movie review

See Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood for More Than Just the Dirt (of Which There Is Plenty)

The dirt is likely what you come for in Matt Tyrnauer’s Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, a documentary profile of the “pimp to the stars” Scotty Bowers. But what you get is deeper, sadder, and more mysterious. The pimp to the stars (alternately, “Hollywood’s gentleman hustler”) says he didn’t charge for connecting actors and actresses with young men or women — or sleeping with them himself — beginning in 1951 in a trailer behind his Hollywood Boulevard gas station. (Number 5777, where there’s now a fire station.) He just wanted to make people happy.

Chief among those he made happy — according to Bowers’s best-selling memoir, Full Service — were male celebrities with everything to lose if the world knew their true orientation. But there were female celebrities, too. Men with men. Women with women. Even men with women and women with men. They’re all dead now and so will Bowers be, soon. The film introduces him on the occasion of his 90th birthday party at Chateau Marmont and leaves him on dialysis. He’s telling his story because they’re gone and also because sex, he believes, should be available and guilt-free. We have the choice of taking him at his word, but Tyrnauer doesn’t settle quite so easily.

The movie’s structure is loose. Now Bowers trudges through his house overlooking downtown Los Angeles with its semi-permanent patina of fog, somehow not knocking over piles and piles of bric-a-brac he has begun to accumulate in his old age. Now he’s opening one of his outdoor storage lockers (more piles) to unearth photos he hasn’t looked at in decades.

The big names come slowly, starting with ones we know. Charles Laughton, who “just liked sucking cock.” Rock Hudson, whom Bowers said he fixed up at a very young age with Cary Grant. Tom Ewell (insatiable). Cole Porter, who once sucked 15 guys off, one after the other. J. Edgar Hoover, in drag. Spencer Tracy is a surprise to some of us, but Bowers says Tracy fervently didn’t want to be gay, and could live more easily with the fake scandal of cheating with Katharine Hepburn — with whom, Bowers says, he never slept. (The late Liz Smith points out that Hepburn slept with many women.) A three-way with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner? The duke and duchess of Windsor? Yup. When they’d come to Beverly Hills, Bowers would have a guy for him and a girl for her. Footage of them in their public personas looks different — i.e, phony as hell — when you know the backstory.

Ah, but are we sure that the backstory is true? Witness after witness — from those tricks still alive to Variety’s gray eminence Peter Bart — say yes. Scotty, they say, is as honest as the day (and his cock) is long, and nothing in Tyrnauer’s film suggests that we’re watching a world-class fabulist. Instead, Tyrnauer’s talking heads (among them Stephen Fry) remind us of all the reasons that actors couldn’t publicly acknowledge their true sexual appetites in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and beyond. “Moral turpitude” could not just end your career. It could get you thrown in prison. That’s why Hudson had a quickie, damage-control marriage to his manager’s (gay) secretary. That’s why Spence and Kate would drop so many hints about their illicit romance — a fake scandal to conceal the real one. No one knew anything. Imagine a time when Liberace could go on TV announcing a libel suit against a magazine for suggesting he was gay and keeping a straight face.

Ever hungry for more dirt, I found the first half of Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood meandering: book signings, visits to storage lockers, uneasy exchanges between Bowers and his second wife — a lounge singer — who didn’t know his history when she took up with him and might not have if she had. But then I began to appreciate the true weirdness of this man, still trim (if not hard) under a snarl of hair, busy in his final years accumulating anything and everything and hazily taking stock.

Slowly, Tyrnauer spills the beans about Bowers. At age 11, Bowers was sexually abused by an adult neighbor. Except that Bowers vigorously refuses to call it abuse. “He would jack me off … I went along with everything and I never told anybody. Sucking cock could ruin your life.” Does Bowers think, Tyrnauer asks, that the experience damaged him? “Bullshit.” Bowers is proud to tell the story of fixing up a gay female teacher with a girl when he was but 11 years old. People should be with who they want to be! When a priest took a shine to him, he made some real money off the exchange. Then he set up “25 or 30” of the priest’s friends.

Then came the war. Bowers lost a brother in ’45 and survived Iwo Jima. Read up on Iwo Jima and try to imagine someone who’d been through that being overly bothered by men with men in a trailer or cheap motel room. Some men went home from the war and built picket fences around their houses and gave us the ’50s that we’re always being told was the “real” America. Others came back with few illusions. The first tricks Bowers recruited were fellow marines — hard bodies.

Bowers was married to a girl named Betty for more than 30 years but can’t remember spending more than a few nights with her or taking her out to dinner on her birthday. Once he did, he recalls. That’s the one thing he feels bad about — Betty. Her and the beautiful daughter they had, who bled to death at 23 after an illegal abortion.

The power of Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is cumulative. After a while, those piles in Scotty’s house look like more than an anxiety disorder. They look like the determined attempt of a man who made everyone happy to keep the emptiness at bay. You don’t have to be a moralist to see the tragedy of Scotty Bowers’s life. You only have to have an eye for things that don’t fit comfortably. Tyrnauer has that, as well as the compassion not to probe too deeply. What’s onscreen is enough to make you conclude that you can’t make people truly happy without fixing the world.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood Is More Than Dirt