Movie studios kept a close watch on their actors’ private lives in the 1940s to the 1970s. It was important at that time for stars to have a wholesome image. That wholesomeness meant gay actors and actresses had to stay in the closest. Even heterosexual thespians had to project a squeaky-clean image, even if it was contrary to their real, off-screen lives.
Scott Tyrnauer’s Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood explores the wild life of Scotty Bowers, a 95-year-old author and former Hollywood pimp to the stars.(Tyrnauer’s previous documentaries include Valentino: The Last Emperor and Studio 54). Bowers wrote a book based on his exploits, Full Service, in 2012, long after most of the Hollywood stars mentioned had passed away. Randolph Scott, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn are mentioned in Bowers’ book and this documentary.
Director Tyrnauer follows Bowers around on his daily rounds to give viewers a real-time look at his subject’s life. Bowers drives around Hollywood, talking about his sexual exploits and doing everyday stuff, like cleaning out a storage unit and trying to decide whether to pick up a low-flush toilet left on the side of the road. He walks through the clutter at a second, mostly unused house, as he relates the tragic story of his daughter’s life. When Bowers talks about his childhood experiences in Illinois, he brushes off the disturbing things that happened to him. He doesn’t feel damaged or even angry by the sexual abuse he experienced as a child.
Throughout the interviews, Bowers is straightforward and cheery. He ends many of his sentences with “baby,” a throwback to the beatnick/hippie vernacular of his heyday. Even if you don’t believe his stories, you wind somewhat intrigued by the guy. We all should be so happy when we’re in our mid 90s!
His second house and the one he resides in with his wife of 35 years, Lois, could double as sets from the TV show Hoarders. His sweet relationship with Lois, a cabaret singer, is a bit of normalcy in a life that is awful quirky for a nonagenarian. (Bowers currently works as a bartender at show-biz parties.)
With interviews, old magazine articles, photos, film, and memorabilia from Bowers’ collection, the director helps paint a portrait of a real-life minor character from what’s left of mid-20th century Hollywood. (Angelyne of billboard infamy is another leftover from the time.)
Bowers says a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard served as a front for the alleged trysts he arranged for stars. A trailer in the back of the station served as a makeshift bordello. Bowers’ introduction to life as a gay hustler started with an accidental tryst with actor Walter Pidgeon. Bowers also had liaisons with female stars. He says he had a liaison with Ava Garner and Lana Turner. That may sound outrageous, but an article from a movie magazine of the time shows it was definitely a hot rumor around town. Hollywood stars weren’t the only famous folks Bowers encountered. He also claims to have provided the Duke and Duchess of Windsor hooked up with clandestine lovers.
Bowers’s claims seem to be verified when visits a friend of his from the time who participated in similar scenarios. Various clips and photos from underground gay parties of the time show how difficult it was for gay people to be themselves til the dawn of the 21st century. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Bowers lived to see the legalization of gay marriage.
Comedian Stephen Fry, one of the film’s interviewees, comments that Bowers’s revelations help humanize the old-school Hollywood stars, who were no more than cardboard cut-outs/model citizens once they stepped off the silver screen. Up until the last decade or so of the 20th Century, gay actors ran the risk of losing their careers if the public found out about their true lifestyles.
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood sheds a light on what it was really like for gay and bisexual actors in Hollywood’s Golden era. While it may be difficult to believe all of Bowers’ tales, the documentary gives us an interesting glimpse of Hollywood’s gay “underground” during the 1940s and '50s.