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Doc Corner: 'Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood'

Amy Winehouse died seven years ago today and several years removed from its Oscar win and box office success, Asif Kapadia’s Amy lingers in the public consciousness. A popular work of non-fiction due to its remarkable access to the story of a spiralling genius. For me, however, Amy remains a personal bug bear; an unethical and cruel work of documentary filmmaking that uses the words of its dead subject against her.

It was purely coincidental then that I thought about Amy while watching Matt Tyrnauer’s Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. The two films definitely do not share the same world, but this revealing piece of Inside Hollywood muckraking does raise questions about ethics all its own. I admit I got a bit of a salacious thrill out of it, but that doesn’t stop me questioning whether I ought to have.

The Scotty of the title is Scotty Bower, a WWII vet who ventured west after the war and rather remarkably found himself successfully falling into an unexpected trade. He wouldn’t call himself a pimp, but rather just a businessman making people happy. His business, of course, was arranging sexual trysts between Hollywood superstars and same-sex partners within the metaphorical closet. At first in just a trailer at the back of the gas station he worked and later seedy hotel rooms across the street and eventually even hotel bungalows, Scotty provided secret rendezvous for the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Walter Pidgeon, Cary Grant and many more at a time when homosexuality was illegal. He was beloved by his clientele, willed estate by actor Beech Dickerson and cinematographer Néster Almendros even bequeathed him his Academy Award for Days of Heaven.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is in essence about the man himself, charting his life and during this peak period of the 1950s on through the present day where he lives a relatively quiet life with his wife Betty, a lounge singer. This in a way allows the film to side-step the murky territory that his book Full Service wades in by outing numerous people across the industry. The documentary isn’t so much about the outing of celebrities, just the man who did it. It walks a tightrope in that regard.

Did Scotty have a right to write his book? The film has nothing to say about that. The few times it is brought up – whether that be by people at book signing events or Elizabeth Hasselback in a clip from talk-show The View Bowers replies with his trademark shrug and a defence that “everybody knew”. Of course, not everyone did know. This era of Hollywood worked because people were all too willing to accept the blessed life that was being presented to them even if in retrospect it was all so obvious. Bowers’ wife, Betty, even notes that the women at the hair salon don’t appreciate Scotty’s book because, as Betty puts it, it ruins the fantasy.

In many ways, Scotty is the documentary version of a gossipy brunch with daiquiris and mimosas aplenty. And while as a form of entertainment its irreverence is its strong suit, it is also symbolic of what ultimately makes the film slightly disappointing. It comes off as all surface. What the film doesn’t do, and which I really wish it had, is actually use Bowers’ story to interrogate the ethical and societal issues that his story raises. Bowers wasn't the first to discuss the sex lives of the rich and famous and it's true that many LGBTQ audiences will already be aware of many of the stories the film details, which only makes the subjects it won't broach all the more frustrating.

But I did nonetheless appreciate its openness towards sex and the body that was both appropriate and necessary. Chris Dapkins cinematography is appropriately LA-sunkissed, and the talking head selections like Stephen Fry are nicely restrained in their use. Classic film clips selections are a particular hoot, especially those of Cary Grant who in the light of day was hardly fit into the contemporary definition of discreet. I just would have preferred Tyrnauer actually engage with the more relevant and pertinent issues with the same gleeful fizziness with which it tackles the private lives of its secondary subjects.

Release: In limited release from this weekend through Greenwich Entertainment.

Oscar Chances: I have a suspicion that the branch won't respond to Hollywood gossip when they don't even like documentaries about movies more broadly.

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Reader Comments (8)

I don't know. I'm ambivalent. I'm for protecting against outing. But when someone is long dead, I'm not sure "outing" them is as much of a sin. Especially when it undermines arguments that deny LGBTQ prevalence pre-1970s.

July 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKBJr.

I read this book, and while it's breezy and gossipy, it's just so hard to believe. And he kept insisting that he was never paid for any of these set ups or hook ups or whatever it would be called.

He was just helping out spectacularly famous people with their personal problems.

July 24, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

The book is fun to read but at times sounds more like fan fiction than true- I wish they had made fictional film rather than a documentary

July 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I agree that when people are dead, it no longer matters if they are outed. Scotty lived his life and protected these secrets while his clientele were alive and famous, so I don't see him as a snitch. Pretty much all his clients are dead, and he wants to leave a legacy of his own career behind, like these Hollywood stars he serviced. The man has the right to tell his own life story, particularly when anyone it could potentially injure is no longer alive to suffer any embarrasment or consequences.

July 24, 2018 | Unregistered Commentersloan

I agree to a degree, especially since - as I said in the review - many of these people had already been rumoured and gossiped about long enough that it had become common knowledge. And also, so much of what they were doing actually wasn't all that discreet (Cary Grant especially). However, I still feel a bit weird about this guy writing a book about it all and then a film coming along and not even attempting to get into the issue.

forever, in the movie he says he was paid $20. At least at the start. He had to be getting money from somewhere, right?

July 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I recall him mentioning money problems several times in the book, while he was working at the gas station, and then as a cater waiter bartender. But there was always alimony and rent and divorce.

Meanwhile *famous person* flew him to Monte Carlo for the weekend. None of these rich people could set him up with a stipend or something?!?!?

July 24, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

At some point, what would count as gossip becomes history and history shouldn't be self censoring. I'm not sure what the cut off is: as soon as someone has died? Five years after they're dead? But there's a whiff of homophobia in the idea that Katherine Hepburn's lesbianism is so shameful that fifteen years after she's dead, nobody should be able to talk about it, especially considering how much attitudes have changed in just the last ten years. Look at it this way, if it came out today that some big white 50s Hollywood star's biological grandfather was Black (and thus the star was one-quarter Black) would we feel bad about discussing it?

July 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDan H

Dan H - Carol Channing already got there

July 25, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

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