In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tab Hunter’s blond, boyish good looks made him one of the biggest heartthrobs in Hollywood. By the mid-1970s, his film career, like that of so many of his contemporaries, had all but dried up. As he told The Irish Times, “I woke up one morning and couldn’t get arrested.” Hunter began appearing in repertory and dinner theaters around the country, which meant lots of time spent in hotels, waiting for the evening performance. In early 1975, while appearing in the play, Here Lies Jeremy Troy, he decided to use that downtime between shows by writing a comedic Western screenplay about a group of people searching for buried treasure in the desert town of Chili Verde, which he called “The Reverend and Rosie.” Many years were spent trying to get funding from studios without success while Hunter continued to act in theater and appear on television shows like Charlie’s Angels and The Love Boat. More importantly, he appeared in John Waters’ 1981 comedy, Polyester, which would introduce him to drag queen and actor Glenn Milstead, better known by his professional name Divine.
Producer Allan Carr was among those who passed on “The Reverend and Rosie,” but he did make a contribution to the film. He suggested that Hunter call it Lust in the Dust, which was Gregory Peck’s nickname for his 1947 Western, Duel in the Sun, and the name stuck. So did Hunter’s association with producer Allan Glaser. Glaser was a young executive who had worked on shows like M*A*S*H at Twentieth Century Fox’s television division and had recently been promoted to head of creative development. Hunter pitched Lust in the Dust to Glaser, who loved the project but couldn’t get Fox to greenlight the film. Once Hunter was able to get private funding, Glaser left Fox and opened an office with Hunter in Los Angeles, forming Fox Run Productions. They hired Mork & Mindy and Good Times sitcom writer Philip John Taylor to write the final screenplay, which Hunter wanted to be a comedy with a Sam Peckinpah Western feel.
When their initial funding fell through, Glaser and Hunter were able to raise a reported $4 million through private investors not associated with the film industry, described by The New York Times as “conservative Virginia money.” Lust in the Dust was first envisioned by Hunter as a television project starring his friend, actor and former NFL legend Rosie Grier. Although Grier did not appear in the film, Hunter would use the name “Rosie” for one of his characters. Working with Divine in Polyester had been a happy experience for Hunter and inspired him to make a casting change. He now wanted Divine to play Rosie in drag. Divine was very interested, since he and Hunter had such a good working relationship, but he also had another reason. As Hunter would later write in his autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, “Divine called us constantly. He desperately wanted to do this movie to prove he could thrive in a Hollywood film, along real Hollywood stars.”
John Waters was approached to direct Lust in the Dust, but declined, saying that he preferred to work on his own projects rather than as a director-for-hire. When famed artist Andy Warhol heard from Waters that Hunter was going to make a Western, he offered to design a one-sheet promotional poster for the film for $5,000. Hunter later wrote, “Our budget was too tight; we couldn’t afford the ‘luxury.’ Today, you could probably sell one of those posters for five thousand dollars.”
Executive producer Jim Katz suggested hiring independent filmmaker Paul Bartel, whose black comedy, Eating Raoul (1982), had become an underground sensation and drawn comparisons to John Waters’ films. This would be the first time that Bartel had ever directed a film he hadn’t written himself, but he thought making a Western parody shot in widescreen format would be “the chance of a lifetime.” Bartel did have reservations, later saying that he was worried Lust in the Dust might be seen as a “John Waters’ film without John Waters.” Hunter also had his concerns about Bartel, with whom he was not overly impressed at their first meeting, but he hired him because he appeared to share the producers’ ideas about what the film should be. A deal was quickly signed, and Bartel invited Hunter and Glaser to a screening of the film he was currently working on, Not for Publication (1984). Both men were dismayed at what they saw, with Glaser whispering, “This might be the worst movie ever made.” Still, they thought that the script was to blame and gave Bartel the benefit of the doubt.
Hunter took the role of gunslinger Abel Wood and wanted Shirley MacLaine to play Rosie’s sister, Marguerita Ventura. When MacLaine turned it down, Hunter approached Chita Rivera, who wanted to do the part but had another commitment that would conflict with the shooting schedule. Shelley Winters liked the script, but not the idea of a man playing her sister. Hunter and Glaser then took Lainie Kazan to lunch and pitched the part to her. To their relief, she immediately understood the spirit of the film and agreed. To complete the cast of characters, they hired Geoffrey Lewis, Henry Silva, Gina Gallego, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez and Woody Strode. Divine was reportedly very excited to have Cesar Romero recruited to play Father Garcia, but Bartel was not happy when John Waters’ regular, actress Edith Massey, was cast to play the old prostitute, Big Ed. Bartel explained to Hunter that Massey was not really an actress, but “an eccentric person who ‘behaved’ on film,” and Massey was replaced with Nedra Volz. Jim Katz’s 13-year-old stepson, future television star Noah Wyle, made his film debut in an uncredited role.
For makeup, they hired Hunter’s friend, Hollywood veteran George Masters, who had worked on leading ladies like Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth, and more recently, Dustin Hoffman, who played a man disguised as a woman in Tootsie (1982). Divine, who was seriously overweight, had trouble with the location’s high altitude, which made him fall asleep and need to use oxygen between takes. According to Katz, the narcoleptic episodes were so frequent that the makeup crew had to create a sling to hold Divine’s face up so they could work on him when he was unconscious.
Lust in the Dust began production on May 1,1984, and would last until early June. It was shot almost entirely at the J.W. Eaves Ranch, 20 miles outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. A retake of the film’s ending was later shot at Soledad Canyon, just north of Los Angeles, standing in for Santa Fe. According to the Hollywood Reporter, someone stole 22 pounds of makeup equipment from the New Mexico set, which police put down to fans wanting a souvenir.
Divine was thrilled to have his own trailer, felt “spoiled” by the attention from hair and makeup and got along well with Paul Bartel, whose work he admired. The same could not be said of Tab Hunter, who had major disagreements with Bartel. Bartel told Anne Thompson of the L.A. Weekly that the actors complained that Hunter was telling them how to play their scenes, and Bartel had to ask Hunter to stop several times. Although Bartel understood that although Hunter had created Lust in the Dust and was naturally protective of the material, the characters could never be exactly how he envisioned them. For his part, Hunter felt that Bartel did not have the “take no prisoners approach the picture needed. […] I wanted a director who could take what he had and make it better. Paul didn’t do much with the material; if anything, he toned down things that should have been balls-out outrageous. He directed like a den mother, reining in our enthusiasm when he should have been inspiring it. […] I’ll be damned if the finished picture was ‘A film by Paul Bartel.’” Despite the disagreements and disappointments, Hunter later wrote that Lust in the Dust was “probably the most pleasurable experience I ever had doing a movie.”
Lust in the Dust was in postproduction through July and August 1984 and was first screened at the Directors Guild of America for potential distributors in September. While no studio had been interested in making Lust in the Dust, there was plenty of interest in distributing it after they saw the final product. New World Pictures ended up the distributor, and the film premiered at the United States Film Festival in Park City, Utah, in February 1985 and went into national release the next month, beginning with New York City. Variety called it “a saucy, irreverent, quite funny send-up,” but the critics weren’t all applauding. Roger Ebert gave the film two stars, writing in his March 22, 1985, review for the Chicago Sun-Times, “Lust in the Dust would have worked better with Divine in the Tab Hunter role. […] Divine wouldn't have made the mistake Hunter makes of playing his Western gunslinger as a Clint Eastwood type. Divine would have chewed the scenery before shooting at it, and Lust in the Dust might have been funny all the way through, instead of just for the first 20 minutes. […] [A] funny thing happens at about the halfway point: It settles down and starts to get involved in its story. And since we don't care about the story, that's a mistake. The movie should have continued to go for the one-liners.”
Lust in the Dust was a hit with gay audiences, running for an extended period in New York and setting a box-office record at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. It was also a personal success for Divine. Hunter wrote, “The picture broke Divine completely into the mainstream; in smaller markets, some audience members weren’t even aware that She was a He. But we were caught totally off-guard when he refused to promote the film in drag. Divine flatly refused to be labeled a transvestite, insisting that he was a legitimate actor.” For Tab Hunter, Lust in the Dust was an important film for a personal reason; it was the beginning of his relationship with Allan Glaser, who he would marry in 2008. The marriage would last until Hunter’s death in 2018.
The AFI Catalog of Feature Films https://catalog.afi.com/Film/57751-LUST-INTHEDUST?sid=36eb4b94-45d1-4924-ac97-dc20496e4c18&sr=11.880858&cp=1&pos=0
Armstrong, Stephen B. 2017. Paul Bartel: The Life and Films. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Bauer, Betty E. 2012. My City Different: A Half-Century in Santa Fe. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press.
Ebert, Roger. “Lust in the Dust”. RogerEbert.com. March 22,1985. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/lust-in-the-dust-1985
Hunter, Tab, with Muller, Eddie. 2005. Tab Hunter Confidential, The Making of a Movie Star. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books.
Malone, Aubrey. 2020. Queer Cinema in America: An Encyclopedia of LGBTQ Films, Characters and Stories. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC.
Press, Skip. 2004. Complete Idiot’s Guide to Screenwriting. New York: Alpha Books.
“Tab Hunter 1931-2018: From Girls’ Eye Candy to Gay Icon.” The Express. July 14, 1986. https://www.express.co.uk/news/obituaries/988700/tab-hunter-obituary-hollywood-actor-gay-icon-eye-candy.
Warhol, Andy, with Hackett, Pat. 1989. The Andy Warhol Diaries. New York: Warner Books.