ex-wife Neile, a number of race car drivers and filmmakers, plus previously undiscovered letters and writings as well as striking the mother lode with once believed to be destroyed film footage of LE MANS.
Focusing on the three to four months of filming LE MANS in the late summer and early fall 1970 in France, co-directors John McKenna and Gabriel Clarke, create an intimate portrait of a man who is at a crossroads in his life. We are not seeing “The King of Cool”. Instead, the flag is dropped and the race is on, taking us around the track and into the pits with the making of LE MANS and all the behind-the-scenes drama that was unfolding in the world of Steve McQueen..
With the support of the McQueen family, and direct involvement of Chad McQueen and Neile McQueen, we are privy to Steve McQueen’s hopes and dreams for LE MANS. Always having a well known love and skill for racing, LE MANS was to be his love letter to the sport. Stepping into the role of producer, McQueen had ideas for what he wanted to convey, starting with actual racing. Unfortunately, due to not having a script, ongoing problems on set including a tragic crash, a director quit and replacement not attuned to McQueen’s thinking, the film that was ultimately made was not McQueen’s vision. So disappointed with the final product, he refused to even attend the film’s premiere. Over the years, however, the film has become a favorite among the racing community and racing enthusiasts alike, not to mention cinephiles who are aware of the technological achievements and revolutionary filming style to emerge from McQueen’s efforts. (A first - an actual Porsche racing car was redesigned to accommodate three cameras hidden within the design of the car. Groundbreaking was that the camera car and all the other race cars - driven by professional drivers like Derek Bell and David Piper - drove at racing speeds in excess of 200 mph. Another first - the camera car, driven by legendary racer Jonathan Williams, raced along with the other drivers, actually placing ninth at the race end. This film also marks Williams last interview before his death in 2014.)
STEVE McQUEEN: THE MAN & LE MANS never obfuscates the truth of McQueen’s life and that particular period. We hear of his rumored 12 infidelities per week. We see the tension between McQueen and Neile and we see and hear her present day interviews on their faltering marriage. We see actual letters sent to McQueen’s representatives stateside following the Sharon Tate murder when a list prepared by Charles Manson identifying intended victims is discovered and McQueen’s name is on it. We hear McQueen’s voice shaken and frustrated and you get a chill down your own spine. And we see, hear and feel his palpable frustration over the problem- fraught production of LE MANS. If nothing else, we see that McQueen wears his emotions on his sleeve as his world is crumbling. The cool facade is gone. This is a man at his most vulnerable.
But the one thing that never crumbles, and that is evident as being the one constant joy in McQueen’s life, is his son Chad. Home movies, behind-the-scenes footage of a father and son are poignant, touching and genuine. Particularly effective is a visit by Chad to Le Mans in 2014; his first time back to the site since the filming of LE MANS in 1970. His love and excitement over revisiting happy memories of his dad bring a tear to your eye as he excitedly points to specific marks along the track where something special had happened. Quite honestly, if for no other reason, seeing Chad McQueen’s love for his father to this day is worth the price of admission.
While STEVE McQUEEN: THE MAN & LE MANS was painstakingly fact-checked for accuracy, the one real treat the documentary holds is the missing footage from the LE MANS film shoot. After an exhaustive search for documentation and information for the documentary, finding 400-600 boxes of film, including off-cuts and negatives, is worth its weight in gold. All the racing footage McKenna and Clarke include in the documentary is from those found negatives with sound augmented thereafter
with engine sounds authentic to each car at the appropriate speeds. From a technical standpoint, the sound design of the documentary is exhilarating.
An interesting touch is a lovely, yet haunting score, by Jim Copperthwaite. Selecting defining musical sounds for specific individuals - McQueen is identified with a flugelhorn horn - set against a softer melodic backdrop, the result is extremely moving.