I’ll fully admit, I’m not someone who dabbles even a little bit in Hollywood gossip. If I hear two celebrities are dating, I think “Good for them,” and move on. If I hear someone has come out of the closet, I’ll say “I hope they’re happy,” and probably never think about it again.
So when I sat down to watch the documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, I was a bit leery of the subject matter.
But what the film reveals—as did Scotty Bowers’ revealing 2012 memoir, Full Service—is that Hollywood in the 1940s-50s was a parallel universe, existing right behind the one most of the world was familiar with. And Bowers serviced that world by simply making introductions and ensuring every one of his clients—gay and straight—was having their greatest desires met.
Some called him a pimp, and that isn’t far from the truth. But really, Scotty Bowers was a facilitator. He served in the Marines during World War II and saw many a lengthy, painful campaign on the battlefield. Upon returning home, he became friends and confidantes to a host of rich and famous types, as well as young, mostly gay men returning home from the service and looking to earn a little money. For $20 per introduction, Scotty set up shop in a gas station near the movie studios where he’d introduce handsome young men to the likes of Cary Grant, Walter Pidgeon, George Cukor, Rock Hudson, Cole Porter, Spencer Tracy, Charles Laughton, Montgomery Clift, and the list goes on. He also arranged straight or bi-sexual encounters (and took part in many as well, as he happily recounts a threesome with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner) for men and women. The detailed description of the arrangement that Tracy and Katherine Hepburn had is especially fascinating to hear.
But all of these activities had to be kept from the public eye and the prying pens of gossip magazines like Confidential, which frequently ran stories about gay or promiscuous celebrities that would ruin careers in an instant. Scotty avoided the usual gay bars and other more public meeting spots, simply going to the homes of the celebrities, where things could happen in private. Be warned: the language in the film can get pretty graphic; apparently Bowers doesn’t believe in euphemisms for sexual practices.
Using a nicely constructed combination of vintage footage and photos, along with new interviews with Bowers, we begin to piece together a life that included a childhood fondling by a neighbor (which he said he encouraged), sleeping with teachers as a teen (again, all with his consent), and other actions that are considered child abuse by current standards. They probably warped his sense of sexual conduct to the point where he believed any sexual encounter is a good thing. His book named names (and lots of them), and while some readers criticized him for outing various actors and filmmakers, most of those named in his book (those who are still alive) seem fine with his revelations.
Actor Stephen Fry has some of the most interesting perspectives on Bowers’ services and the importance he played in making gay men and women in Hollywood able to live as their true selves for at least part of the time, which was better than not at all. There’s a very sweet moment in the movie where Bowers watches as the Supreme Court’s announcement about legalizing gay marriage is read. He cries genuine tears as he thinks about how much easier life would have been for so many of his friends if this had been the reality 60-70 years earlier.
Director Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor) spends a great deal of time with Scotty and his current wife in their various properties and storage units filled with history and a great deal of clutter, and it becomes clear at a certain point in the film that Bowers is also a hoarder to the point where his wife is genuinely concerned with their well being. But Bowers treats his possessions like close friends, and he still knows how to pull himself together to attend a book signing or fancy social gathering (including a birthday party for him, complete with a penis-shaped cake). The film sheds light on shadowed behavior in an era of morals clauses in studio contracts and an underlying fear that existed in huge pockets of the entertainment industry. Beyond the great sex stories, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is an often-moving time capsule of a period that valued both excess and secrets.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.