Fairly early on in Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, the engaging and entertaining documentary from director Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor), we hear its subject, the now 95-year-old George Albert “Scotty” Bowers, make a reference to “squares” — the quaint post-World War II slang term for straight-laced conservative types.
It would be easy, if you only saw the photos of Bowers from his days in the military (he saw combat during World War II and lost his older brother in the war), to imagine that he was one of those “squares.” He had that clean-cut Midwestern look about him, with an unfailingly sunny disposition despite surviving the horrors of war. When you hear him speak of the camaraderie of his brothers-in-arms, he’s the poster boy for the Golden Age myth of Americana.
But instead of coming home and returning to the heartland where he was born, Bowers set his sights on Hollywood and the promise of opportunity. He took a job at a gas station and applied his insatiable work ethic to getting ahead. He became a hustler, in every sense of the word.
Before long, Bowers was doing more than pumping gas at the station. He encountered the Academy Award-nominated actor Walter Pidgeon, who invited him for a swim in his pool and a roll between the sheets. A connection emerged, but also the seeds for a life-altering side activity. Through Pidgeon, Bowers met a host of hungry stars and starlets eager to find and pay for sex.
Bowers recognized the need within this market and created a service, enlisting a number of his old military comrades. They were not bothered by the possible shame of engaging in illicit same-sex acts and couplings. To this core group of men, whom Bowers drew into his informal escort service, what they did behind closed doors at his request was not so different from the things done as favors for one another in the foxholes during the war. In fact, it was part of what kept them alive and sane. It’s what made them “buddies.”
What makes Bowers so fascinating, as his recollections emerge in this film, is how he defined the yin and yang of sin and salvation so completely. He never succumbed to the dark temptations to become a vicious pimp. Despite running an elaborate operation out of the gas station (and a rented trailer in the back, along with expanding his business to include available rooms in a motel across the street), he refused to take a cut from any of his escorts. He was only there to facilitate and participate in his own trysts.
He also maintained the secrets of a constellation of stars — from Cole Porter and Clark Gable to Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn — and high-level public figures (J. Edgar Hoover, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor). That is, he maintained them until penning a memoir (2012’s Full Service). And that starts to muddy the waters a bit. The film only lightly touches on the inherent contradictions of “outing” celebrities, even after their death, for profit. Is it fair to the loved ones left behind, who now must read about these never-before-revealed exploits? And what about the right Bowers has to share his own history?
Tyrnauer isn’t overly concerned with the ethics of telling this story. By focusing so exclusively on Bowers’ perspective, he wants us to appreciate the good intentions behind the man, himself, in telling his history. When I mentioned earlier how Bowers uses the term “square,” I left out how there’s no sense of judgment from him when he says it. He’s not belittling people who find comfort in more traditional values. There’s a clear objectivity in his moral code, the kind of openness that society preaches, but rarely lives up to, in everyday life.
We see this most plainly in his relationship with his current wife — they’ve been together for over 30 years — who didn’t know about his wild life until he wrote his book. Had she known, would she have made a different choice? Bowers, without a doubt, would do it all over again, exactly the same way. He lives without regret, and now without secrets. (Opens Friday) Grade: B+