Talk to Scotty Bowers, and he’ll tell you that he banged and/or blew every major star of Hollywood’s Golden Age. (The 95-year-old is likely to use a more salty, colorful phrase that rhymes.) Bette Davis? Yup, he slept with her. Walter Pidgeon? That character actor used the old “come take a dip in my mansion’s pool” line on him; so, for that matter, did director George Cukor. Spencer Tracy? They used to hook up when Spence was drunk, so Bowers supplied Kate Hepburn with a stable of young, nubile ladies. Cary Grant? He set him up with a new-in-town Rock Hudson and had a threesome with the actor and his longtime “roommate” Randolph Scott. Speaking of threesomes: That Confidential magazine news item about Lana Turner and Ava Gardner both getting it on with some bartender at Sinatra’s swank Palm Springs pad? Guess who the third party was. And don’t get him started on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor …
Part TCM-After-Dark special and part sordid tell-all focused on who’s doing all the telling, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood delivers teaspoon-sized dollops of both namechecked subjects; it’s the WikiDocumentary version of Hollywood Babylon, headlined by the man scratching the Dream Factory’s itchy, seamy underbelly. A farm boy from Illinois who joined the Marines, fought in WWII and headed west, Bowers got a gig working at a gas station at 5777 Hollywood Boulevard — “the fucking end of the rainbow for a lot of people,” per his description. Soon, after setting up $20 blow jobs for industry folks on the sly, he realized he’d stumbled on to a business opportunity. There was a restroom with a peephole in the back for quickie-seekers and the voyeurs who loved them, plus a trailer on the lot if people needed some privacy; he had a deal with the motel across the street should his customers’ want slightly more discreet dalliances. And as Bowers detailed in his 2012 memoir Full Service (yuk yuk yuk!), his client list was a who’s-who of Tinseltown movers, shakers, movie stars, B-list bit players, playwrights, directors, studio-system royalty and actual visiting royalty. People called him a “pimp to the stars.” Bowers himself preferred the term “gentleman hustler.”
And depending on who you ask, this Tinseltown transplant was once a necessary part of the Golden Age ecosphere for closeted celebrities stifled by strict spin doctors or is just a postmortem killjoy puncturing the “perfect” mythology held dear by old-movie lovers. Documentarian Matt Tyrnaeur gives lip service to both, showing Bowers at book signings where he’s accused by what-about-the-fans? handwringers of betraying his A-list buddies’ trust. Mostly, though, he lets talking-head historians and figures like ex-Variety editor Peter Bart repeat the idea that Bowers was giving stars “a real life” by letting them have sex with whomever they want. It’s an intriguing notion, especially when the movie occasionally transposes it over the peril of being gay in mid-20th Century America, showbiz fixtures or not — the vintage footage of men being rousted in a bar raid and hiding their faces still feels invasive, humiliating, painful to watch. The statement, however, is usually just trotted out ad nauseam then hardly interrogated at all. That would take time away from Bowers dropping names and juicy tidbits about the sexual proclivities of the rich and famous as jaunty tunes play over the soundtrack. It’s less a doc then endless marquee-name dish, served red-hot.
That’s the salacious, if superficial “secret history of Hollywood part”; the “Scotty” part is where things really get frustrating. When the movie is not breathlessly listening to Bowers list his conquests and regular customers, it’s following him to fellow silver-fox gatherings, a Taschen editor’s office, tours of his cluttered residences and visits with old rentboy pals. We meet his former running partners and his second wife, a singer who he met at a piano bar; we hear about his late lover, a hunky actor who left him a house, and how Scotty played a key part in Alfred Kinsey’s human-sexuality study. And we bear witness to Bowers cheerfully going on about tricking as a kid, some questionable shenanigans with an adult neighbor and being passed around by priests.
How much of this is tall-tale talk can’t be sussed out, and when Tyrnaeur tries to suggest that this was, in fact, abuse, Scotty simply smiles and says, “No fucking way, baby, it was all fun!” He’s not having any sort of psychological baggage attached to him, letting any sense of possible motivations or post-traumatic stress wash right off him. Everyone was up for it, no one was ever being exploited, it’s all business as usual (the not-so-secret history of Hollywood is, of course, filled to the brim with tales of sexual bartering and power inequities and horror stories, but not here, apparently). Either Bowers refuses to think of himself as any sort of victim (fair enough) or simply wants to print the hedonistic legend and nothing but. Sensing a dead-end, the filmmaker simply moves on and asks who else he slept with. Cue montages of magazine covers set to “Accentuate the Positive.” That’s the movie’s theme in a nutshell — everything else gets the cutting-floor treatment.
A sexual-revolution pioneer, a “gay renegade” who was also “pre-gay,” a cultural saboteur, a sad old man in denial — we get a lot of opaque Scottys, all semi-attached to an alternate “history” that feels maddeningly incomplete and barely surface-scratched. It needs a Mark Rappaport (Rock Hudson Home Movies), someone who can dig into the material and, if not push his subject into uncomfortable spaces, use that portraiture as a starting point to make deeper connections. What you get instead is the same old Hooray-for-Hollywood rah-rah in a slightly different key. The subject(s) deserve more. You can wait for the You Must Remember This episode.