As recounted by Matt Tyrnauer's documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, legendary sex manager Scotty Bowers has lived an erotic life that would inspire even the most seasoned players to tip their hats in respect. Getting a job at a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard after doing several dangerous tours in World War II, Bowers was picked up by the actor Walter Pidgeon, who wondered what such a good-looking young man was doing as an attendant. They went to Pidgeon's home and the encounter began a life in which Bowers used the gas station to satiate the sexual needs of Hollywood's elite. Twenty bucks bought you anything you wanted with Bowers or the young men and women he recruited, and eventually trailers were positioned on the gas station's grounds. Throughout his career, Bowers slept with an astonishing variety of legends, including George Cukor, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, and Vivien Leigh. He even had a threesome with Lana Turner and Ava Gardner.
Tyrnauer openly revels in the vicarious pleasure to be had from Bowers's exploits. Bowers, after all, actually lived the fantasy that powers most pop cinema: to sleep with the people on screen. Now in his 90s, Bowers has the impudent smile of a man who knows he's gotten away with something; his wife, Lois, isn't kidding when she says that he has “the dickens in his eyes.” It's not hard to see why Bowers has gotten laid so much, as he has the aura of a natural-born hustler, of a man who can look hunger in the eyes without judging. Tyrnauer meets Bowers's sense of sexual democracy head on, refusing to cast his subject's life in a puritanical, cautionary sheen that's typical of stories of hedonism. Sometimes, Tyrnauer is so admiring of Bowers that one wonders if he's missing part of the story. Surely a life of professional sex, even among the famous and powerful, couldn't have been this easy?
There are references in Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood to vice squad and Confidential magazine, which focused on outing stars, and to the Production Code, which inspired “morals clauses” that attempted to rein in behavior that didn't jibe with the idea of nuclear America as an episode of Leave It to Beaver. In the 1920s, Hollywood was a little too unconventional and without shame for the government's taste, and so a standard of order had to be imposed, creating a gulf between the desire to please our society and ourselves that continues to dictate the terms of modern life. Tyrnauer largely takes these ironies and hypocrisies as givens, however, fashioning instead a bittersweet comedy with a tang of regret.
The film poignantly reveals that the secret history of Hollywood is really an alternate history of America.
The documentary is most evocative when operating in two modes: following Bowers in the present day as he wanders his cluttered Hollywood homes and ruminates on past “tricks,” and using footage from classical Hollywood productions to underscore just how obvious the “secret” proclivities of stars were. Most memorably, Tyrnauer includes footage from My Favorite Wife, in which Cary Grant drinks in Randolph Scott's body by a swimming pool with an ardor that's boldly undisguised. As Tyrnauer reminds us, Grant and Scott lived together for years as “roommates.” We also see footage of Walter Pidgeon and Charles Laughton (another Bowers client) conspiring together in Advise and Consent, in this context seemingly planning their next pool party.
There's something subversive in seeing Bowers reconnect with many of his compatriots—distinguished, elderly war veterans with vaster sexual experiences than most would imagine. These members of the Greatest Generation aren't the square old fogeys that many might assume them to be, and these scenes make an elegant and poignant point: that the secret history of Hollywood is really an alternate history of America, in which we're pressured to pretend that desires are binary. When Bowers is asked if he's gay, he convincingly replies that he's “everything,” and he allowed stars who were expected to behave as totems of straightness to be everything too.
There's an element in Bowers's life—discussed in his 2012 bestseller Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Life of the Stars—that Tyrnauer doesn't know what to do with. When Bowers was a child, he was molested by his adult neighbors, but, reminiscent of the hero of The Tale, he sees these experiences as empowering, reflective of his refusal to play by the rules of square society. Tyrnauer clearly doesn't want to mar the sexual liberation of Bowers's life with an event that could lead to pat moralizing along the lines of “he was promiscuous because he was abused.” But the filmmaker doesn't want to be glib about child abuse either, and his questioning of Bowers on this subject hangs in the air pointedly undigested.
Bowers exhibits more feeling when talking of his brother, who died in World War II, or when remembering his daughter who died from a botched abortion. None of these issues are broached for long, though they cumulatively inform the film with a melancholic undertow that reaches catharsis when Bowers scatters a former lover's ashes through the dry-rotted opening of his back porch. In this moment, we understand that Bowers, however fierce a sensualist and survivor, is also perhaps too adept at sweeping things away.