There’s Hollywood’s official history, one adorned with screen goddesses and cinematic icons of masculinity. Then there’s another, less-told tale of the golden age of movies. That’s a story in which Scotty Bowers plays a central role.
For decades, this former marine turned gas station attendant, bartender and handyman, was a sexual rainmaker to the stars. Away from the greasepaint and the glitz, actors like Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Rock Hudson allegedly turned to Bowers to make their sexual fantasies come true. His story is the subject of a new documentary “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” from Matt Tyrnauer, a writer, director and journalist best known for “Valentino: The Last Emperor.”
The film, and particularly Bowers’ claims that Grant, Tracy and Hepburn engaged in gay sex, are bound to make headlines and attract controversy as they go against the actors’ carefully cultivated images. Tracy and Hepburn, for one, famously co-starred in films like “Adam’s Rib” and “Woman of the Year,” and it was an open secret in Hollywood that they were devoted lovers off-screen for decades (not true, says Bowers), despite the fact that the married Tracy would not divorce his wife.
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“Scotty presents a counter-narrative to the Hollywood myth that was operating at its peak in the decades after World War II,” says Tyrnauer. “This was the post-production code period when studios pledged to produce wholesome content with this image of a white-washed, white-picket fenced America, with the house and two kids and dog. Scotty lifts the lid on this image of conformity and unveils the hypocrisy of all that.”
The stories of orgies involving some of the most beloved film stars in history are what will attract buyers at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, where the pic is playing, as well as looking for North American distribution. But its central character is the key to its charm. The 94-year-old Bowers commands the film, armed with an ever-present smile, while talking unabashedly about his many love affairs. In between dishing on Walter Pidgeon’s dalliances, he’s seen puttering around his over-stuffed bungalow or scaling the roof to do some maintenance work. Bowers looks less like a sexual rebel than a grandfather who still puts in time on the treadmill.
“He approaches everything in life with the same type of interest and enthusiasm — whether it’s a tree he trimmed or the most incredible sexual assignation,” says Tyrnauer, who was connected to Bowers thanks to a friendship with Gore Vidal.
In World War II, Bowers was in the thick of some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific, including at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Maybe it was the carnage he witnessed, but he emerged from that crucible with virtually no inhibitions. He was so open to sexual experiences with women and men that he was a key subject and a kind of unicorn for Alfred Kinsey, the famous sex researcher.
“He’s extraordinary in that he was born without the type of shame that a lot of us are born with and carry with us,” says Tyrnauer.
Not everyone is thrilled that Bowers is opening Tinseltown’s closet door. He’s told his story in a memoir, “Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars,” and Tyrnauer captures a prickly encounter with a reader who challenges Bowers about sharing details of these actors’ lives without their consent. Why, he wonders, is Bowers writing things that might upset their children or grandchildren. His response is two-fold: “They’re all gone” and “What’s wrong with being gay?”
That answer may not satisfy every viewer, and some will be skeptical about Bowers’ claims, which come without much in the way of tangible proof. Tyrnauer, for his part, believes him. He’s checked out a number of Bowers’ stories, and he notes that he’s described things about different people’s family lives or the layouts of their homes that would have been known to only a few.
“I think he’s telling the truth,” says Tyrnauer. “I cross-checked everything I could. There are a lot of small details that he mentions that are seemingly insignificant and no one could have known unless they were there. This is someone who doesn’t have the internet and who I don’t believe has a library card. I don’t think he could have researched everything and constructed such an elaborate ruse.”
Bowers’ heyday coincided with a dark and repressive time for gay Americans. Society demanded that they remain closeted and they were threatened with jail, violence or financial and social ruin if their sexual activities were exposed. But this shadow community that sprung up also meant that people from all walks of life, the very rich and the very poor alike, the movie icons and the average Joes and Janes in the audience, all brushed up against one another in a way that social and economic strictures would never have permitted.
“Because of the need to lead secret lives in the period after the war, strong communities formed,” says Tyrnauer. “Some were really protective places where people led full and robust lives expressing their true identifies. The consequences of revealing their sexuality was so grave that men and women kept secrets and that created a camaraderie that was unusual and special.”
It’s not just Hollywood’s secret history that Bowers illuminates, Tyrnauer argues. He also shines a light on a time, that post-Stonewall, “Will & Grace” and the legalization of gay marriage can seem very distant and, frankly, foreign.
“I wanted to show a window into gay history that by necessity covered its tracks,” he says. “The world we live in today is so different than the one that our parents and grandparents grew up in. One reason Scotty is important is that he’s a living eyewitness to a period that we risk forgetting.”