The film is full of salacious details from Hollywood’s heyday, but it is also a tender look at an elderly man whose current existence would be seen by many as difficult.
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, directed by Matt Tyrnauer. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema.
By Peg Aloi
In the opening scene of this fascinating documentary, Scotty Bowers takes a phone message from a young man named Bernardo, gets dressed in his messy bungalow full of stacks of old mail, kisses and naughtily fondles his well-dressed wife, and then heads to a big soiree for his ninetieth birthday. The party has guests of all ages, flashily dressed. One woman is overheard saying this gathering represents “the Gomorrah of Hollywood.” A cake shaped like a penis is brought out by brawny, bare-chested male dancers. Scotty Bowers, author of the 2013 autobiography Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, is celebrating his ninth decade, surrounded by love.
This ninety-seven minute biographical film by Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor) packs a wallop: part historical expose (with plenty of archival photos and footage), part gentle profile. Bowers is talkative, good-humored, and unapologetic about his early days in Hollywood, where he went to live immediately following his military service in World War II. He worked at a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard, and a chance encounter with actor Walter Pidgeon set Scotty on a course that surely changed Hollywood history. Pidgeon invited Scotty to his home for a dip in the pool, and within weeks the penniless, libertine ex-Marine became what was known then as a “gentleman hustler,” working tirelessly to help supply tricks to Hollywood’s elite. There are juicy (and I mean juicy) details about Cary Grant (and his roommate/lover Randolph Scott), head of MGM George Cukor (who had famous weekly poolside brunch parties full of handsome young men), Katharine Hepburn, Rock Hudson, Charles Laughton, Cole Porter, and more.
The film is full of salacious details from Hollywood’s heyday, but it is also a tender look at an elderly man whose current existence would be seen by many as difficult. Bowers lives with his partner Lois, a cabaret singer who still performs regularly. Their little bungalow is straight out of an episode of Hoarders; and Bowers’ other house on Kew Drive (which he bought for $22 thousand after saving up “twenty dollar bills, one trick at a time”) is where he goes to get his mail and phone messages. Both homes need repairs. He reminisces about old friends and stars as he goes through his piles of belongings, a seemingly endless task, and the filmmaker (in an old school off-camera approach) asks him questions, like what Charles Laughton liked to do sexually. “Suck cock,” Bowers says off-handedly, a phrase he repeats at least two dozen times in his easy way, describing the exploits of former customers with matter-of-fact candor. Laughton once gave him $1000 in cash when Bowers drove him to the airport, “just to be nice.” Bowers did many odd jobs, (he still bartends for houseparties at age 90), and his work as a caretaker resulted in his inheriting several Hollywood homes.
Bowers doesn’t seem to be hurting for money (though, of course, Los Angeles is crazy expensive these days), so one question that viewers may find themselves pondering is, why does he live in such disarray? Why does he still climb up ladders (with difficulty) to do repairs when he could hire someone? The answer seems to lie in the unbridled energy that defined Bowers’ younger years; he says he worked all day and all night sometimes, rarely sleeping in his own home. He also distracts himself from becoming organized by feeding stray cats and wildlife. He’s an eccentric, but a very down to earth one, discussing intimate sexual details of peoples’ lives as casually as most of us discuss what we ate for breakfast.
Biographers of Rock Hudson and Katharine Hepburn are featured in the film; they praise Bowers’ livelihood, explaining that he provided a vital service for celebrities at a time when homosexuality could result in arrest (by vice cops who could become violent) or institutionalization, not to mention the destruction of a career. They describe the “myth of Hollywood” which was concocted in the wake of the Production Codes of the’30s along with the “morals” clauses that began to dominate the big studios’ contracts. Movie magazine covers from the ’50s show actors who were known to be gay posing in romantic heterosexual embraces with co-stars. As late as 1967, CBS News put an “expert” on display who stated that homosexuality was a disease. Bowers says he tried hard to keep clients’ names secret, and turned down offers of money from Confidential magazine, which sought to out gay celebrities.
Scotty Bowers’ open-minded, freewheeling attitudes about sex are refreshing, but eventually the filmmaker questions him about shocking things that happened in his youth that “many people would consider child abuse.” Bowers brushes this off and insists he was never abused; he only expressed moments of sadness regarding the loss of family members. Bowers’ reputation for being a sort of cultural resource about sexual habits is highlighted by his story about working with Dr. Kinsey: he proudly says he was one of the only people who answered “yes” to every question in Kinsey’s infamous survey.
Bowers collaborated with a publisher from Taschen on a book called My Buddy, about male friendships during WWII, complete with nude photographs. He talks about his brother, a fellow Marine who lost his life at Iwo Jima; for the first time in the film, deep sorrow creases Bowers’ cheerful face. The topic shifts to AIDS, and the many people he knew who died. Rock Hudson is often talked about in the film: the photos of his handsome face ravaged by illness are still powerful.
To Scotty Bowers, the stars of Hollywood were friends, tricks, human beings with secrets, appetites, and a need for discreet release. The film doesn’t mention if any of Bowers revelations have raised issues, legal or otherwise; reason would dictate that there must have been some. Instead, the filmmaker adds enriching context and historical depth to the titillating details of this man’s extraordinary life. Bowers’ obvious pride in having provided something so useful and pleasurable to so many legendary people is writ large on his wrinkled face. He faces the mundane challenges of aging and infirmity with the same infectious joy he gave to his youthful days as an enterprising agent of procurement to the stars. His optimism and zest for life seem unshakeable.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.