You know you're in for a tantalizing story when it begins, "I was sitting in Gore Vidal's living room."
That's how filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer began explaining what led him to make Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, his feature documentary about Scotty Bowers, the now-95-year-old who has claimed to have set up hundreds — if not thousands — of hush-hush same-sex sexual liaisons for some of the biggest names in Hollywood's golden age, including Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Cole Porter, and Rock Hudson. The film alternates between shadowing Bowers during the launch of his 2012 tell-all memoir Full Service and chronicling his one-of-a-kind journey from some of the harshest battlefields of World War II to the Los Angeles gas station that he single-handedly transformed into a clandestine brothel for Hollywood's burgeoning tribe of closeted gay and bisexual professionals.
"A lot of people in Los Angeles in that period who wanted to have sex lives that were authentic were simply unable to have them without someone they could trust to help facilitate that aspect of their sexuality," said Tyrnauer. "It turns out that Scotty was a key person in the town for that."
Bowers had spent decades as one of the entertainment industry's best-kept secrets — before the release of his memoir. But that didn't keep Tyrnauer — a journalist for Vanity Fair who also made the 2008 documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor — from catching whispers about him.
It all started with a profile Tyrnauer wrote on the closeted gay TV star and producer Merv Griffin. Rather than mention Bowers by name, Tyrnauer said Griffin told him, "'There's a gas station where you used to go to get in trouble' — which is exactly what someone of that era would've said." Tyrnauer continued to hear about this enigmatic gas station on Hollywood Boulevard from others, and he tucked it away in his brain as a good story to pursue someday.
Meanwhile, he had started a long and rewarding professional relationship with Vidal, the famed literary iconoclast whose 1948 novel The City and the Pillar was a landmark depiction of a gay man's coming of age — and included lengthy passages about the lives of gay men in Hollywood in the 1940s.
Which brings us back to the fateful day Tyrnauer was sitting in Vidal's living room. "Vidal said, apropos of nothing, 'I want you to find Scotty for me,'" Tyrnauer recalled. "And I was like, 'Who's Scotty?' He said, 'Scotty was my pimp! He had a gas station.'" A lightbulb went off. Tyrnauer pushed further, learning that not only was this "Scotty" the man behind the famed gas station Tyrnauer had heard so much about, but he was still alive, living in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of LA. Vidal had simply misplaced Bowers' number.
Tyrnauer found it, and the next time he visited Vidal, Bowers was there, talking with Vidal about the manuscript that would become his memoir.
"[He was] much more spry and genial and magical than I ever could have expected," Tyrnauer said.
Right then, Tyrnauer asked Bowers if he would be interested in allowing Tyrnauer to follow him for a documentary.
The result, which opens in limited release today, is a fascinating and, at times, distressing cinematic portrait of the intersection of sex and Hollywood, and how even our concept of what makes up "Hollywood" is terribly skewed. Here's everything you need to know about it.
The movie is full of "immortal" Hollywood names — but many, many others never made it into the film.
Bowers' memoir rocketed to fame, and infamy, largely due to the enormous stars he posthumously outed, and Tyrnauer knew he had to include them in his film. "There were certain names that are just immortal," he said. "Obviously: Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Cary Grant." Bowers contends that Hepburn and Tracy were both gay, and their carefully curated public relationship was just that — a show designed to hide their same-sex affairs. And he also confirmed the long-standing rumor that Grant's roommate, fellow actor Randolph Scott, was really his live-in lover hiding in plain sight.
The film also takes time tracing how Bowers ingratiated himself with some of the biggest gay power brokers in Hollywood at the time, first among them the director George Cukor (My Fair Lady, The Philadelphia Story, A Star Is Born), in order to expand his reach as both the town's preeminent male sex worker and its sexual procurer. And Scotty drops several other massive names — like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, aka Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson — and head-turning anecdotes along with them: Bowers claims the duke "sucked me off like a pro."
Tyrnauer understood the innate human interest in these kinds of stories, but he also was acutely aware that audiences could only handle so much scandal. "To hear someone recounting sex-capades for too long on screen — it just loses its interest value after a while," he said. "We just didn't want to overwhelm people with too much gossip."
He estimated that there are roughly 300 people that Bowers told him about who didn't make the film. "Some of them [are] people no one have ever heard of, some of them are minor celebrities, some of them were major stars in their time who have been forgotten, and some of them were immortal names that didn't even make it into the movie for various reasons," he said. "It was really a process of elimination, based on what we had time for and whether the anecdote was something that was going to propel the story forward."
Tyrnauer is especially sad actor Tyrone Power didn't make the cut. In the 1930s and ’40s, Power was one of the country's biggest movie stars, but he died at just 44 from a heart attack, and his specialty of swashbuckling adventure films like 1940's The Mark of Zorro and 1950's The Black Rose haven't aged well. Tyrnauer was surprised to learn that Power was among Bowers' clients, but when he tested the film with a section about the actor, he learned that, as he put it with a sigh, "nobody cares about Tyrone Power anymore."
Tyrnauer was able to corroborate many of Bowers' stories in unexpected ways.
Bowers' memoir Full Service caused a firestorm of criticism when it debuted. Some of it came from Bowers' decision to out people after they'd died, but there was also a great deal of skepticism about whether Bowers' most outrageous claims were even true at all. The book did not offer up much by way of corroboration, but Tyrnauer was determined to use his training as a journalist to back up Bowers' claims.
Sometimes, he got lucky. While filming interviews in a New York City hotel, Tyrnauer had lunch with the late gossip maven Liz Smith, one of Hepburn's closest friends. He'd considered asking Smith about Hepburn’s sexuality, but he wasn't at all sure Smith would be interested in talking with him. "So I'm at lunch with her, and I said, 'Hey, by the way, if I asked you on camera about Katharine Hepburn, would you talk about her being a lesbian?'" Tyrnauer said. "She's like, 'Oh sure, why not?' And we went up and did it." To Tyrnauer's knowledge, it's the only time Smith confirmed on camera that Hepburn had lesbian relationships.
Other times, Tyrnauer had to find his confirmation more circuitously. He came upon references to Bowers in arcane books about Hollywood from the 1970s, or contemporaneous accounts that would match specific details from a story Bowers had told him. In one instance, Tyrnauer recalled a conversation he had with the late gay actor Jack Larson, best known for playing Jimmy Olsen in the black-and-white 1950s Superman TV series. Tyrnauer had mentioned that one of his favorite films was the Bette Davis melodrama Now, Voyager, and Larson relayed to Tyrnauer that its director, Irving Rapper, had once picked him up while hitchhiking, taken him home, and jumped him. The next day, Tyrnauer saw Bowers and asked him if he knew Rapper. "And he said, 'Oh my god, Irving Rapper? I haven't heard that name for years. I used to trick him all the time. He used to have this thing where I had to pretend I was a hitchhiker,'" Tyrnauer said with a laugh.
The film upends common preconceptions about male sex workers.
What makes Scotty the film especially fascinating is how much Bowers' story confounds whatever bias one might have about the golden age of Hollywood. If you'd believed the heteronormative mythmaking that Hollywood's biggest stars were paragons of clean living and straight sex, welp, it turns out Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy weren't exactly made for each other. Conversely, if you thought that Hollywood was a cold, cynical town teeming with the kind of corrosive transactional sex that made quick-and-dirty work of the young and beautiful dreamers pouring into LA by the busload, it turns out that isn't quite right, either.
"Scotty himself clearly doesn't have any problem with all the sexual experiences he's had," Tyrnauer said. "But it wasn't just Scotty." Over the course of making the film, Tyrnauer said Bowers connected him with five other men whom Bowers had helped find work getting paid for sex (two of which ended up in the finished film). Many of those men were fellow WWII veterans like Bowers who had landed in LA after the war and needed the cash, but if they bore any resentment about their past sex work, Tyrnauer never saw it.
"It was clear that this was a golden era for them," Tyrnauer said. The conventional presumptions about sex work as a sinister, self-destructive profession just didn’t match with what Tyrnauer was seeing in the men who’d worked alongside Bowers. "No one had anything negative to say. They all had the most positive things to say about Scotty."
He paused, as if deciding what to say next. "This is not the PC term to say, but these were the happy hookers," he said while laughing. "It seemed to be very cool with everybody who I talked to. A lot of people are dead. I didn't talk to everybody. But the survey sample that I saw, this seemed to be highly consensual. And no one seemed to have a problem, whether they were gay, straight, or otherwise, with what Scotty was asking."
Bowers' "origin story" as a sex worker, however, is deeply unsettling — except to Bowers.
Although Scotty focuses extensively on his prurient past, the film also spends a great deal of time following Bowers through his active present, much of which is spent with his wife, Lois, in their home. Or, well, part of their home. It turns out that Bowers is a pretty aggressive hoarder — it's so bad that several rooms in his home are barely accessible at all.
"I hadn't seen it until the day we shot there for the first time," Tyrnauer said. "I had no idea he was a hoarder. No one had told me — certainly Scotty didn't." Bowers evinces no shame about the state of his home, let alone the multiple, jam-packed storage facilities he maintains throughout LA. In fact, shame doesn't seem to be an emotion Bowers has any use for at all.
There was no more acute example of Bowers’ active disinterest in feeling shame about his life than the section of the film dealing with Bowers' young childhood. Bowers says that before he hit puberty, his neighbor would perform sex acts on him, and that he would “trick” multiple priests in the area, all unbeknownst to anyone else in his family. Some of this was covered in Bowers' memoir, but when he interviewed Bowers for his film, Tyrnauer was still not prepared for the full breadth of Bowers' sexual experience before he'd turned 14.
"The extent to which he had such a busy ‘sex life’ as a child was shocking to me," he said. "I had no idea. It was hard for me to conceive of it."
In Scotty, you can hear Tyrnauer tell Bowers that many would see his experiences as abuse, but Bowers pushes back immediately and forcefully, asserting that he was in control of those experiences, and does not regard himself as anything close to a victim. "He sees it as part of his origin story as a sexual being: 'Hell no, this is what I wanted. It was the way I wanted it,'" said Tyrnauer.
Between Bowers' sexual experiences as a child, and his experience in some of the most horrific battles of WWII — he was at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima — it would be tempting to armchair diagnose Bowers, to ascribe the many traumas he's weathered to his ability as an adult to freely navigate the sexual boundaries so many others found so rigid. But Tyrnauer wanted to leave that kind of appraisal to his audience.
"When I sign up to make a movie about someone, I try not to be judgmental in that way. I need to express onscreen the nature of their character and their being, and this is a part of it," he said. "I leave it to the audience to conclude how he has coped with all these traumas, and what it has led to in his life."
Tyrnauer is clear that he still thinks Bowers' experiences as a child make him "what we would today categorize as a survivor of sexual abuse." But he also points out that it is far from the only trauma in Bowers' life — there are several shattering personal losses, not to mention the devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic, which Bowers somehow escaped — and yet Bowers has endured and thrived well into his nineties. Most might expect someone who had lived through so much to look back on their life heavy with regret. Instead, Tyrnauer said with a chuckle, “He is one of the happiest people I’ve ever met in my life.”
The film's subtitle — The Secret History of Hollywood — has a surprising hidden meaning.
One of the major factors that most excited Tyrnauer about Bowers' story was how much of a window it offered on what it was like for LGBT people in the pre-Stonewall era. For most, it would have been impossible to authentically express their sexuality without Bowers providing a mechanism for it, when the mere whisper of queerness could kill your career, or worse.
"There were morals clauses in contracts, and the LAPD was operating a vice squad that was pernicious, and specifically targeting gay men for extortion," said Tyrnauer. "I think it is fair to say in a world where men marry men and women marry women legally in this country, society has just shifted seismically. That's one reason the movie was worth making. Millennials don't know any of this. How could they? Unless they did deep interviews with their parents, who would have had to have been privy to this information. And most people don't have gay parents."
For Tyrnauer, Scotty also gave him the chance to capture a different, if related, aspect of Hollywood, namely the vast swaths of people who aren't the biggest, boldest stars. "There's a whole roaring middle tier to lower tier of this town which makes it go. It's everyone from craft services people to makeup artists, to day players, to background people, to people that move up from that, and become guest stars," he said. "Those people are the real denizens of Hollywood. They're the people who make the town turn. … And Scotty cuts this diagonal swath through the entire culture of the town."
It's there in the film's depiction of Bowers' lasting friendship with a shlock movie actor named Beach Dickerson. And it's there in the many times Tyrnauer follows Bowers to Hollywood functions populated entirely by people in their seventies, eighties, and nineties — members of those middle to lower tiers of Hollywood whom the industry may have long forgotten, but who remain a crucial, if invisible, part of the city all the same.
Tyrnauer was especially proud of a sequence in the film when Bowers visited the Triangle Square Senior Apartments in LA, created specifically for LGBT seniors. "These people were all gay and lesbian citizens of this town — a lot of them worked in show business — and you don't see those people," he said. "I was so moved by that day."