“When I’m good I’m very good, but when I’m bad I’m better.”
– Mae West
Oh, how I wish this were true.
On paper, Mae West is everything an audacious fag could desire: brazen, controversial, and dressed to the nines. She made it through vaudeville, burlesque, Broadway, radio, TV, Vegas, rock and roll albums, and the movies as a writer/performer/provocateur, retaining control (sometimes to her own demise) over her scripts, image, and legend within Hollywood’s Studio System. Her plays Sex and The Drag (an early example of pro-gay literature) got her jailed and stymied by the Morality Police. Her work was seen as shocking, revolutionary, and culturally significant, proving that women could be just as powerful (and interested in sex) as men. Her breakthrough film She Done Him Wrong (1933) saved Paramount from bankruptcy and even today her name is looked upon with respect. Bette Midler and Madonna have repurposed the Westian philosophy of feminine masculinity, crude sexual rebellion, and African-American homage, adding a dash of modernity and musical theatre, to make them one name legends as well. (To wit, Midler is playing Mae West in an upcoming HBO film based on her memoirs…). Yes, on paper, Mae West is everything a man obsessed with sex, censorship, and Hollywood history could ask for.
She is an overrated bore that is more important than good.
The problem with Mae as the star of her vehicles is that she is not an actress; she is a personality. Every character, regardless of her name, is Mae West – even Mae West was “Mae West” (watch any interview with her. She is ALWAYS “on”). And unlike W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, The Three Stooges, or any other comedy legend, her personality is frankly not that interesting. She is nothing more than a throbbing clitoris, waiting to be flicked. She bobs her hips, fluffs her hair, throws off a double entendre, croaks out a ditty, and thinks that makes her fabulous. Her characters are empty inside, lacking anything that even resembles human emotion. She is a caricature of a human, a caricature of a woman, and a facsimile of what some refer to as Talent.
In Belle of the Nineties, her “act,” the big time showstopper for the club is nothing more than West posing in various costumes while some tenor sings, sending the crowd into hysterics. Every script is filled with reminders of her beauty and bedroom prowess, every film filled with a supple supply of men begging for her approval (Where does the Satire stop and her Narcissism begin…?). Usually casting herself as the main event chanteuse, West talk/sings her way through an endless array of numbers, ranging from slightly engaging to comatose. Yet these numbers are the reason to suffer through the films in the first place. They contain her gait, her lascivious eye rolls, her signature voice, and her flare for eccentric dress. Watching her attempt to connect with fellow actors in dialogue scenes, however, is downright painful and utterly uncomfortable. It’s as if she is marking time between songs and zingers. I find it difficult to believe that she was such a hit on the stage where acting is more revered and the audience is a lot more critical. Perhaps you just had to be there. West would have been great in the music video era when lip-synching for five minutes through various sexual poses is all that is required to be successful.
But Mae West rightfully earned her place in history. While Louise Brooks adopted the flapper dress and celebrated her boyish body and manly haircut, while Gertrude Stein proved her literary weight at the Algonquin in her pant suit, West employed her style of garish feminism as a traditional woman: buxom and coiffed, Mae brought men to their knees decked out in the most theatrical costume that would accentuate her positives. But she was more than just a sex symbol. She told male studio heads where they could stick their awful scripts, lived a furiously independent life, and was unashamedly self-assured (to the brink of Egotism…). She wrote the checks, cashed them, and laughed all the way to the bank. Yes, Mae West was an anomaly in those early days of Hollywood; a siren luring men into complete submission with her sashay and a song, unafraid of waves crashing around her.
When she is not on screen, her films die. When Mae is not vamping, her films die. And when we spend too much time with her, with no time to miss what makes her special, her films die. From a modern view point, West’s greatest strengths are her audacity (even now her infamous quips seem shocking. In fact, her one-liners were so respected that she was offered to write a column like Will Rogers; she turned it down) and her unabashed joy in her own sexuality (paging Madonna…it seems odd she doesn’t cite Mae in “Vogue,” but makes room for Joe Dimaggio…). But her “talent” is almost moot. It’s not important that Mae West wasn’t great. What’s important is that Mae West existed.
In 1951, after (BLISSFULLY!) turning down Billy Wilder for the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (refusing to consider herself a has-been), West began writing a play: Sextette, about a newly married woman who must juggle her five ex-husbands and restore diplomacy through her…feminine wiles. Unable to find a backer, the play took ten years to mount. Then at 68, Mae returned to the road. In the hopes of finally bringing Sextette to the screen, West accepted a part in 20th Century-Fox’s newest commodity, Myra Breckinridge, her first film in 27 years (“It’s a return, not a comeback” – Norma Desmond to a T…). Of course, under the provision that she retained her famous control of her dialogue. And we all know what a bum decision that turned out to be…
Though Myra Breckinridge tanked, it thrust Mae West into the Liberation-centered ’70s, where she was heralded for being a champion of gay rights and female empowerment. She appeared on Dick Cavett, wrote two books, and at the age of 84 went into production on her final film, the train wreck adaptation of Sextette.
Sextette follows the exploits of internationally famed movie star Marlo Manners during her honeymoon. Surrounded by well-wishers, sycophants, and staff, Marlo can’t get a moment alone with Husband No. 6 (the 31 year old Timothy Dalton). To make matters worse, ex-husbands (and muscle bound athletes) start coming out of the wood work, demanding her affection. One ex-husband, a diplomat, refuses to vote for diplomacy unless he can spend one more night with Marlo. Dozens of men are falling over themselves, putting national security at risk even, for the clarion call of her geriatric pussy. Lest we forget this is a musical, there are tap dancing bellhops and a string of horrible, very poorly lip-synched songs, delivered in Mae’s talk/sing moans. If it weren’t all so embarrassing, it would be hilarious.
Problems begat problems right from the start. The producers were inexperienced, the budget ballooned from 1.5 to 7 million dollars, the director was replaced, and the script was a mess. Like Cleopatra before it, Sextette began rolling without a finished screenplay. Herbert Baker, who was adapting West’s play, wrote scenes the night before or even the morning of shooting, making it impossible for the octogenarian Mae to learn her lines. If her delivery seems to be even more stilted than normal, it’s because she was fitted with a ear piece under her wig, allowing Hughes to feed her her dialogue. This was not the only thing impeded by her advanced age. If her famous gait seems more wobbly than you think it should even for an 84 year old, it’s because her vision kept her from seeing her marks; therefore, a PA had to crawl around as her guide out of frame.
The cast is as random and pointless as the spin-the-wheel call sheet on Sgt. Pepper: George Hamilton, Ringo Starr, and Tony Curtis as a few of her ex-husbands; Alice Cooper as a piano playing waiter; Regis Philbin as a news anchor; Keith Moon as a fashion designer; Walter Pidgeon as the head of the UN; and a scenery chomping Dom Deluise as Marlo’s personal assistant.
And then there is Mae herself in the rarest of forms, looking visibly exhausted, like a gussied up Baby Jane Hudson, desperately trying to hang on to her glory days. For whatever they were worth.
Reading her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, you fall in love with her snark, her gregariousness, her charisma, and her catchy turn of phrase; like any good autobiography should do (or any visit to Graceland…). But watching her films is another story. They are unilaterally bad, some downright awful with West herself as their greatest asset – and liability. Sextette may not be the worst of the worst. But it is certainly the strangest.