Film Review: ‘Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood’

No one tells stories like Scotty Bowers. Dishy, sordid, and deliciously off-color, his firsthand accounts reveal a different side of the Dream Factory from the one that studios so carefully manufactured in their heyday, with Bowers at the epicenter as a kind of benevolent matchmaker. That’s an image director Matt Tyrnauer (“Studio 54,” “Valentino: The Last Emperor”) is all too eager to perpetuate in “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood,” which plays like a cheeky behind-the-scenes/in-the-bedroom companion to “The Celluloid Closet,” casting Bowers as a pioneering sexual revolutionary who bent over backward to help A-list gays and lesbians feed their desires off-screen.

That may be true, but it wouldn’t be incorrect to call him what he was: a procurer to the stars, tickled in his old age to spill the beans on who was gay, who was bisexual, and who were the “big users,” with the appetites to service 15 young men in a row — especially now that most of his clients are gone and can’t say otherwise. Among the revelations that will send eyebrows skyward: Bowers says, “Back in those days, people knew” that Cary Grant and Randolph Scott were lovers; Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s tabloid love affair was a smoke screen for their homosexual pursuits (“I fixed her up with every bit of 150 girls” over 39 years, he wagers); he shtupped Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner (together!), and J. Edgar Hoover (“He was in drag”); he even describes frolicking with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at the Beverly Hills Hotel, thanks to a referral from Cecil Beaton.

Those stories all seem to check out, but keep in mind, much of what comes out of Bowers’ mouth seems to have been polished and/or embellished through years of repetition as a private bartender to some of Hollywood’s most elite inner circles. While nowhere near as tacky as TMZ or the Confidential-style scandal sheets of yore, this tawdry kiss-and-tell documentary doesn’t shy away from exposing the private lives and predilections of yesterday’s top names — although Tyrnauer certainly had his work cut out for him organizing the material around those who won’t sue, presumably leaving sketchier or downright unverifiable anecdotes on the cutting-room floor. The director insists that he found support for every claim made by the film, and he is nothing if not a stickler for accuracy, juggling juicy Hollywood gossip with a more bittersweet (and somewhat disorganized) portrait of a hoarder and compulsive workaholic who flew under the radar for most of his 95 years.

After publishing his tell-all memoir “Full Service” (which, incidentally, tells just a fraction of what the impish ex-gigolo has seen and lived), Bowers shot from relative obscurity to the public eye, where his whoppers were rewarded with considerable media attention. I met Scotty serving drinks at actor Glenn Ford’s 90th-birthday party, and the resulting profile of this “Bartender to Babylon” remains the story I’m most fond of writing in all my time at Variety — although it was sometimes a challenge to separate Bowers’ tall tales from the truth.

Erstwhile Variety editor Peter Bart appears among the movie’s many talking heads, as does friend and former colleague Robert Hofler, who wrote “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson” (about the actor’s agent, Henry Wilson, although Bowers claims in the film to have given the closeted star an early career boost by introducing him to Cary Grant). Tyrnauer interviews Hepburn biographer William Mann, whose “Kate” owes much of its spice to Bowers, and tracks down three of his former hustlers — Jack Kimberling, Lee Shook, and Paul “Al” Lamastra — who corroborate his stories.

At the time, the divisions between gay and straight weren’t so clear. The word “bachelor” might be code, but a marriage might just be for show; female stars often traveled with their private secretaries, while cohabitating men might be more than just roommates. Today, the public wants to know who was really gay — although Bowers doesn’t necessarily draw such distinctions, insisting that such labels are for squares and making no excuses for being something of a sexual omnivore in his prime. (The documentary tastefully omits this detail, but one of Scotty’s trademarks was the colorful way he’d stir your martini.)

Bowers swung before swinging was a thing, baby. “I’m everything,” he says at one point. After growing up poor outside of Chicago (where he claims to have fixed up a girl he was going with in elementary school with his lesbian teacher, and to have befriended more priests than he can count), he joined the Marines, resettling in Los Angeles after his tour of duty. There, he landed a job pumping gas at 5777 Hollywood Blvd., where a stream of generous “old queens” (a louche term that hasn’t left his salty vocabulary) came looking for a thrill.

Seeing an opportunity, Bowers began to pair friends and co-workers with the clientele, who would either get their fix right there on the premises or take their dates for a ride. Tyrnauer proves especially clever during this segment, constructing witty montages to illustrate these wild stories, and turning slyly out-of-context clips from the stars’ filmographies against them (as when Grant ogles Scott in “My Favorite Wife,” or squeals, “I just went gay all of a sudden!” in “Bringing Up Baby”). He’s a whiz with archival photos and footage — including home movies, tastefully cropped (but not always) photos of Bowers and the boys gathered around George Cukor’s pool, and 8mm stag films featuring Bowers.

The more recent material, shot over many months, from Bowers’ 90th birthday through several book signings, makes up the bulk of the film, all but contradicting the glamorous stories he recounts. It’s nice to see him being recognized so late in life for his accomplishments, if that’s the word, but there’s something pathetic about the way Tyrnauer portrays this man, trying to psychoanalyze him while deliberately withholding so much. The decades Bowers spent bartending are collapsed into seconds (though they gave him even more intimate access to the stars’ private lives after he left the gas station), while the onset AIDS serves too convenient an explanation for the end of his pimping operation, the economics of which never quite make sense (he didn’t charge for his services but accepted gifts, including envelopes of cash from Charles Laughton and several houses from ex-lover Beach Dickerson).

In short, the movie doesn’t seem nearly skeptical enough of its subject, using his sometimes dodgy memory as a vehicle to remind audiences that their classic Hollywood heroes — so perfect on the silver screen — were human after all, with sex lives and carnal desires like the rest of us. Well, maybe not exactly like the rest of us. As Bowers puts it, “You know me. I’m up for anything … anytime.”

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