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TIFF 2017: Scotty Bowers throws Hollywood’s closet wide open

Matt Tyrnauer’s Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is a documentary about legendary hustler Scotty Bowers.

Among the selection of films about the private lives of the rich and famous at TIFF, there is Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a tasteful biopic about the creators of Wonder Woman, a trio who had to keep their ménage hidden from friends and neighbours for most of their lives. Another, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool, offers a twilight portrait of Oscar-winning actress Gloria Grahame, whose scandalous private life effectively made her a Tinseltown pariah in the 1950s.

The strict cultural expectations of the era — the pressure to conform to heterosexuality, monogamy and the traditional nuclear family — and the careers that were at stake are a running theme in these films. And wedged between these two biopics is the world premiere of Matt Tyrnauer's Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, a documentary about legendary hustler Scotty Bowers.

A genial Illinois farm boy and former Marine, Bowers worked the night shift pumping gas at a station in Los Angeles. It was the peak of car culture and a pickup from customer Walter Pidgeon launched his moonlighting career. Word spread quickly and the gas station soon became a trendy hangout after Bowers enlisted other cash-strapped ex-Marine pals (and later, gals) who were looking to make a few extra bucks on the side. That's how Bowers says he became the sex-fixer for the stars of Hollywood's golden age, and he plied his trade for decades, until the arrival of AIDS.

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After the film's world premiere in Toronto this past Sunday, Bowers, now 94, may have seemed less mobile than he was onscreen (he uses a wheelchair and suffers from renal failure, a presumed side effect of taking antimalarial Atabrine during his years a Marine), but his grin was just as wide, and he was no less voluble.

"A lot of [celebrities] had completely double lives and couldn't go out and pick someone up because of who they were," Bowers says of his clients, many of whom became friends.

His discreet matchmaking services successfully circumvented the all-encompassing "morals clauses" in studio contracts, even at a time when reporters from tabloids were on the hunt for info and the threat of vice squad roundups had driven the scene underground.

Tyrnauer and his subject met through an introduction from their mutual friend, Gore Vidal. (Vidal's final public appearance was at the launch of Bowers's 2012 memoir, Full Service.)

"I believe Scotty," the director told The Globe and Mail. "Gore Vidal vouched for Scotty – that's a big bond between us. Gore was not a mythologist and a pretty straight-shooter. He writes about lies. He detested Truman Capote because he thought he was a liar. A fabulist."

The revelations contained in Bowers's memoir are only the starting point for Tyrnauer's film. The director fleshes the narrative out in several directions, with talking heads such as Liz Smith, Stephen Fry and Hollywood historian William Mann. He follows Bowers after the book's publication, as the nonagenarian makes his rounds: at signings, the private parties he still works as a bartender, grocery shopping or just trimming the trees on his Hollywood Hills property. The director and subject visit friends and former hustler pals, who tell ribald stories of encounters with George (The Salivator) Cukor or Paul (The Drunk) Lynde.

The rumours of Bowers's escapades were dismissed as urban legend for years. When he published Full Service, which was vetted for libel, many had doubts about the stories he told. Even now, they are brushed aside in some corners as sordid tales because virtually everyone he talks about has died. But his claims are also pushed aside because many in the industry still cling to a prudish, homophobic and manufactured version of the past.

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"That just shows you the enduring power of the myth machine," Tyrnauer says. "The story of Hollywood and the power of Hollywood is one of the principal narratives of the 20th century. I'd put it up there with [the Second] World War and jazz. The myth that was created there – by outsiders, Jewish immigrants themselves who were furriers and glove manufacturers projecting a lie of a made-up image, of white Americanism – endures. And I think there are a lot of people who want to cling to that."

There were other hustler scenes around L.A. but none like Bowers's service.

"There were always things happening, but what I did was special," he says. "Everybody I fixed up with someone was their type, know what I mean?"

Over time the list grew to include everyone from behind-the-camera industry workers to stars such as Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

"They were friends and I was never starstruck in any way," Bowers says. "I never asked for a picture and autograph or anything, the way most people do."

That contributed to Bowers's easygoing charm.

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"I think that's one of the keys to his success," Tyrnauer says. "I think they knew Scotty didn't want anything from them. And they didn't feel like he was fawning over them. Which for a famous person is a great relief."

The movie dials down the gossipy, tittering gotcha tone that the media coverage took when the book first came out, and Tyrnauer instead foregrounds the restrictive political and cultural climate of the era, not only in Hollywood but across America.

"That kind of Hollywood sociology and the reality behind the myth-making has always fascinated me, even as a little kid," he adds.

A child of L.A. himself (his father Robert Van Scoyk was a long-time writer and producer on Murder, She Wrote), the director peppers the doc with well-chosen clips from classic films, wittily recontextualized for effect. But otherwise, Scotty is the furthest thing from a Turner Classic Movies nostalgia collage you can get.

Tyrnauer also tentatively explores how childhood molestation, the trauma of war and, with the death of his only daughter, personal tragedy play a part in Bowers's long-time live-and-let-live philosophy. The man is a natural raconteur, but he's also an affable observer, unfazed by any predilection. "This is a huge gift that he gave a lot of people, you can imagine in the context he was working at the time," Tyrnauer says, "People were wrecks, living double lives and here's this guy without shame, guilt and who is happy."

Bowers says he took no commission, but all those twenties (tips: optional) from turning his own tricks paid off, including the $22,000 he earned to buy a house for his family – first wife Betty and daughter Donna. Today, Bowers lives in one of the properties left to him by B-movie actor (and savvy Laurel Canyon real estate investor) Beech Dickerson.

Bowers's second wife, Lois, who he married shortly after retiring his services, has not read and does not plan to read her husband's memoir, and although the trip to TIFF marks the first time her husband has gotten on a plane since the 1970s, she did not travel to Toronto for the world premiere.

I ask Bowers if, among the overflowing piles of papers and mementos in his possession, he still has Nestor Almendros's Academy Award. As the story goes, when the shy cinematographer was nominated for Days of Heaven, it was Bowers who pushed him – literally, through the auditorium doors – to attend the ceremony.

"Oh yes," Bowers deadpans. "I have it stashed away – in the closet."

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood plays TIFF on Sept. 16, 3:30 p.m., Scotiabank.

Video: The Tragically Hip ‘trusted us,' documentary directors say (The Canadian Press)
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Nathalie More

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