Cary Grant was 82 when he died after a stroke in Davenport, Iowa. It happened Nov. 29, 1986.
What any movie fan might well ask is, "What the devil was Cary Grant doing in Davenport, Iowa?"
In my opinion that question – and its answer – are among the most momentous questions and answers to be had about movies and America.
It was Grant among American movie stars, who first felt a schism so acutely that he wanted to do something about it. The schism he felt was between the life and fame of an American movie mega-star in Los Angeles and those middle American audiences that had always supported his movies.
It was Grant, more than anyone, who virtually invented touring America with "A Conversation with Cary Grant" to bridge that gap with charm and stories. It wasn't just that there was money to be made from it, it was that he knew one of the big questions of history itself is, "What was Famous Person X really like?" It's a basic human question, whether "X" refers to Julius Caesar, Grant or Cardi B.
In Matt Tyrnauer's radical and remarkable new documentary film "Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood," we're told about a very different Grant than the one who went to Davenport to charm everyone in sight. The documentary film's Grant was the former roommate of film actor Randolph Scott and widely presumed lover; the one who before that had lived with Orry Kelly, who later become one of Hollywood's busiest and most respected costume designers.
(The film, by the way, has been scheduled to be shown for only five days beginning today in the Eastern Hills Mall Theater. It is unrated, but NC-17 equivalent. Anything beyond those five days will depend on box office. It is, I think, a rebellious film no serious student or lover of movies should miss.)
The film's idea is to answer the question, "What was Famous Person X really like?" by giving us the special point of view of Scotty Bowers, who is still with us at age 95. The film is based on Bowers' memoir, "Full Service", which came out in 2012 and detailed his life as one of the most successful hustlers, procurers and, apparently, intimate friends, ever to flourish in high-level Hollywood. The life we are told about is jaw-dropping.
A good rule of thumb, it has always seemed to me, is never to give total credence to erotic tale-teller who insists on bringing numbers into his tales, as Bowers does. But Tyrnauer and Bowers' whole point is that there is, indeed, a whole "secret life of Hollywood" that has been strenuously kept from us for 60 years, but has, nevertheless, been intermittently visible in glimpses and flashes for many decades.
In that regard, think of Tyrnauer's film as one of the last unofficial acts of one of America's most sexually radical and famous writers, Gore Vidal, whose last public appearance was a Bowers book publication party. If you think of Vidal, the writer and masterful public provocateur, as something akin to a great Italian Renaissance painter, Tyrnauer's film could be thought of as from the "school of Gore Vidal." Tyrnauer was a friend of the older man and, in fact, tells journalists he is Vidal's literary executor. It was from Vidal that Tyrnauer first learned of Bowers.
The Bowers we see is a singular figure whose highly unusual charm couldn't be more self-evident. He looks like the "old leprechaun" that his wife of 36 years calls him. With curly white hair and an ever-present smile, Bowers was, in his youth, "the center of a whole different Hollywood world," says former Variety Editor Peter Bart.
If you watch and read the great – indeed indispensable – products of what the film calls "the establishment view of Hollywood history," you get only mild suggestions of the unconventional lives of legendary figures. After watching, for instance, a recent showing of Otto Preminger's "Where the Sidewalk Ends" on TCM, Ben Mankiewicz will tell you about the time during the film's shooting the film's alcoholic star Dana Andrews came to the door of co-star and friend Gene Tierney and her husband Oleg Cassini. He was bedraggled after a night of drinking and in need of a breakfast to sober him up to do his job.
What Bowers provides is from another level altogether of revealing what the famous are "really like." This is the historic view from 5777 Hollywood Blvd., the Richfield gas station where ex-Marine Bowers first got a Los Angeles job and where he wound up fixing up Angelenos of all sorts, but especially Hollywood aristocracy.
To Bowers, all he was doing was "making people happy." He embodies the onetime common American conviction that sexuality with consent is the basic tenet of American progressivism.
The Bowers we see in the movie is an entertaining anachronism. He's an omnisexual utopian from a recent post-war world where libertinism seemed to work perfectly for many who'd spent the war years accustoming themselves to dead colleagues. It all ended, of course, when AIDS once again brought death, in large numbers, into the lives of so many.
The world of Rock Hudson followed all the vestiges of Bowers' world. Hudson became a living symbol of Hollywood's closet. Everyone in Hollywood itself and elsewhere always knew what he was really like, even if neither he nor his audience could ever quite say it publicly.
Then, after his horrifying, sickly appearance at some public events, he died of AIDS, hidden away, in Paris' Ritz Hotel.
How different from the once-hidden Grant who insisted on meeting in middle America the audiences who'd come to his movies all those years.
Is it, at all possible, that Grant would have considered the world record amount of outing of Hollywood figures in "Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood" a kind of welcome end to a secret that was kept far too long?
Turner Classic Movies is a necessary part of American culture. So is all of the burgeoning "establishment" appreciation of Hollywood history.
Think of Tyrnauer's film as a necessary supplement to TCM, and be grateful it exists.