At the opening-night party of Matt Tyrnauer’s hit documentary “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” at Tim Burton’s Chateau Marmont apartment, Scotty Bowers, the tousle-haired author of 2012 tell-all “Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars,” celebrated his 95th birthday.
“So how gay was Spencer Tracy?” I asked him.
“He got drunk and thanked the man beside him in the morning for taking care of him,” he said with a gap-toothed grin, taunting me with his next provocation: “He didn’t just suck cock, he crunched it!”
We laughed. “And how gay was Katharine Hepburn?”
“She loved one woman for 40 years who left her to marry a rich man,” he said. He claims to have arranged 150 get-togethers with women over five decades for Hepburn. That was his job — putting gay people together via a Hollywood gas station for rendezvous with movie stars, from Charles Laughton to Walter Pidgeon.
In the film, the late Liz Smith goes on the record for the first time to confirm that Hepburn had lesbian relationships. With Tracy, “Scotty is a primary source,” said Tyrnauer. “As far as I know, he and Tracy were alone when these things happened.”
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Of course, Bowers wrote his Hollywood tell-all after the marquee names were all dead. He was not the first to write about Tracy and Hepburn’s bisexuality: William Mann’s “Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn” describes most of Hepburn’s supposed lovers that way. While many have gotten used to the idea that Cary Grant had sex with his roommate Randolph Scott, among others, there’s more resistance to the notion that Hepburn loved her companion Phyllis Wilbourn for decades and then encouraged her many biographers to perpetuate the myth of her romance with Tracy, from Garson Kanin and A. Scott Berg to Barbara Leaming. Most of us aren’t yet ready to give up on that Hollywood love story.
For his part, former Vanity Fair editor and contributor Tyrnauer has believed Bowers ever since Gore Vidal introduced them (Tyrnauer is the literary executor of Vidal’s estate). As Tyrnauer was shooting his documentary, he researched Bower’s claims. He found that for the most part, keeping in mind the faulty memory of a nonagenarian, many little specific details checked out.
“The more I was with Scotty, the more I believed,” he said. “Gore really was a historian, he didn’t lie about the record. That he endorsed Scotty was something I could take to the bank. As I interviewed Scotty, I started to cross-check and fact-check everything I could, almost in real time. Over and over all this evidence began to appear through reliable articles and other accounts that I found, by Googling. It was overwhelming: the crosschecking of facts points to his absolute believability.”
One Hollywood biographer debunks Vidal’s reliability, saying, “he lived for gossip.”
Schooled in the auteur theory at Crossroads and Wesleyan, Tyrnauer first explored documentaries with the intimate portrait, “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” When it was a success, he decided it was the perfect time to merge his two loves, movies and journalism, as a documentary filmmaker.
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When Vidal introduced Bowers and Tyrnauer, it was ahead of the publication of his book in 2012. Tyrnauer shot for two years, edited for one, and took the film around the festival circuit after its 2017 Toronto debut. “I find once people have seen the film, they aren’t questioning Scotty’s veracity that much,” he said. “In the film, you go to visit the guys who were among the male prostitutes at the gas station, you have physical evidence of them having done these tricks. One has an autographed Charles Laughton script; he used to help Laughton run lines during ‘Witness for the Prosecution.'”
In the movie, you see the former gay prostitute leaf through a little black book with names of gentlemen clients, phone numbers, and addresses, including designer Bill Blass. “It’s part of my mission and duty as a filmmaker and journalist to have this mostly cinema verite film unfold in a way that’s substantiating,” said Tyrnauer.
After growing up in Los Angeles with a father who wrote for “Columbo,” Tyrnauer became a writer at Spy and editor at Vanity Fair at age 23, putting his film career on hold for 25 years of observational journalism. “I was seriously influenced by the Maysles brothers’ ‘Grey Gardens,'” he said. “I let characters tell their own stories and use different perspectives to weave together the narrative. There’s a real relationship between a deep-dive 10,000-word magazine story and cinema verite documentaries. The impact you can have with a small film is exponentially greater than even the flashiest big magazine story.”
And he learned from Spy founder, documentary maker, and recently departed Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter. “He was a great gut player,” said Tyrnauer, “a good risk taker. He knew when to leave Spy. He was fearless.”
With designer Valentino, Tyrnauer saw a way to expand a long VF feature and coffee table book into a visual film about a gay union. “Their relationship was something special,” he said. “I wanted to make a movie about marriage and an unconventional family and took the leap.”
Tyrnauer learned on the fly. During the making of the private equity-financed film, he sought advice from old friend, hotelier Ian Schrager, who said: “If you do a good job with this film, you will be able to do anything you want. Make sure it comes out well at all costs; throw yourself into it.”
Toronto invited the film in 2008, where it scored solid reviews but no viable distribution offers. Tyrnauer released the movie himself to 20 cities via David Schultz’s Vitagraph Films. “It made a ton of money,” said Tyrnauer. “My assistant was feeding DCPs from my home. Rentrak box office was a tad over $2 million. It cost $1 million-ish. We stumbled into the split rights model emerging at the time, and sold to Showtime, streaming to Netflix. It keeps selling, we’re renewing territories.”
Schrager was right. After his two-year trial by fire and the Oscar shortlist, Tyrnauer was able to get financing for two more films. Urban planner biodoc “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” (2016) was funded by foundations like Rockefeller. And “Scotty” was also funded by private equity, and distributed by Greenwich Entertainment.
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Tyrnauer’s next feature, A&E’s “Studio 54,” debuted at Sundance 2018, opened Outfest, and hits theaters in October. It’s hard to believe the legendary mid-town disco only lasted for 33 months (April 1977 to January 1980), when its owners, straight Ian Schrager and gay Steve Rubell, went to jail. “It seems like it defined an era,” said Tyrnauer, who convinced his old friend and magazine subject Schrager to talk about the club for the first time as its 40th anniversary was looming.
While I’m an old enough New Yorker to have frequented Studio 54 in its Warhol/Jagger/Halston/Gere heyday, Tyrnauer, born in 1969, had “zero experience,” he said. “I was in third grade when all this was going down. It’s one of those stories everyone thinks they know but they don’t really know. The sex-drugs-disco story we’ve all heard before, with Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli, the stars of the period, mountains of cocaine and poppers, and sex in the balcony. All that’s valid, it’s going to get people in the door.”
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But research yielded yet another unconventional love story. “Schrager characterizes his relationship with Rubell as a marriage,” said Tyrnauer, who sees these ambitious outer-borough renegades as up-ending the old WASP establishment of New York. “It was on its last legs,” he said. “John Travolta’s Tony Manero was different from Ian and Steven, who were street-smart Jewish kids from lower middle-class families who had eyes on a different prize. Tony Manero wanted to go to Manhattan, while they wanted to take it over and run it for themselves. They opened the door for ambitious kids of that generation, who were the first of their families to go to college.”
And, Studio 54 represents the last gasp of the ‘60s volcanic sexual revolution, before the AIDS crisis, which started in 1980. Mainly Tyrnauer had to convince Schrager — who has rebuilt himself into a corporate hotel powerhouse — to open up. “If there’s no jail in the movie, there’s no movie,” Tyrnauer told him. Also, Schrager wasn’t the public face of Studio 54 as much as the late Rubell, who succumbed to AIDS in 1989. “Studio 54 has other deeply felt emotional resonances for him.”
Schrager is a fascinating character in the movie, who helps to unravel the complexity of the legal trouble Studio 54 got into — for one thing, these street-wise entrepreneurs were operating without a liquor license, and for another, everything around them was corrupt and they didn’t know which rules they could break. Being represented by power broker Roy Cohn didn’t help. It turns out, skimming millions in cash profits was not legal, and one of their partners turned state’s evidence, hastening their downfall. But man, it was fun while it lasted.
After years of development limbo after HBO won an initial bidding war, Vanity Fair’s “Once Upon a Time in Beverly Hills,” the story of Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show producer Fred de Cordova’s luxury-loving widow Janet, scripted by Jon Hoffman (“Looking,” “Grace and Frankie”), is finally getting made with Ted Hope at Amazon Studios.
Apple also is mounting non-fiction architecture series “Home,” ten episodes “focused on the creators and inhabitants of extraordinary cutting-edge domestic architecture around the world,” said Tyrnauer, who will stay behind the camera as an executive producer and director.
Roy Cohn, a significant player in the “Studio 54” story, is also the focus of Tyrnauer’s next documentary, “Don’t Mess with Roy Cohn.” Norman Lear is helping to finance.
Will there be a live action movie about Scotty Bowers? Stay tuned.