Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood begins at the Chateau Marmont, where a penis-shaped cake is being wheeled into the 90th birthday party of Scotty Bowers—the infamous ex-Marine who says he set up trysts for closeted Hollywood elites from the 1940s through the ’80s.
Bowers’ stories might seem outrageous, but then, his whole life has been pretty outrageous: After serving in World War II, he left the Midwest for Los Angeles and got a job at a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard, where he claims to have met (and, uh, serviced) actor Walter Pidgeon. Bowers quickly became the sexually liberated epicenter of what one party guest giddily describes as “the Gomorrah of Hollywood,” and built a business out of hooking up gay celebrities—who, at the time, had their personal freedoms severely restricted by roving vice squads and the morality clauses of the movie studios’ Motion Picture Production Code.
After staying quiet for more than half a century, Bowers spilled all the beans in his 2012 memoir Full Service. Some have celebrated his proof that Hollywood has always been extremely gay—Bowers has name-dropped everybody from Cary Grant to Katharine Hepburn to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to J. Edgar Hoover as his clients—but others question a former hustler’s right to out anyone after their death. (In a 2012 interview with the New York Times, Bowers explained, “All of my famous tricks are dead by now. The truth can’t hurt them anymore.”)
All the while, Bowers reminisces about his sexual exploits with a naughty twinkle in his eye. This contrast between Bowers’ glamorous memories and the decay of his present-day life might be tragic if he had any regrets—but he doesn’t.
Throughout the film, Tyrnauer interviews Hollywood historians and Bowers’ old friends and clients who emphasize just how essential his services were—and how difficult it was to find love in an era when you could be sent to jail, castrated, or even lobotomized for being gay. The rest of the film is spent following the nonagenarian around as he sifts through his cluttered, dilapidated houses and collects “goodies” from the side of the road, including a low-flush toilet. (“You never know when you’re gonna need it, baby.”) All the while, Bowers reminisces about his sexual exploits with a naughty twinkle in his eye. This contrast between Bowers’ glamorous memories and the decay of his present-day life might be tragic if he had any regrets—but he doesn’t.
Instead Bowers is nonchalant about his past, and his breezy, whimsical nature is what makes Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood so unexpectedly heartwarming. (No spoilers, but look forward to geriatric lounge singing, pet store theft, skunks eating penis cake, and a bizarre incident involving a rotting deck and human cremains.) However, also prepare for Bowers’ cheery discussion of childhood experiences that many would categorize as sexual abuse (he says they were consensual), the devastating impact his hoarding has on his wife of 35 years, and a point when his California-cool cracks as he discusses the onset of the AIDS crisis, when he officially stopped setting people up.
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood isn’t just an exposé about the sex lives of Old Hollywood icons, though the film does contain some knockout stories. It’s an odd but palpably real snapshot of a fantastical but relatable life, and a portrait of a complicated man who’s full of contradictions. Bowers bemoans “squares,” delights in breaking rules, refuses to identify as anything, feels no shame about his or others’ sexuality, and finds joy in connecting people.
“Jesus, look at that beautiful rainbow,” he remarks at one point, observing a rainbow cutting through the smog of the LA skyline. “I created the rainbow in Hollywood. That was the fucking end of the rainbow for a lot of people.”