Unnecessary Secrets: Our Review of ‘Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - August 02, 2018
Unnecessary Secrets: Our Review of ‘Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood’

Scotty Bowers has led an interesting life, like some of us have. And that’s partly because of the people he met. There are a lot of talking heads within Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. And they talk about how he connected himself and his band of mostly male sex workers with Hollywood figures. One of his customers is even a man who decorated sets of many classic movies. The documentary also gives some names and faces. Its intention is to let contemporary audiences remember that there were gay people back then. Cue the jazz music that reinforces that prurient age.

Hollywood is a different neighborhood now than it was a long time ago, but some of the remnants remain. The movie follows Bowers as he lives his busy life. This includes going to the former sex workers’ homes and discussing their dalliances. They led adventurous yet precarious lives. These men were in demand because of their beauty. It took them not just to LA’s mansions but to visiting New Yorkers who can afford their services. Their conversations are enlightening. Even the most mundane ones hints on how smart these men had to be. They had to survive the kind of work they chose.

The documentary also takes a look at Scotty’s wife, his second one. She had no idea what he did for a living until he released a book about it. He’s also a hoarder now, his compulsion putting his wife in danger. A lot of Secret History is him showing ll these things he amassed, things from his past. But we can sense the director, Matt Tyrnauer, using this show and tell as catharsis and expurgation. That as these things disappear from his cluttered rooms, they appear perpetually in this film. These memories contributing to the LGBT history that shouldn’t be a secret.

Secrets. That’s the thing that Secret History never gets to successfully justify. Bowers released a tell all book. He names all of the names he couldn’t because all of the parties were still alive. He adds these names to a list of LGBT in history, a small list for obvious reasons. Many people have been supportive of this decision. But there are the vocal few who are ambivalent if not outright hostile to him for what he did. That’s understandable though. These people should have come out during their lifetimes or through posthumously released letters. That’s better than someone else outing them.

Bowers corrects the naysayers who ask him about outing these dead stars, asking them what’s wrong with being gay. But the documentary never addresses Bowers’ politically incorrect language, stopping short of using slurs to describe his customers. This makes the audience question his intentions about outing them. This could also mean two things. The first that this was a failed attempt to honestly show the complexities. Besides, Bowers was tangentially a member of the LGBT community from a different time. There’s a second reason why Tyrnauer lets Bowers speak the way he does. The movie sets him up for self-sabotage, doing it subtly.

There’s also something about the way Tyrnauer uses archive footage here. It can rub some people in the audience the wrong way. One particular sequence involves Cole Porter and Cary Grant, two of Bowers’s clients. Porter apparently is one of Bowers’ big users. Anyway, Grant calls himself gay in one iconic scene in Bringing Up Baby. He also sings the Porter song ‘You’re the Top,’ which, of course, has a different connotation within the LGBT community. There’s a ‘get it?’ aspect to this footage. There’s an occasional thrill in discovering innuendo within beloved, nostalgic pieces of work but it seems juvenile here.

There’s another thing that the film brings up – the war – which it brings up and drops without rhyme or reason. Bowers is like many vets who ended up in LA. His path diverged from all those other men when he ended up doing sex work, obviously. But it traces all the problems he has, including his hoarding, from the war. This indulgence towards armchair psychology is disappointing, to be honest. When that doesn’t work, the film mines his life as an attempt to get a gotcha moment. As if he, with his mix of gregariousness and evasiveness, isn’t enough to drive the doc.

Bowers lived a long and interesting life as a member of the community, seeing it through its different phases. Bowers was there at a time when all LGBT thought that they can only achieve happiness in secret. He was there during the AIDS crisis. He fixed people up who had it and leaving his work since it became a dice roll. Lastly he’s here now, when younger generations can marry who they love. He contributed greatly to two of those things although the doc doesn’t focus too much on the second thing. That shortchanges those who would have loved to see something less salacious.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watch movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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