Scotty Bowers has had a hell of a life. Born in 1925 in a rural community about 80 miles west of Chicago, he served in World War II as a Marine, fighting at the Battle of Iwo Jima. (He lost his best friend and his brother during the conflict.) When the war ended, he made his way to L.A., ready to reinvent himself. Soon, Bowers was working at a gas station in Hollywood, quickly discovering that it was a clandestine hookup spot for closeted clientele — specifically, members of the entertainment industry who had to keep their homosexuality quiet lest they have their careers ruined. At that moment, Bowers found his calling, serving as a procurer of same-sex partners for the film industry, eventually leaving the gas station behind and going into business on his own.
For the next few decades, Bowers, who is pansexual, became an influential, albeit discreet power player, getting to know the business’s most famous LGBTQ individuals and hooking up with everyone from Cary Grant to George Cukor. And he talked all about it in his 2012 memoir Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Live of the Stars, which outed prominent movie stars and revealed their sexual peccadillos. (For instance, Tyrone Power had “a passion for piss and poop,” while Charles Laughton apparently liked to smear feces on his sandwiches.)
Now at 95, he’s the star of his own movie. Documentarian and journalist Matt Tyrnauer (who previously made Valentino: The Last Emperor, about the fashion designer) is releasing Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, which follows Bowers as he looks back on his remarkable life. Interviewing talent agents, historians and even his current wife, Scotty makes the case that Bowers was instrumental in helping to liberate Hollywood from its fear of homosexuality. (Bowers’ impact didn’t end there, though — as the documentary illustrates, he participated in Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering studies on human sexuality.)
But Tyrnauer is after more than a simple biography: With Scotty, the filmmaker seeks to strip away the myths that Hollywood peddles — both about its stars and what constitutes a “proper,” heteronormative relationship. In Bowers, an unassuming Midwestern kid, Tyrnauer found an avenue to expose the culture’s sexual hypocrisy and “straight-washing.” “I view him as the All-American boy who is telling us the parts of the story that many of them left out,” says Tyrnauer.
In my recent conversation with Tyrnauer, we also discussed whether it’s right to out gay celebrities after they’re dead; what parts of Bowers’ memoir he didn’t include in the documentary; and why straight people don’t want to hear gossip about gay stars’ sex lives.
When the right talks about Hollywood, the industry is usually portrayed as this bastion of liberal, immoral thinking that’s full of godless heathens. Yet Scotty argues that Hollywood could actually be pretty reactionary and conservative in terms of how it treated homosexuality and homosexuals.
Someone referred to it as straight-washing the other day — I don’t think I’d heard that term before, but it seems to apply. The movie presents an alternate history of Hollywood, and one I was keen to tell. Scotty is a conduit to that alternate history — and certainly one of the last living links to it. So his story is a valuable and significant one.
In the movie, Bowers is questioned a few times by people who think it’s not his place to out celebrities after their death. How do you feel? Is there value in revealing people’s sexuality when they’re gone?
There’s a tremendous value. He answers his confronter quite elegantly in that one sequence when the guys says, “What if a grandkid finds out his grandfather was gay?” And Scotty says, “What’s wrong with being gay?” Then [Scotty] waits a beat and says, “But thanks anyway.” It’s just pure Scotty in its elegant simplicity.
Gay history — queer history — has a way of covering itself up and even obliterating itself, because it was necessary to do so. In another time in Hollywood — and virtually everywhere else — what same-sex-oriented people had to do was, by necessity, a secret. They covered up their existences and hid them because they weren’t able to live openly. And this is a tragedy. Things have gotten better in many places in recent years, but if we don’t take a serious look and have a record of what happened in the not-so-distant past, we lose a great deal.
One of your interview subjects, Stephen Fry, talks about how Bowers existed in a “pre-gay” era. I was interested in this idea that back then, we didn’t even know how to talk about homosexuality because we didn’t have the language.
The word “gay” wasn’t used that much in the 1940s when Scotty started out. The mere mention of homosexuality was virtually forbidden in the mainstream press anyway. Not to mention, the LAPD and many other police forces around the country operated a vice squad that was a pernicious extortion ring that persecuted gay and lesbian people. It was moneymaking racket that frequently colluded with the press to persecute and humiliate people of different sexual orientations. This made Hollywood a particularly dangerous place to be gay — not only did you risk public humiliation and ruination, but the studio contracts had morals clauses in them, which made you vulnerable to personal destruction at the hands of a homophobic establishment.
Others in Scotty talk about him as a champion of gay equality, but he’s basically mum on the subject. You spent a lot of time with him: Did he feel that way about himself?
He’s a farm boy from Illinois, he was a Marine. It’s remarkable to me that he had this avant-garde openness — at the time, to be gay wasn’t normal at all. It was to be labeled “queer” in a pejorative sense, or a “degenerate” — and those are two of the nicer terms. To actually embrace his pansexual lifestyle was courageous — and to be semi-open about it in that period.
He’s such an accepting person to anyone with any proclivity that, today, it comes across as avant garde — especially in light of what we see happening among younger generations, where there’s tremendous sexual and gender fluidity. Scotty wasn’t fazed by that at all in a time when it wasn’t only uncommon but considered to be an aberration or an abomination.
What is it about Scotty that kept him from being afraid?
I don’t know. Kinsey studied him — he was part of the data pool for Kinsey’s groundbreaking [work]. Kinsey sought out these sexual unicorns to learn about the whole spectrum of human sexuality, and he lifted the veil on huge portions of the human condition that were often left unspoken [during] the hangover of the Victorian era up until that early mid-century period in this country. Kinsey’s significance I don’t think can be overstated — his work was a revelation to everyone, and especially to same-sex-oriented people who felt alone, isolated and persecuted at the time. So Scotty’s openness and his pansexual nature were of great interest to Kinsey.
A lot of people want to suppress [Bowers’] story. They say that they don’t want to hear it: “That’s not my cup of tea” or “Get a life.” I don’t know if you read the New York Times piece about the film: Jeanine Basinger, who is like a film teacher, somewhere, was asked to comment on the movie, which I don’t think she had seen, but she commented on it anyway. [Editor’s note: In the article, Basinger is quoted as saying, “This is a perfect example of the expression, ‘people need to get a life.’ Personally, I’m more interested in the work of these people than their possible off-screen shenanigans.”]
I don’t know what she’s getting at there, but it sounds suspiciously like homophobia to me. If I understand it, her work has to do with stars and personas on- and off-screen. Why would she straight-wash or deny the homosexual narratives and just dwell on the straight narratives?
I think it is homophobia. There’s this idea that Americans are interested in the love lives of famous people if they’re straight. If they’re not straight, the attitude is “Well, that’s the type of stuff we shouldn’t know about.” It’s almost as if that’s something dirty that we should not be exposing our children and ourselves to.
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy are the perfect case study here — it’s even more interesting that they weren’t married. They were in an adulterous romance, supposedly, which Hepburn did everything she could to promote in the press. It was a perfect PR scenario: They were on-screen romantic partners, and people googly-eyed over this charismatic relationship, so how perfect to find out the juicy gossip that maybe they were a thing off-screen, too?
That seems to be the myth that people really, really want to cling to. But when people come along and say, “No, it really wasn’t that way,” there’s a lot of pushback. For some reason, there’s this horror that they both could have had same-sex [relationships] at various times in their life — [there’s this belief that] this is a secret that should be suppressed or is an irrelevancy. But why is an adulterous relationship better? If you can tolerate one, you can tolerate the other.
In Scotty, Bowers talks about his sexual encounters as a boy with his adult neighbor, as well as other instances. Others would call that abuse, but he steadfastly doesn’t see it that way. Did you have any thoughts about that — or maybe how it shaped his life experience?
My personal take on how that affected him is something I didn’t want to put in the film. It’s very much in keeping with the types of films I make — I don’t put my judgment in my films. I exclusively work in cinéma vérité, and the beauty of that form of filmmaking is that the characters present themselves to you. So I’m just presenting Scotty in a vérité context where he very clearly tells you about his experience and he tells you his thoughts under questioning.
I pushed him on this — I asked him whether he had any problems with what people would view as sexual abuse as an adolescent — and he is firm in his position that he didn’t view it as abuse and still doesn’t. I can see how this would be troubling or controversial, absolutely, but as the filmmaker, I don’t put my editorial voice in the picture.
The recent passing of Tab Hunter makes me think about the fact that, for actors like him and Rock Hudson, we discuss them in terms of the movies they made — and then there’s a pause to acknowledge, oh yes, they were gay. It feels like the way we tell the histories of gay actors is also problematic — we turn their sexuality into a character quirk, almost as if it’s some odd wrinkle about them.
That’s just a [symptom] of the way that the world was structured. As Scotty says in the film, they had to play it cool — they had to hide their sexuality for several reasons. One was that it was considered a degenerate lifestyle. The other was if you were a movie star, and a successful one, the studio system had invested a lot of money in you — they were hell-bent on managing your reputation to suit their purposes, which was the business of selling a heteronormative narrative. Boy/girl love stories would be undermined by the revelation that their movie star was really interested in the same sex off-screen.
One of the interesting things that comes to light in the context of Scotty’s story is that the myth created by the movie moguls of the golden age of Hollywood is so enduring. It was push-pull: [Hollywood was] influencing society, and the society that they kept influencing was gaining prominence because of the power of the message that the studios kept sending out, which is that normal relationships are between a white man and woman. Anything else was queer, odd, against the law or deranged.
Look at all these character actors. I mean, I love Peter Lorre — one of my favorite actors — but his whole persona was this kind of vague degeneracy. He always played sort of a sicko, and there was always the indication that there was something to fear about this person and his queerness. That was the way Hollywood dealt with homosexuality in some of the greatest movies ever made.
Has Hollywood really changed that much, though? We still have closeted actors who closely guard their sexuality and refuse to discuss it.
This is a question that I’m glad the movie raises. I can’t answer it, except that I suspect that it’s presumed that most viewers want to see straight love stories and straight sex on screen — they don’t want and can’t process their sexual fantasies about leading men and women if they know that, off-screen, they’re getting it on with someone of the same sex. There’s a skittishness about this still. Let’s not forget: It’s not “show art” — it’s “show business.” But I’m curious to see how it starts to play out now that there is more sexual fluidity in society at large.
I appreciated that you let Scotty go into great detail about his orgies and threesomes and hookups. It felt as if you were forcing the audience to accept the reality of sexual life beyond the heteronormative.
It was part of the strategy, but I don’t think there were any other options either. [Laughs] If you get Scotty totally comfortable and you have a good two-and-a-half-hour lunch with him, you’re going to hear a lot of things that even the Marquis de Sade might not know. [Laughs]
He didn’t have a lot of limits, and he was willing to indulge people who didn’t have a lot of limits. He was way off the Kinsey scale, it seems. If you’ve read the book, there are exploits that are very disturbing to people. One of them, about Charles Laughton and coprophilia, it divides people. I know people of all ages who are passionate for that story and find it, for whatever reason, one of the most hilarious things they’ve ever heard. Then the other 50 percent of the world, it’s a [deal-breaker] for them — they’re angry that it was even something they were exposed to. I find it curious how equally enthusiastic these two camps are.
In terms of giving us a sense of Scotty, a great detail is that he has this large collection of Playboy magazines. Why did you decide to include that?
He’s so polymorphic in his sexual tastes. Playboy, for someone of his generation, was an important touchstone. He clearly holds it in this high esteem — he subscribed the minute it came out, which was an edgy thing to do when it started.
Another important element of the documentary is showing that gay men served in World War II.
We know now that there are many same-sexualists — to borrow a phrase from Gore Vidal — in the military, and there always have been, and clearly Scotty was one of them. I don’t think that he was particularly sexually active with other Marines in his platoon because the Marines at the time were so deeply homophobic. He was practicing his pansexual activities up in Hollywood, not at Camp Pendleton or the South Pacific.
I asked him a lot about how much homosexuality there was in the Marines, and he said [there was] very little — the drill sergeants were so strict and so homophobic that you could be beaten within an inch of your life, so it just wasn’t a smart move to try to do it. Hollywood is a two-hour drive from San Diego, where he was [stationed] as an 18-year-old, and he went up there every weekend. He did a lot of things with people of the same sex up there, as did a lot of his Marine Corps buddies.
Then after the war, he enlisted a lot of GIs, Marines and sailors in his sex ring at the gas station. These were the desirable guys at the time — the male image had shifted from before the war to after. Rudolph Valentino — the Latin lover, that kind of image — sent hearts aflutter before the war. But during the war and after, it shifted to the GI and this kind of clean-cut, corn-fed All-American-boy image. Scotty was that to a tee, and most of his fellow Marines were, too. They were very desirable, and they could demand a price. They found their economic niche, and they filled it.
Scotty ends on a hopeful note, mentioning the positive developments that the LGBTQ community has made in recent years in terms of marriage equality. But in the age of Trump, are you still hopeful?
It’s interesting to me how the film resonates given the context of the times. I view the film as a political film — I made it with that intention at least. I was fascinated to have a character who, at 95, has witnessed most of the 20th century, its story of sexuality and same-sexuality, and been an active participant in writing that history. In the context of current events and what appears to be the potential dawning of a new dark age, the brave sexual expression and sexual politics of Scotty Bowers resonates more loudly than it would have a year ago when I was editing the film.
I kept saying as I was making the film: “We need to be aware of dark days in our past, even though things, in terms of same-sexuality, seem brighter today.” Suddenly, we have an executive branch in this country that [wants] to bring us back to the dark days and reverse all the progress that’s been made. All the more important to make this story, get it down on film and have it on the record. Don’t deny that this happened — don’t deny its significance.