Filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood’ is an expansion of Scotty Bowers’ 2012 tell-all memoir, “Full Service,” about his experiences as a pimp for closeted celebrities.
The film recounts Bowers’ experiences that began in the 1940s, when he worked at a Richfield gas station at 5777 Hollywood Boulevard. He arranged (and occasionally participated in) discreet hookups for men who liked men and women who liked women. Bowers got started “trying to help people out” — which is how he describes his particular work — when Walter Pidgeon invited the handsome young man to take a dip in his pool. Other offers soon followed, and Bowers eventually ‘hired” a coterie of attractive young men and women to provide services for celebrities for $20 a pop — or blow, as it were. These trysts took place in nearby hotel rooms, a trailer, and even a bathroom, where a peephole was installed so folks could pay and watch. Such was the enterprising nature of this Hollywood pimp.
One of Scotty’s former hustlers, Lee Shook, who appears in the film, was a favorite of Charles Laughton’s, and his experiences are recounted with all bravado and no shame.
Bowers insists in the film (and in the book) that he felt he was doing nothing wrong, though there are concerns raised in the film about the ethics of Bowers outing dead celebrities like Pidgeon, Spencer Tracy, and Beech Dickerson who were his clients. There are also questions about whether or not anything Bowers claims is true. Tyrnauer raises these points — perhaps to demonstrate evenhandedness — but does not pursue them too deeply. For the most part, the film operates on the idea that Bowers is the real deal. How audiences respond to questions of veracity and ethics, however, will certainly color their appreciation of the man, the myths, and the film.
“Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” is mainly a profile — some might say hagiography — of Bowers, who turned 90 when the film started shooting. He has always been open about and unashamed of sex. Bowers even recounts his experiences being interviewed by Alfred Kinsey and taking the sexologist to an orgy where he monitored Kinsey’s erection.
The Kinsey tale is one of the film’s few fascinating tidbits. Another is Bowers’ discussion of “big users” — men such as “The Seven Year Itch” star Tom Ewell and composer Cole Porter, who each asked Bowers to summon between 15 and 20 guys at once for sex. There is also some extraordinary footage from a 1965 drag show and orgy that took place at dancer and choreographer Tony Charmoli’s house. These naughty moments no doubt are thrown in from time to time to keep viewers’ attention from flagging.
Far less compelling are present day scenes of Bowers climbing up a ladder to inspect a roof, shopping for cat food, and emptying a garage storage unit. Bowers shares his life with his wife Lois, whom he’s known for 35 years. The couple live in a very messy house; Bowers is a hoarder. Lois sings in nightclubs from time to time, and there is footage of Scotty enjoying her performances. She has no intention of reading her husband’s book. These moments reveal little, though a scene of Scotty tending bar at a party — in his 90s! —leads to a story about a threesome involving Ava Gardner and Lana Turner.
How much sizzle is there in Bowers’ revelations? For many of the stars featured in the documentary, their queer sexuality has been discussed at length for years: Rock Hudson, Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, George Cukor, and Katharine Hepburn. Perhaps the only “surprise” — and it is no reveal for anyone who read the book — is Bowers’ discussion of procuring same-sex partners for the Duke of Windsor and his divorcée wife, Wallis Simpson, for whom Edward VIII gave up his throne.
Does knowing that stars had same-sex affairs — particularly in an era when that was forbidden, career-ending, and even illegal — make them more human? “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” thinks so, and Tyrnauer makes efforts to contextualize homosexuality in the industry in particular and society at large. There are brief discussions of the Production Code that led to morals clauses in Hollywood contracts that restricted sexual openness, how Confidential magazine “named names” and killed careers, and how AIDS impacted Hollywood and America.
Scotty Bowers, the film suggests, led a remarkable life. But at this late date, neither that life nor Bowers himself comes off as particularly remarkable. And that’s a significant point all on its own.
SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD | Directed by Matt Tyrnauer | Greenwich Entertainment | Opens Aug. 3 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com____