Democracy Dies in Darkness

Movies | Review

He claims to have procured gay lovers for Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Now he’s the star of a surprisingly touching documentary.

August 16, 2018 at 10:00 AM

Scotty Bowers in uniform in the film “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood.” (Greenwich Entertainment/Greenwich Entertainment)

Rating: 3 stars

At 95, Scotty Bowers is one of Hollywood’s most storied survivors. Fans of Golden Age stars might recognize his name as the man who, while working at a Los Angeles gas station in the 1940s and 1950s, set up gay trysts for a cast he claims included Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. But in Matt Tyrnauer’s touching documentary “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood,” Bowers is cast not only as a name-dropping Zelig but a free-living, free-loving, fascinatingly contradictory pioneer.

Loosely based on Bowers’s 2012 memoir “Full Service,” the film catches up with the author at various book signings and parties, interspersing toasts and hugs with gorgeous shots of Hollywood in its airbrushed heyday, when overweening studios, aggressive vice cops and intrusive scandal sheets threw homosexual actors and craftspeople into the shadows. Enter Bowers, a boyishly handsome World War II veteran who befriended Walter Pidgeon and effortlessly fell into setting up Pidgeon and his colleagues with dates, many of them consummated on two beds inside a trailer behind the gas station.

By Bowers’ account, these encounters weren’t sordid, they were fun for everyone involved. What’s more, they provided a much-needed release and moment of honesty for people whose lives were marginalized and criminalized by homophobia and the mythmaking reflexes of celebrity culture.

Scotty Bowers, seen at home in Los Angeles, is the subject of the documentary “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood.” (Greenwich Entertainment/Greenwich Entertainment)

Much of “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” is taken up with Bowers as he putters around his alarmingly cluttered house, which he shares with his devoted second wife of 35 years. If that sounds paradoxical, by the end of this sometimes digressive but enlightening film, the audience will find that it makes a certain kind of sense. They might be less convinced when Bowers reveals the troubling details of his young life in Illinois, where he experienced a sexual initiation that most people would call abuse, but that he insists was nothing of the sort.

If Bowers’s present-day life has slowed down considerably, his memories haven’t, and the subject of “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” exerts his luridly voyeuristic pull, as he shares name after name of his most shocking exploits. (The list even includes British royalty.) Luckily, Tyrnauer has the judgment to put this still-dapper, still-naughty gadfly in more serious context. As the actor Stephen Fry observes of Bowers’s own tell-all book, “All he’s doing is revealing that these people were real.”

Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains obscenity, graphic nudity and adult themes. 97 minutes.

Ann Hornaday is The Washington Post's chief film critic. She is the author of "Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies." She joined The Post in 2002.

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