Matt Tynauer’s frank, unrated documentary about the wild times of gay and straight hustler-procurer Scotty Bowers is built around his 2012 tell-all book about the Hollywood sex underground of the late ’40s and ’50s. Scotty tells his own story in a way that compels belief. It’s a fine docu but not for all audiences, as some hardcore content is included.
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood
Kino Lorber/Greenwich Entertainment
2017 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date November 6, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Scotty Bowers, Peter Bart, Stephen Fry, Robert Hofler, William Mann.
Cinematography: Chris Dapkins
Film Editors: Bob Eisenhardt, Daniel Morfesis
Original Music: Jane Antonia Cornish
Produced by Josh Braun, Corey Reeser
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer
And now for something completely different. This well-produced and convincing documentary is about George ‘Scotty’ Bowers, a remarkable man who was ground zero for the Hollywood gay subculture of the post-war years. It’s taken directly from his memoir Full Service: My Life in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars. The engaging show is not for general audiences, but also not just for a gays. I found the film’s subject to be fascinating and mysterious. There’s a lot of history still socked away up in the Hollywood Hills, and the ability to uncover its secrets is dying out with every passing year.
I long ago read the book Hollywood Babylon, which always seemed exaggerated and mean-spirited; according to some sources author Kenneth Anger repeated some ugly gossip inaccurately, ‘printing the legend’ when hard facts were obscured. Anger’s credibility was further compromised when for years he claimed to have been a child actor in the classic movie A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood remains a far more credible item. The more-candid-than-candid Scotty Bowers is one of the strangest yet wholly believable guys ever to make a living on the Hollywood fringe, catering to the needs of its celebrities. Bowers impresses as a reliable and trustworthy fellow with devoted friends and associates. He acted as something of a pimp, yet claims not to have taken money from the hustlers he set up with clients. That he was never uncovered or charged with a crime, not even some vague morals offense, is difficult to understand. The basic question ought to be whether we believe a thing Scotty Bowers says. But instead we believe everything he says. He doesn’t talk like a con-man, but an old guy with nothing to hide, no axe to grind and a good attitude about his dodgy life of ‘adventures.’
As goes a David Byrne lyric, “We are criminals that never broke no laws.” In both theory and practice the LAPD would disagree with that. But times have changed, radically. Scotty is seen walking in West Hollywood on the night that gay marriage is legalized in California. He certainly doesn’t fit in with the new gay subculture. His life dates to a ‘pre-gay’ era when the existence of such things was only acknowledged on police blotters.
The show follows the ninety-plus Scotty as he skips between several houses he owns in the Hollywood Hills, all of which are packed to the rafters with oddball keepsakes. From what we see, he’s an extreme hoarder, a pack rat that can’t throw anything away. We see him pick up a toilet left by the side of the street because it might become useful some day. He’s selling one house and must empty its garage, which of course offers up photos from a long-gone age.
The Bowers story is a strange pilgrim’s progress. Although he had gay relations with adults when he was a child, Bowers rejects any notion that he was molested. It all came natural to him, and so did charging for sex when he wasn’t even in his teens — it was a way to help support the family during the Depression. Gay or straight, he must have been the most discreet man ever, for his family never found out about his secret life. Neither did his fellow Marines fighting with him in three major battles in the South Pacific. The shattering experience of his life was combat, not ‘illicit’ sex: his older brother died on Iwo Jima.
An admitted hustler, Scotty took a job pumping gas at a service station on Hollywood Blvd. and was almost immediately accompanying gay stars home, accepting invitations ‘to relax in the pool.’ At that time big actors and directors that were gay lived in terror of being outed and losing their lavish lifestyles due to morals clauses in their contracts: sometimes ‘everybody knew’ but officially nobody knew. Scotty established a solid reputation for honesty and discretion, and his gas station soon became hustler headquarters for gay hookups. The way he tells it, the place had revolving doors. Kept busy at all hours was a trailer parked on the gas station lot, and a motel next door accepted the overflow. Scotty posed for pictures with his fellow… associates? Clients? Conspirators?
[For movie fans this will of course align with the Simon Baker/Matt Reynolds character in 1997’s L.A. Confidential, an aspiring actor who becomes a male hustler after being outed by a predatory ‘Confidential’ styled magazine.]
At first it all sounds too outrageous to be true: is Scotty telling the complete story? One would think the Hollywood vice squad would have to be aware of the volume of activity Bowers describes. Scotty does say that no lists or ledgers of transactions were kept. Were the cops oblivious to this activity in the underground? We know that the studios had ways of protecting the privacy of their stars. Perhaps Eddie Mannix just advised the vice boys to steer clear of certain celebrity addresses.
Bowers details a number of stars and their particular sex habits, as with the director who ordered up scores of plaything boys for private pool parties, and other stars that wanted special services. When we relatively clueless ‘civilians’ read about the hidden lifestyles of closeted celebrities, it often seems as if everyone in Hollywood was homosexual, or bi-. Bowers goes pretty far into a description of one very famous couple that used his services — he provided lesbian hookers as well. According to Bowers, although he personally stopped hustling early on, the reference service continued for years without a serious interruption. The wilder activities ended with the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, at which time the mainstream became aware that there was such a thing as a gay Hollywood underground.
We see Scotty puttering at home, doing repairs far too risky for an elderly guy. His wife Lois (who just recently passed away) can’t keep him off the roof. An ex-singer, she’s heard warbling in a couple of bars. The documentarians follow Bowers to a birthday party, a book signing and a meeting at the Crossroads of the World on Sunset to discuss writing a prologue for a Taschen book. Lois didn’t know about Scotty’s life as a hustler before she met him, but she likes him too much to care. The most serious issue in their marriage would seem to be a needed intervention, should the authorities find out about his acute hoarding situation.
Neither Scotty nor the film avoid several key questions and contradictions. A reader at one of Scotty’s book signings brings up the obvious objection: does Scotty really have the right to Out all of the people he discusses in his book? His basic answer is that they’re dead so they can’t be hurt by anything; he waited years before telling his story for that reason. When asked about relatives that will not be pleased by his revelations, Scotty answers that the truth is the truth, and that there’s nothing wrong with being gay.
Scotty Bowers also believes there’s nothing wrong with prostitution, which only becomes acceptable if one believes that it was all a happy party, that nobody in his network of needy celebrities and hustling sex workers was harmed or exploited. The revelations that don’t bother him may make a big difference to some celebrity’s grandchildren. Just the same, Bowers doesn’t fit the profile of an exploiter or Hollywood leech; I’ve met my share of those.
Outside of the movie, various people that confirmed Scotty’s claims include Gore Vidal, John Schlesinger and Dominick Dunne. Among the more out-there assertions is that Scotty provided services for visiting English royalty, and secured research subjects for Alfred Kinsey.
I’m not naming any of the famous names covered in Scotty’s juicy revelations; they are easy enough to find in other reviews and the film’s own advertising. The reticence is not out of disapproval, as I’m as curious as anybody about these matters. Some of Scotty’s more outrageous stories involve female movie stars as well. When Bowers says he had a two-way here and a three-way there with some legendary name or another, we pause for a moment. I suppose he could be the biggest liar of all time, but he doesn’t in any way come off as a sociopath or fabulist. I wish my own neighbors were as bright and friendly.
The show is packed with Scotty’s old photos, given a lively graphic treatment. His hustler friends all look healthy and well groomed. Many were veterans, like Scotty; it takes a square like myself to to look at their smiles and think, ‘why, they look completely normal.’ Scotty was definitely into sex. His first wife is there in photos posing nude for him at the beach. We don’t learn too much about their relationship, but he blames himself for their breakup. He also tells the sad story of his daughter, whose promising life was cut off at an early age.
Putting the show out of bounds for many viewers are a few seconds from gay films and a couple of full frontal nude photos of males and females. Considering that Scotty sees nothing wrong with any of this, I suppose it belongs, but it puts the show in a different commercial category. Likewise Scotty talks about sex acts in a matter-of-fact way that a great many viewers will find offensive. No judgment intended — anyone that spins a DVD advertising the gay secrets of Hollywood should not be surprised to see a few in the raw. The show is consistently non-judgmental, and Scotty Bowers has no negative feelings about any of it. His clarity of self-image impresses; I can see some wary movie star immediately trusting him.
The only questions we have center on how Scotty Bowers earned his money. He says he didn’t take a cut of what his hustler pals were earning, and we meet another old guy who very convincingly says that Bowers didn’t charge for what we’d call procuring or pimping services. Did he get tipped separately? Scotty does say that he left the direct hustling racket in 1950 and became a party bartender; perhaps his continued ‘reference’ work was rewarded unofficially with bar tips? We are told of one thousand-dollar gift from a star. He was also given more than one of his houses by a hustler-actor pal who passed away a while back. Fans of early Roger Corman movies will know the name immediately. Scotty bought one of his Hollywood Hills houses back when the price tag was $22,000.00. He certainly isn’t hurting now, even if his home is a hazardous-looking hoarder’s firetrap.
Director Tyrnauer keeps things lively. He reaches into stock footage and feature clips to illustrate the image offered of Hollywood as a wide-open town. After this show we’re convinced that it was open much wider than we would ever have suspected. We’re also given a clip of Scotty’s appearance on CBS News Sunday Morning and watch the women of The View wax censorious over Scotty’s tell-all ethic. They don’t seem to mind their own dishing of dirt, throwing opinions around and playing with the reputations of others.
The actual locations of Scotty’s houses are not given, but we see him driving streets I frequent every day … maybe I’ll keep my eye out for the wild old gent at the supermarket.
Kino Lorber/Greenwich Entertainment’s DVD of Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is a polished presentation. The newly taped video looks fine, as do the clips from Hollywood movies. The photos are given a professional graphics treatment without too many show-off frills. I personally like that the fashion in docu graphics no longer stresses elaborate animation tricks, with images that fly around the screen. And of course there are the hardcore images and snapshots that I mentioned.
The music track is particularly good. New cues are mixed with a selection of pop tunes along the line of what was heard in L.A. Confidential. When Bowers goes over the story of his pals who died in combat for the Taschen book, his wife his heard singing “My Buddy.”
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 17, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson