Film & TV

The Politics of Sex and Secrets

Scotty Bowers (Greenwich Entertainment)
Media hypocrisy in Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood.

Scotty Bowers, ex-Marine subject of the new documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, followed his military service during World War II by starting a new career procuring sexual partners for movie stars during the 1940s and ’50s. He worked out of a Richfield gas station at 5777 Hollywood Boulevard, an address as familiar to the rich and powerful as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, if less prestigious. It was a place where major cultural figures shed their public images and vented personal libidinous urges. They risked exposure and defamation, but George Albert “Scotty” Bowers kept their confidences until they died, and now, at age 95, he reveals them. This film version of Bowers’s 2012 memoir Full Service presents private mysteries as national secrets.

A topic as sordid as what Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood covers will concern NRO readers for the serious reason that the film, directed by Vanity Fair writer Matt Tyrnauer, raises the issue of media honesty and illustrates how the political and moral climate has changed.

Now that the news media has abandoned decorum — except to protect the reputation of a former president — scandal has become the new measurement of public interest. Exposing the sexual proclivities of movie stars whose names and careers are no longer relevant to the #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #TimesUp, #MarchForOurLives generation parallels the means by which the media currently practice censure and condemnation. Private behavior is now open to public scrutiny and judgment. Tyrnauer reports the sexual-financial exchange between Bowers and actor Walter Pidgeon (his initial famous customer at the gas station), which led to recommendations that built Bowers’s client list to include directors George Cukor and John Schlesinger, composer Cole Porter, and various actors from Cary Grant to Charles Laughton. He was also studied by sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.

Smiley old pimp Bowers seems an unashamed sexual counterpart to Woodward and Bernstein’s Deep Throat (the Watergate insider named after a Seventies porn film). The only difference is that Bowers might be a more honorable figure. As a document of human quirks, Tyrnauer’s film surpasses the movie Mark Felt, which dramatized and heroicized the Watergate–Washington Post informant. Mark Felt flopped at the box office as a result of the #Resistance media rushing the public past ethical contemplation of any contemporary deep-state moral equivalency. Tyrnauer refers to the secret history of Hollywood to imply the secret history of America.

Speaking of his own life and sexual versatility, the twice-married Bowers says, “I’m everything.” A friend describes his youthful blond appeal: “He looked like an old leprechaun. He had the Dickens in his eyes.” Bowers figured out that filmmakers would buy what they were also selling. He reminisces over an old photograph of his stable of gay-for-pay, ex-military workforce: “These are all guys from the gas station. All clean-cut nice looking guys, aren’t they? Every one of these guys, including the girl, were all hustlers, all of them.” We’re informed that mid-century Hollywood was “a rollicking place, very few rules. It was a haven for people that had radical ideas on sex and politics.”

That assessment is especially instructive today, reminding us that actors’ contracts with the studios once had morals clauses to facilitate Hollywood’s deliberately misleading relationship with the public. A historian recounts: “It was really about ‘We’re just like all of you.’ It was very important to sell this myth to America that the movie stars were just good honest moral citizens.” A myth that is currently crumbling.

Bowers reminds us that actors’ contracts with the studios once had morals clauses to facilitate Hollywood’s deliberately misleading relationship with the public.

Tyrnauer attempts to fit this story into a context of modern identity politics (“It was much more accepted to be in an adulterous relationship than to be gay or homosexual”). Yet a segment about Hollywood censorship features a clip of Production Code executive Joseph Breen uttering a familiar Obama-like phrase when he declared, “There’s no room on the screen at any time for pictures that offend against common decency.” Among other narrative oddities, Tyrnauer inserts erotic home movies and a porn gif and connects Bowers’s illicit profession to the passing of the Marriage Equality Act. This implies that Bowers was, somehow, revolutionary — a trailblazer. But Tyrnauer neglects the intimate and social background necessary to advance that claim.

Despite a dedication to Gore Vidal, who forthrightly addressed Hollywood’s subterranean sexual behavior, Tyrnauer ignores that sexual equality was never Bowers’s goal. Amused by the appetites he shared with the rich and famous, he called the more rapacious ones “big users.” When he refers to his clients as “tricks,” an aged hustler politely corrects him: “Customers, please.”

Bowers is saluted as “pre-Gay” by one well-wisher. “He breezes along across the fences that separate us from each other.” Because Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood epitomizes Vanity Fair celebrity journalism, it glosses the basic class delusion that emerges from this chronicle.

This cultural and political false impression is typified by a scene from Bringing Up Baby (1938) of Cary Grant in a woman’s housecoat, leaping in the air to exclaim, “I just went gay all of a sudden!” This clip, lazily overused in too many Hollywood docs, offers sniggering personal irony about Grant’s private relationship with actor Randolph Scott, but the comic moment is totally misunderstood (just as that rude restaurant scene in Five Easy Pieces is mistaken for rebellion). Tyrnauer should know better. Instead of rectifying the misunderstanding, he encourages hypocritical derision, indifferent to the artistry of performers who could expressively exemplify the truth of human desire. It doesn’t matter whether actors and filmmakers were portraying their social selves (the foolish aim of today’s uncultured insistence on “representation”). The greatness of Bringing Up Baby lies in its fantastic, winged revelation about the essence of romantic yearning — a fact that makes the filmmakers’ private sexual secrets irrelevant.

By the time Tyrnauer goes myth-busting on the Katharine Hepburn–Spencer Tracy on- and off-screen partnership (Bowers claims the pair were among his same-sex “big users”), the majesty of the big-screen illusions the duo created fights with the petty revelation of their sexual lives — again irrelevant. Columnist Liz Smith cautions that Hepburn was “a designer of her own legend. She was very guarded about what she did.” So the only harm done was committed by the dishonest media that perpetuated the Hepburn-Tracy lovebirds ruse.

A better, sharper documentary would clearly set out the difference between the revelation of eminent people privately pursuing their natural drives and the degradation of human exploitation. Sentimentalizing and gloating over it shows a modern political prejudice.

IN THE NEWS: ‘Ruby Rose “Not Gay Enough” to Be Batwoman’

Armond White — Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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