Director Matt Tyrnauer finds himself in contention for awards this year with not one but two feature-length documentaries. Taken together, they offer a unique social and cultural history of America from the late 1940s into the 1980s.
Studio 54 centers on the latter end of that time period, when entrepreneurs Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager transformed an old theater space in Manhattan into “the greatest nightclub of all time,” as Tyrnauer and many others consider it.
“You could look at other genres of nightclub like the Stork Club and say, ‘That was great, too,’” the director notes. “But there was certainly nothing in the modern era that ever approached Studio 54, as hard as everyone tried.”
From 1977 to 1979—the height of the disco era—the club became a magnet for celebrities and the non-famous, who cavorted in a drug-fueled atmosphere of revelry and wild abandon.
“It was the perfect expression of its moment and the product of the peculiar genius of its founders,” Tyrnauer tells Deadline. “It was the crescendo of the ’70s and at the same time, the sexual revolution…Vietnam and Watergate are recently over, everyone’s going out at night dancing in the cities, certainly New York City. And gay culture, queer culture, is coming out into the open and some of its most ecstatic representations are at discotheques and nightclubs. Studio is the mother of them all.”
Part of the legend of Studio 54 resulted from its merciless admission practices, where crowds were judged nightly on whether they were worthy of entry.
“The population in the nightclub was ‘cast’ every evening spontaneously at the door by Steve Rubell and the doorman, Marc Benecke, who had rigorous standards about who could get in and who couldn’t,” Tyrnauer comments. “It created almost hysteria, what today we call FOMO, fear of missing out, but at a fever pitch that wasn’t known before or since.”
Most—though not all—celebs were ushered right in, a Who’s Who featuring the likes of Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Jones, Elton John, Diana Ross, Robin Williams and Liza Minnelli. Interestingly, Tyrnauer deliberately chose not to go back to surviving stars to plumb their memories of Studio 54.
“I had resolved to make it anything but a celebrity reminiscence documentary,” he insists. “I just thought it would be boring for so many reasons. For one, when you get a very famous person talking about anything, generally they only talk about themselves…And how much do I really care about Liza’s perspective? Some people might, but I really didn’t.”
The director did include a revealing glimpse of the future King of Pop with the club’s co-founder.
“We found this remarkable piece of archival of a very young Michael Jackson being interviewed about the club, in the club, with Steve Rubell sitting next to him,” Tyrnauer notes. “For me that was just much more interesting than hearing about Liza, what she might have thought.”
He also had the memories of Schrager to draw from (Rubell died in 1989 from complications of AIDS). Post-Studio, Schrager, 72, became one of the country’s leading hoteliers and real estate developers, but had been reluctant to talk about Studio 54, in part because of the way the club collapsed—in the midst of an IRS investigation that would send Schrager and Rubell to prison for 13 months.
Prompted by his children, Schrager toyed with “going there”—sharing his thoughts on that turbulent time.
“He said to me one day, ‘Do you think a movie on this would be a good idea? And I said, ‘If you talk, it would be a great idea.’” Tyrnauer recalls. “And then he said to me, ‘Well, what about jail?’ And I said, ‘If there’s no jail, there’s no movie. So, forget about it if you don’t want to talk about jail.’ And he said, ‘All right, I’ll do it.’ And then that started us down the road.”
For his second documentary to qualify for Oscar consideration this year—Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood—Tyrnauer also enjoyed the full cooperation of his remarkable subject, 95-year-old Scotty Bowers.
An Illinois farm boy, Bowers served in the Marines in World War II, fighting in the Battle of Iwo Jima. After the war he settled in Hollywood where before long he began providing sexual services to Hollywood’s closeted luminaries—a list that Bowers says included Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Charles Laughton, Cole Porter, Rock Hudson and many, many others. Sometimes those “services” meant arranging sex partners for his clients (women for Hepburn, men for the others). Oftentimes he hopped in the sack himself, doing the honors with men and women.
Stars loved him for his endowments, both physical and intangible, from his genial personality to his absolute discretion. He says he only now is revealing details of his Hollywood adventures—first in a book and now in Tyrnauer’s film—because everyone he names is now dead. Even so, some people don’t like him throwing open the closet doors on screen legends.
“People [in Hollywood] knew, especially about Cary Grant and Randolph Scott. That went on for years! They lived as lovers for 10, 12 years, together. And all of a sudden people say, ‘How can you say Cary Grant’s gay?’” Bowers tells Deadline. “When people say ‘There’s no way he was gay,’ I say, ‘You’re right, he wasn’t gay. It was his lover that was gay.’”
The social and cultural history documented in Scotty has to do with the post-war growth of nascent gay culture in large American cities, boosted in part by returning servicemen who had seen the world, and didn’t want to return to their small hometowns, and their narrow ways. And Scotty, of course, exposes a long-neglected aspect of Hollywood history that was initially kept from the public by the studio publicity apparatus, and even now remains somewhat taboo.
Tyrnauer has felt the pushback.
“Gore Vidal use to refer to the ‘heterosexual dictatorship,’” Tyrnauer observes. “And I think the heterosexual dictatorship is rearing its head a little bit in response to Scotty’s alternate narrative of Hollywood, because he supplies information that was suppressed and people don’t like to confront that.”
With two films out this year, Tyrnauer isn’t pausing to take a breath. Sundance just revealed its lineup for the 2019 festival, which will feature the world premiere of Tyrnauer’s latest documentary, Where’s My Roy Cohn?, another film with social and political import.
“Roy Cohn personified the dark arts of American politics, turning empty vessels into dangerous demagogues—from Joseph McCarthy to his final project, Donald J. Trump,” Sundance programmers wrote. “This thriller-like exposé connects the dots, revealing how a deeply troubled master manipulator shaped our current American nightmare.”