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Movie star Tab Hunter to get lifetime achievement award from Fort Lauderdale Film Festival

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

One-time Hollywood heartthrob Tab Hunter names his favorite leading ladies: Sophia Loren, Geraldine Page, Natalie Wood, Divine.

For many 1980s moviegoers, Hunter — a blonde-haired 1950s teen idol — is best-known for his teaming with drag queen Divine in the camp films Polyester and Lust in the Dust.

“Tab is the reason Polyester was successful. The main reason,” says the film’s director, John Waters. “Because people were shocked that a so-called regular Hollywood movie star would come and make a movie with me. And it sounds ridiculous today, but the fact that he kissed Divine was really taboo-breaking at the time.“

Hunter, 82 and a horseman for seven decades, will receive a lifetime achievement award Tuesday night from the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. He’ll also introduce a screening of Polyester — complete with the movie’s scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards.

“I used to say Divine was like a big beached whale,” Hunter says about his co-star, who died of heart failure in 1988. “He was so quiet and soft. A lovely human being. And then all of a sudden, you’d put him in his drag and sparks would come out of his ass.”

Audiences at the time didn’t know it, but Hunter’s 1981 on-screen romance with Divine wasn’t far-fetched. A closeted gay man, Hunter already had secret relationships with actor Anthony Perkins and skater Ronnie Robertson. For more than 30 years he has been partnered with Allan Glaser, who co-produced Lust in the Dust in 1985 and is currently producing a documentary about Hunter based on the actor’s 2005 autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential.

“It’s about a journey. It’s about survival. It’s about growth. And it’s certainly about an industry that is no more, that I’m sure a lot of people are fascinated with,” Hunter says of the documentary. “We have some fascinating people in it. Everyone from Mother Dolores Hart, who gave Elvis his first screen kiss (and is now a Roman Catholic nun in Connecticut); Debbie Reynolds, Robert Wagner, Terry Moore.”

Hunter’s movie stardom peaked in the late 1950s. He had a No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Young Love, in 1957. A year later, he starred in the film version of Damn Yankees, which also featured original Broadway castmates Gwen Verdon, Ray Walston and Jean Stapleton.

In the movie musical, Hunter played ballplayer Joe Hardy . “[Director] George Abbott didn’t want me for the role. He wanted Stephen Douglass who did it on Broadway. But [Warner Bros. studio chief] Jack Warner said, ‘Look, I bought the project for Tab and Tab’s going to do it. Just like he bought Pajama Game for Doris Day.”

Hunter says he always took whatever parts the studio gave him. “It’s called survival. You do whatever comes along.”

He also kept his mouth shut about being gay.

“The word wasn’t around. I never discussed anything. It wasn’t anybody’s business. I was concerned about everything. I was frightened of my own shadow as a kid,” he says. “The only reason I wrote the book was because I heard someone else was going to be doing a book and I thought, look, get it from the horse’s mouth and not from some horse’s ass after I’m dead and gone.”

IF YOU GO

Tab Hunter receives a lifetime achievement award 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Cinema Paradiso, 503 SE Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale. $10 FLIFF members, $12 seniors/students, $15 general admission. John Waters’ ‘Polyester’ starring Hunter and Divine will be screened at 8:15 p.m. $7 & $12 with Odorama card.

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