October 18, 2015

tab hunter Greetings again from the darkness. “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!” That line was famously bellowed by James Cagney in the 1949 film WHITE HEAT, and it reasonably could have been shouted behind closed doors, a few years later, by Tab Hunter. Of course, that wouldn’t have been the only thing Mr. Hunter was keeping behind those doors.  In his 2005 autobiography, he came out publically as a gay man. Director Jeffrey Schwarz takes that book, and puts a very forthcoming Mr. Hunter in front of the camera, to deliver a fascinating, entertaining and educational glimpse at what it was like to be a movie and musical superstar at a time when being a gay man was not just a social taboo, but actually considered a mental illness.

Normally, “talking head” documentaries quickly become tiresome, but now in his 80’s, Mr. Hunter remains an engaging and delightful man, and he is so sincere and upfront in telling his stories, that we couldn’t possibly turn away. In addition, director Schwarz drops in interviews from those who were there. These include: Debbie Reynolds, Connie Stevens, Robert Wagner (filling in his for his deceased wife Natalie Wood), John Waters, George Takei, and Robert Osborne. Each recall moments from real life, with the studio publicity romances (Reynolds, Stevens, Wood) providing the touch of melancholy that brings focus to the matter at hand.

Another entertaining touch added by Schwarz is his use of actual dialogue snippets from Hunter’s films to deliver punch to a point – sometimes comedic, sometimes more serious. Never succumbing to the career retrospective approach, the film does offer significant film clips, photographs and recollections of Hunter’s unique career that found him #1 at the Box Office, as well as #1 on the Pop Music Charts (his recording of “Young Love” knocked Elvis off the top of the charts).

The film could also serve as a historical documenting of the Hollywood Studio system, as Hunter’s success with Warner Brothers was never to be duplicated once he gained his contractual release (through buyout). We do go through the career re-birth brought about by Hunter’s work in the John Waters offbeat classic Polyster, where the former matinee idol finds himself making out on screen with Divine, the 300 pound transvestite who was a fixture in Waters’ films. Surprisingly, it’s Hunter’s fearless approach to the material that makes it click.

But beyond the Hollywood insight, the film is most effectively the story of a man who, because of his era, had to be one person in public and another behind the closed doors. Hunter describes this as “being rewarded for pretending to be someone you aren’t”. He speaks frankly about his relationship with Anthony Perkins, as well as a couple of other serious relationships. We also learn about his childhood, when he had an abusive father and was close to his older brother, who later died in Vietnam. Hunter speaks of being “lost as a kid”. Beyond the Hollywood years, it’s fascinating to hear Hunter speak of his time on the Dinner Theatre circuit, where he put up with the travel and drudgery so that he could pay the bills and care for his sick mother. We also learn that in addition to his staggering good looks, his on screen appeal, and his musical talent, Hunter was also a world class figure skater and competitive equestrian horse jumper. Yep, Tab Hunter is pretty much the guy we would all despise … if he just wasn’t so darned nice and likeable!

watch the trailer:



December 4, 2014

last impresario Greetings again from the darkness. In the biographical documentary genre, a stream of talking heads is ordinarily my least favorite approach. However, director Gracie Otto (sister of actress Miranda) understands that when your subject is “the most famous person you’ve never heard of”, it’s pretty impressive and effective to line-up 50+ celebrities to offer their thoughts and memories of the man.

Michael White. Maybe you know the name, maybe you don’t. Even before the opening credits, we get rapid-fire celebrity descriptions of Mr. White and his impact on theatre, film and the creative society of the 1960’s and 70’s. Director Otto explains how she first noticed Mr. White at the Cannes Film Festival as a slew of celebrities paid their respects. She then began her research into this most interesting man whose 50 year career has left quite a personal stamp.

We hear descriptions such as “he likes people” and he “likes being where the action is”. This about a man who grew up in Scotland, was educated in Switzerland, and worked in New York … before making a real mark in London’s West End Theatre district. His infamous dinner parties allowed paths to cross between the brightest in stage, art, film, and publishing. He had an eye for talent outside the mainstream – experimental and avant garde appealed to him … those who pushed the envelope (or ignored it completely). Because of this, his sphere of influence included such diverse personalities as Pina Bausch, Yoko Ono, John Waters and Kate Moss. His stage production of “Oh! Calcutta” was a major cultural breakthrough and led to others such as the original “Rocky Horror Show”, and the iconic comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

When Ms. Otto asks him why he has so many friends, Mr. White replies that “you never lose a friend”. This comes after we have learned that powerful music producer Lou Adler took advantage of him during negotiations for the Rocky Horror rights in the U.S. White does acknowledge that he has been “cheated” a few times over the years. Another apt description is that he is “drawn to excitement more than money”. It’s then that we learn of his incredible archive of 30,000 photographs – from a time before the paparazzi ruled the world.

The odd font style makes some of the onscreen graphics difficult to read, but the music reminds us that Michael White’s legacy from the swinging 60’s as a playboy and gambling Producer is quite secure Today Mr. White lives a modest life, and periodically has to auction his collections to raise funds. He has had a couple of strokes, walks with the aid of two canes, and is sometimes difficult to understand. He still has regular dinners with friends … after all, with this attitude in life, one never loses a friend.

watch the trailer: