“The movies hawk an image of wholesome American virtue,” declares a grizzled gas station manager in Hollywood, the new Netflix series from the Glee creator Ryan Murphy. “The folks making the movies? Rotten to the core.”
And as Murphy delves into and pointedly rewrites the history of Tinseltown in its late-1940s heyday, he gives us a vision of showbiz steeped in illicit sex. Ernie the gas station manager (Dylan McDermott) is pimping out his pump attendants to stars and studio workers. Or sometimes showbiz figures whose homosexuality is against the law; the composer Cole Porter, say, sitting expectantly with trousers off but garters on in a trailer on the forecourt.
Ernie’s new recruit is Jack (David Corenswet), a handsome veteran of the Battle of Anzio who is in town looking for stardom. Jack doesn’t set out to turn tricks, but he can’t even get work as an extra, his wife is pregnant and the money is good. And when Ernie won’t tolerate Jack’s refusal to sleep with men as well as women, Jack recruits Archie (Jeremy Pope), a gay, black would-be screenwriter who is more willing to oblige. “So you’re a gigolo?” a client asks Archie. “I’m a writer,” Archie replies.
A Pimp at the Pump
Is this a seamy fantasy or just how things were? Well, Hollywood is not an exercise in realism. Murphy and his co-writer, Ian Brennan (who created Glee with Murphy and Brad Falchuk), set out to do for late-1940s Hollywood more or less what Quentin Tarantino did for the Sharon Tate murders two decades later in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Which is to mix fictional characters with real-life people. To mix how the town really worked back then with how they wish it had worked back then. And if the sex is illicit, Murphy and Brennan are asking, why was it illicit? Why was gay sex illegal, why was interracial romance taboo, why was Hollywood scared of casting non-white leading actors and what might have been different if it hadn’t been?
As the series goes on, we meet a young actor called Roy Fitzgerald, who is told to change his name to something more studly: Rock Hudson. We see Anna May Wong, the Chinese-American actress, pointing out the sort of roles that the studios will and won’t accept her in. Thanks to the show’s fictional Ace Pictures, history gets tweaked so that Hollywood becomes more diverse.
Diverse or not, though, those rotten-to-the-core Hollywood types still carry on screwing each other. And this is based in fact, or at least, shall we say, reports. The Hollywood garage may seem outlandish, but actually it’s inspired directly by real life. The Hollywood Richfield gas station at 5777 Hollywood Boulevard was a hangout for young men and women and the film folk they had sex with. It was there, in the years after the Second World War, that Scotty Bowers, a former Marine who became a rent boy and pimp — albeit one who claimed he never took money from anyone except the people he slept with — made himself the pivot of Hollywood’s sex life.
“The folks making the movies? Rotten to the core.”
Murphy has a habit of offering his own takes on celebrity history. In Bette and Joan he depicted the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during the filming of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? His anthology series American Crime Story has included The People v OJ Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace. The next American Crime Story serial, Impeachment, will feature Clive Owen as Bill Clinton and Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky is one of Impeachment’s co-producers, so expect a more sympathetic treatment of her than was common in the late 1990s.
It was after finishing the Versace show that Murphy was talking to its star Darren Criss about that Hollywood garage. Murphy found the place fascinating, he told Collider magazine recently. “And I was never interested in the sexuality of it really, or the sordidness of it,” he said. “What I was interested in was the rather sad, upsetting idea that people had to go there to be who they were and to be able to express who they were.”
So Murphy’s series is a glorious wallow in period detail, beautifully shot, and a corrective to the mores of the age. Its inspiration, however, is a more straightforward celebration of those depraved movie types and the men and women who sold their bodies to them.
Bowers’s 2012 memoir, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, just gets on with the business of detailing dozens of alleged liaisons (from what sounds like a lifetime of thousands of them). Bowers, who died last October aged 96, makes you wonder how anyone in Tinseltown had any time to make any movies. They were at it all the time. Sometimes paying for it. Sometimes with more than one friend or stranger at a time. Rarely with their spouses. What’s more, Bowers does his best to make it all sound like tremendous fun for everyone concerned.
It helps the entertainment value of the book that he and his ghost writer, Lionel Friedberg, have no fear of using hokey sentences to hook you in. “I became enmeshed in a wild world of sexual intrigue the likes of which few people can even begin to imagine,” he says. “The gas station was the portal that eventually took me into an exclusive world where high-class sex was everything.” Sex is one thing. High-class sex is something else.
As the series goes on, we meet a young actor called Roy Fitzgerald, who is told to change his name to something more studly: Rock Hudson.
Bowers’s first client turns out to be the film star Walter Pidgeon. And although Bowers was a farm boy from Illinois, he was no innocent. “I was blessed with a great sexual constitution. Why hide it?” He later reveals a childhood full of sex and selling his body after abuse by a next-door neighbour. The modern reader cannot help but try to peer past Bowers’s unending positivity about sex to wondering how he had been damaged, and to wonder about Betty, the mother of his daughter whose fortitude he pays tribute to as he describes barely spending a night at home as he went off turning tricks with men and women alike.
And no riff-raff either. Just as Porter arrives soon in Hollywood, so he does in Bowers’s book. Bowers helps the great composer with his “absolute passion for Marines” by bringing three of his old war buddies with him when he goes to Porter’s mansion. Soon there is sex with the “scandalously handsome” Tyrone Power and “sexcapades” with Cary Grant and his flatmate, Randolph Scott and he is left “dizzy with ecstasy” by the director George Cukor (whose “pool parties” make it to the third episode of Hollywood, nicknamed “the night of 1,000 dicks” by the show’s writers).
Cukor introduces him to Katharine Hepburn, whom Bowers goes on to set up with “over 150 different women” over the course of her lifetime. The alleged romance between her and her frequent co-star Spencer Tracy is entirely cooked up, he tells us, while revealing how he occasionally slept with Tracy himself. Bowers is happy to sleep with men, but likes women best; we are invited to celebrate his good fortune when he gets to do the deed with Errol Flynn’s would-be conquests after the great actor pre-coitally conks out after hours of drinking.
Soon there is sex with the “scandalously handsome” Tyrone Power and “sexcapades” with Cary Grant and his flatmate.
Flynn, Bowers tells us, could drink all night, but be sober by the time he reached the set. Bowers, meanwhile, is flat-out having paid sex with people or organising for his friends and associates to have paid sex with people. Oh, and manning the petrol pumps between the hours of 5pm and midnight. “I jumped at the opportunity to go off with either a man or a woman who was attractive and who wanted to make whoopee with me,” he says. “Just as long as it didn’t interrupt my normal working life.”
Some of the other people he says he made whoopee with were Vivien Leigh, Roddy McDowall, Hudson and Cecil Beaton. He slept with both Edward and Mrs Simpson. He made “long, slow love” to Édith Piaf. It is a world, the way Bowers describes it, without guilt, disease, exposure or, really, emotion. As an escapist read, it is alluring and ultimately rather wearing. Even if he did everything — and everyone — he says he did, there is little sense of Bowers except as an amiable and ever-capable provider of erections and sympathy.
Heavens, it sounds so easy. So Murphy, who knows that drama can’t sustain itself for long if there are no consequences to actions, takes a different tack. The vice squad, apparently outfoxed by Bowers, although a bane of many gay men until it stopped persecuting them in the 1970s, makes an early appearance in Hollywood. Bowers never got into movies. In Hollywood, and this isn’t a huge spoiler, Jack’s sexcapades help him to get within the studio walls. Beyond that, the series has its eyes on a bigger prize than mere banging. If you want evidence of the Hollywood stars’ proclivity for promiscuity, well, there is Bowers’s book, as well as all manner of other tell-alls, not least the notorious Hollywood Babylon.
The sex is more copious in Hollywood and a bit more explicit than you would get in a terrestrial television show. Really, though, it’s a smokescreen for Murphy and company’s attempts to remind us not just that things were that way, but that they needn’t have been that way. It’s a show ultimately more about tolerance than titillation.
“I’ve always been interested in this kind of buried history, and I wanted to create a universe where these icons got the endings that they deserved,” Murphy told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s this beautiful fantasy, and in these times it could be a sort of balm in some way.”
Hollywood is now available on Netflix