By Liam Lacey
Scotty Bowers, the lively subject of Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is a plain-spoken, unrepentant now 95-year-old scamp who - while working at a Hollywood Blvd. gas station - set up sex partners of both sexes for the elite in post-War Hollywood.
There are so many high-profile names here – Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, George Cukor, Charles Laughton, Bette Davis - that a viewer can easily come away with the impression that everyone in Hollywood led a double life, or at least was in on the secret.
The movie was inspired by Bowers’ 2012 book, Full Service. Director Matt Tyrnauer tracks Bowers around as he drives to parties and book signings, and is at home with his wife Lois (who refuses to read his salacious memoir). We also see him as he visits the various bungalows he seems to have accumulated in his years as a hustler. One might use the word “pimp” to describe his living, though friends, journalists and talking heads (Stephen Fry is the most famous) reject the label: Scotty was just about making people happy.
Moments of Scotty are popcorn-spitting funny, thanks to Bowers’ eagerness to dish about anyone: The Duke and Duchess of Windsor? (Yes, and yes). Cole Porter? (In multiples). J. Edgar Hoover? (Yes, and in a dress). Dr. Alfred Kinsey? No, Dr. Kinsey just wanted to study him. “He’d heard about me before we met,” explains Bowers.
As juicy a subject as Scotty Bower is, Tyrnauer’s film, several years in the making, tends to meander. And the director’s dogged attempts to figure out what makes Bower tick begin to test both his subjects' and the audience’s patience.
We hear that an adult neighbor molested him when Bowers was a child, but he insists it was consensual. There’s some evidence that he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder as a marine in WWII, but, he says he had already been selling sex to a ring of priests in Chicago before he joined up. Is his compulsive hoarding an attempt to hold onto the past, or just something that aged people sometimes do? The probing eventually makes Bowers sad, as when he talks of his brother, who was killed in combat or his daughter, who died at 23 from consequences of an illegal abortion (a victim of sexual hypocrisy of the era).
More successful is Tyranauer’s clever repurposing of classic Hollywood film clips in ways that suggest the “secret history of Hollywood” was there in plain sight all along: Most film fans know the scene in Bringing Up Baby where Cary Grant, explaining why he’s dressed in Katharine Hepburn’s feather-trimmed robe, says “Because I just went GAY all of a sudden.” But there’s also the scene from My Favorite Wife, with Cary Grant ogling Randolph Scott’s swim-suit clad body. Grant and Scott, who were lovers, lived together as “roommates.” (Sometimes Scotty joined them in a threesome).
In one case, the example is unexpectedly poignant: We see Walter Pidgeon and Charles Laughton, two of Bowers’ closeted clients, as senators whispering to each other in Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent, a 1962 drama about a politician who is blackmailed for a homosexual affair.
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. Directed by Matt Tyrnauer. Based on the book “Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars” by Scotty Bowers with Lionel Friedberg. With Scotty Bowers, Lois Bowers, Peter Bart and Stephen Fry. Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood can be seen at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema until Wednesday, Aug. 8.