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Interview with Jeffrey Schwarz, director of Vito (2013) and Tab Hunter: Confidential (2015) – BFI:Flare

Wednesday 25 March 2015, by Ryan Ormonde

In 1981 Vito Russo adapted his travelling lecture The Celluloid Closet into a book of the same name. The lecture and the book represent the first concerted effort to look at the history of cinema from a queer perspective. Years later the book was made into a documentary, finished and released after Russo’s death from AIDS. A young assistant editor on that project, Jeffrey Schwarz, went on to make Vito, a film about Russo’s life which revealed its subject to be a key activist in the struggle for LGBT rights and the raising of AIDS awareness. I catch up with Schwarz at the BFI: Flare film festival where he is screening his new documentary Tab Hunter: Confidential. To start with I ask him about the first time he read The Celluloid Closet.

‘I don’t know if these days when people come out they read books?’ Schwarz ponders, ‘I don’t really know, you could tell me probably, but when I came out all I wanted to do was to learn about people and events that came before me … I read the Celluloid Closet and it opened up a whole new world of film, some films that I knew but I had no idea about the gay content in between the lines.’ He tells me there is a sequel to the original documentary in the works: ‘I’m hoping to direct and Rob and Jeffrey (directors of the original movie) will produce… It’s funny talking about it because it’s so early and who knows if we’ll ever make it, I hope a year from now we’ll be here with that movie. … It’s called Beyond the Celluloid Closet and the idea for that film would be starting with New Queer cinema and kind of using that as a jumping off point to today and how queer people have sort of become part of the human family in a sense, and how the images of gay film are not marginalised, we’re not marginalised as film makers any more, we’re part of the story of human rights.’

Schwarz is in town to talk about his new documentary about Tab Hunter, one of the biggest movie stars of the 1950s, who is now in his eighties and openly gay. ‘if you’re interested in the Hollywood aspect of it then it’s fascinating, if you’re interested in the gay life that’s also fascinating, and then also his spiritual side: I mean this is a guy who reconciled his gay identity with being Catholic, which is very difficult to do, he’s found a way to do that.’ In the film Hunter relates a simple and wise summary of his early conflict with religion, a choice between ‘sinning’ [living a gay life] or lying [suppressing homosexuality]. ‘Right,’ Schwarz affirms, ‘He has been able to take from the church what’s comforting to him in a spiritual sense and reject any condemnation from the church. He doesn’t look at it that way … he’s a sincerely devout Catholic and he believes there’s only one entity who can judge and that’s who he looks to for strength. I don’t happen to share that [belief] but I really respect it and it’s coming from a very sincere place, so you know … gay people can be just as spiritual and observant and can embrace organised religion as [much as] anyone else and they have every right to do that.’

In terms of the life of Tab Hunter at least, there is a clear parallel between organised religion and the movie industry. Hollywood proved even harder for Hunter to come to terms with, however. Schwarz explains: ‘if you were a star in Hollywood you were a product and you were an investment. The studio invested in this product, they protected their product and they protected their investment, so if you decided to go along with that you played the game.’ As Schwarz’s film shows, for a while Hunter did play along, becoming Warner Brothers’ hottest property at the same time as he was having a sexual relationship with Anthony Perkins, later of Psycho fame. ‘With Perkins, when the studio said “we don’t want you to see Tab Hunter and it looks very bad,” [Perkins] did what they told him to do.’ The relationship between Hunter and Perkins as it unfolds in the documentary is fascinating, their fundamental differences in character creating a dual charge, positive and negative: repulsion and attraction. The outcome follows the Hollywood rules, heart conquers mind, and yet the surviving hero is Tab: the studio defector.

I ask Schwarz where Hunter’s story leaves us now. Will we see a big star come out early in his or her career and still get the big romantic lead roles? ‘We live in a homophobic world still… the industry is run on fear, movies cost 200 million dollars and there is still a very large section of the audience who will not accept an openly gay leading man. If Daniel Craig came out of the closet tomorrow I think that would probably hurt the franchise because this is a macho kind of an industry.’ Schwarz is of course using Craig as a hypothetical example. ‘I would totally understand if a star, if a gay star, even if they want to come out, they may not be able to because… there’s a lot riding on them and their agents and their managers are controlling, they’re pulling the strings. Film stars don’t have that kind of control over their own careers and so unless they just kind of blurt it out in an interview then it’s probably not going to happen… I don’t think that much has changed, to be honest, in Hollywood.’

Since he first opened Vito Russo’s Celluloid Closet, Schwarz has consistently shown himself to be a torch bearer in this struggle, using the medium of film to shine light on stories deliberately concealed along its history. He is hopeful that his latest movie will help effect change: ‘Andrew Rannells and his boyfriend Mike Doyle, who are openly gay actors, they came to the screening [in Austin] and as soon as it was over they cornered Tab and they wanted to talk to him… Watching that was so amazing, to see that lineage of Tab Hunter and then these guys who were going on the red carpet together as openly gay and as a couple – that would have been unthinkable – and it’s happening now.’

BFI Flare film festival runs until Sunday 29th March -tickets are available from www.bfi.org.uk/flare

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