We are constantly rewriting our collective history, but few of us can do it with as much devilish glee as Scotty Bowers. Now 95, the onetime Hollywood hustler spent decades during Tinseltown’s golden era providing sexual services to the biggest names in town, including Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, George Cukor and Rex Harrison. He’d rent out a trailer in the back of a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard for $20 per session and also make house calls, sometimes matching the celebrity with his tricks, often jumping into bed with them himself. And Scotty never spilled the beans on any of his clients, until they’d almost all died off and he felt free to publish his salacious tell-all memoir in 2012, forever altering our relationship to the stars.
Well, Scotty’s got nothing to lose anymore, and director Matt Tyrnauer knows it, which must by why now is the time for Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. The documentary sets fire to the red curtain of modesty we’ve draped around our celluloid idols for so long. Some will be skeptical of such hard-to-prove claims about long-dead celebrities, which can have a JFK-conspiracy-theory tint to them, although for what it’s worth, a lot of folks (including Gore Vidal) have vouched for their accuracy. But today, the hardest part of Scotty’s story to swallow might be that he was somehow able to practice decades of discretion. You watch him on camera, going off on wild tales about setting Hepburn up with 150 women, and you can’t believe this guy was capable of keeping all his clients’ needs in his headâ€”never writing down a wordâ€”for so long. He just enjoys the gossip too much. Picture him tossing off this nugget about Grant and his “roommate” Randolph Scott in as casual a tone as you can imagine: “I’ve been with them individually, and both of them, what you’d call a three-way, and I also brought another buddy so there were four of us, you know, two and two.”
Does Scotty still owe his clients the sealed-lips treatment? Maybe not, if it’s for the greater good. The only reason we remember Hollywood’s Golden Age as squeaky-clean is because of the moral code the studios created in the 1930s that forbade any public activity likely to offend conservative Christian sensibilities. This was when most of the country still thought of homosexuality as a mental disorder. Prevented from openly expressing their true natures, the era’s biggest celebrities needed a private outlet for their innermost desires, and that was where Scotty came in â€” but today we may have something to gain from an frank conversation about sexuality, fame and the past. Not for nothing did pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, whose work helped normalize the idea of a sexuality spectrum in the public eye, turn to Scotty when he needed to conduct some, uh, fieldwork.
Tyrnauer threads together all these different strings of social commentary very well, and employs clever touches that go beyond his film historian talking heads, like cutting movie clips and big-band jazz music together with narration that undercuts such goody-goody trappings. But the director proves less successful at probing the true personhood of a figure as unique as Scotty. Past tragedies are mentioned only briefly â€” the World War II veteran lost his brother and friends on the battlefield, and his daughter died at 23 after a botched underground abortion. Most of the time such darkness barely registers with Scotty, who looks a bit like an R. Crumb cartoon with his sprightly blue eyes, rooms chock-full of garbage and tendency to drop lewd nuggets at a moment’s notice. Even the story of how he got one of his houses comes out of a Hollywood dreamland, resting as it does on an unresolved lifelong feud with 92-year-old schlock producer Roger Corman.
We only truly get a feel for Scotty’s depth of character when we meet some of his former tricks, strapping gay men who were eager for the work and grateful for the kindness of their protector. Contrast this level of openness about the trade with Scotty’s relationship with his current wife, a socially conservative cabaret singer who had no clue about his past life as pimp-for-the-stars until after they were married and, overall, prefers not to discuss such things. It’s in wrinkles like these when the film transcends mere National Enquirer fodder and becomes something richer, something that can wrestle with the dualities of our public and private selves. Scotty doesn’t need the secret gas station anymore, and hopefully, neither do we â€” unless, you know, you’re into that.