Pretty in the Past: Mae West

Mae West is a perfect example of how becoming a legend often means doing something before anyone else. Her utter lack of shame and willingness to shock in an age where such acts could result in jail time made her an icon.
Publish date:
January 2, 2013
movies, cinema, pretty in the past, Mae West, golden age of hollywood

Why is Mae West a name many people still recognize today?

Because she was the first movie star who talked about sex. In fact, she spoke in a language almost exclusively devoted to come-ons and innuendo; her demeanor so transparently bawdy it caused her to almost visually pulsate onscreen.

Now, Mae wasn’t the first Hollywood star to personify sex. There were plenty of silent stars that did that before her - including Theda Bara, Louise Brooks and “It” girl, Clara Bow (not to mention her contemporary, Jean Harlow). It’s not a coincidence that she only became a movie star after sound took over the medium. Her appeal to moviegoers wasn’t physical - it was audible. A combination of the outrageous things she said and the way she said them.

The sexy flappers of the 20s became casualties of the Great Depression, where sudden austerity made people more conservative and suspicious of frivolity. This new atmosphere allowed Mae to shine out like a horny, horny beacon.

Before Mae there had been no performer - male or female - who so shamelessly focused on the subject of getting it on. And one could argue that it wouldn’t be until half a century later when a Michigan-born dancer turned singer named Madonna Ciccone debuted that anyone did it again as successfully as she had.

Because of this it was impossible for her not to become an icon. She was too wholly unique and identifiable - there was no one else like her. It’s also what kept her from making a lot of movies - appearing in only 10 over the course of a career that (as we’ll will soon see, rather unfortunately) lasted into her 80s.

Getting her past the Hays Office (at the time Hollywood’s official censor bureau) had been hard enough in the beginning, but eventually those in charge of enforcing the Office’s official code came to the conclusion that Mae herself was problematic - no matter how clever or coded her dialogue became. By the 1940s she was forced to tone down her essential “Mae-ness” to the point that she brought nothing special to the screen and audiences stopped coming.

At the age of 50, she retired for the first time in 1943. By then her persona had ceased to be an affectation (if it ever even had been) and she spent her days being the woman she was onscreen in real life - famously surrounding herself with young male bodybuilders and never letting an innuendo go unspoken.

For a time it seemed like she was destined to fade into history, but the rise of revival movie houses across North America in the '60s resulted in a new generation of viewers embracing the performers of the past. It was the perfect time for Mae to be rediscovered, as her uniquely brazen persona made her stand out in an era where folks were beginning to reject their parents’ conservative attitudes regarding sex.

But Mae’s popular legend was based more on photographs and easily performed impressions than her films. Her cultural renaissance had much more to do with the idea of what she represented, not the quality of her work. Those who actually took the time to watch her films often found them wanting. Like Madonna after her, her film performances could sometimes lack depth and commitment. Somehow she managed to not be very convincing playing what were essentially different versions of herself.

Sadly, though, this didn’t stop filmmakers from trying to capitalize on her newfound cultural cachet. Michael Sarne, a young British director assigned to turn Gore Vidal’s seemingly unfilmable novel Myra Breckinridge into a vehicle for Raquel Welch, decided that Mae was the missing piece he needed in his quest to turn the film into a tribute to old Hollywood.

The demands Mae made before accepting the role were not those of a star who hadn’t worked in 27 years. Among them was the insistence that she be allowed to perform two songs in the film, even though it was not musical and her character - a talent agent who specializes in handsome young actors (including a mustache-less Tom Selleck)- had absolutely no reason to also be a nightclub performer, much less one with so much apparent hatred for Otis Redding:

With shades of Gloria Swanson’s character in Billy Wilder’s classic Hollywood satire Sunset Boulevard, it was clear that Mae lacked the self-awareness to appreciate that she wasn’t the star she once was. She was now an elderly woman and the sexual confidence and insatiable need for conquest that defined her characters now seemed more sad and delusional than shocking and daring. It didn’t help that Sarne and his cohorts were so enraptured to be in her presence that they gave her the carte blanche she needed to really embarrass herself.

The result was one of the more infamous cinematic disasters of all time, but it was nothing compared to what came eight years later.

There are some films that are so conceptually fucked up that it is impossible to understand how they actually came to exist. Strangely, most of these aren’t flights of deluded artistic fancy, but instead films actually made for overtly commercial reasons that anyone with even the slightest bit of sense could predict had no hope of ever succeeding.

Sextette is a film whose genesis is clouded in deserved shame. The details of how it came to be are mostly elusive, but what we know is this: Someone somewhere thought it would be a smart financial investment to take a play Mae had written in the late 1920s and film it with her in the leading role - without any effort made to explain why an 80 year-old woman was playing a part written for someone at least 50 years younger.

While in theory this could have been an admirable violation of society’s sexist and ageist social standards, the reality ended up being one of the cruelest, most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. Some have suggested that Mae’s mental faculties were seriously compromised at the time of filming and much of the movie feels like a terrible practical joke being played on an addled old woman incapable of appreciating what is being done to her.

Throughout the film, actors as diverse as Timothy Dalton, Tony Curtis, Ringo Starr, George Hamilton and Dom DeLuise fawn over her as an object of sexual desire, despite knowing she’s wearing an adult diaper and had a cane sewn into her dress in many scenes. It would take a demented genius on the level of John Waters to make it all work and even he would have had too much good taste to get involved in this production.

(Note: As bad as the film is, I do have a soft spot for this scene featuring a shockingly clean cut Alice Cooper as the world’s most musical busboy. You have to click here to see it, since the film’s copyright holder has apparently disabled any embedding via YouTube. Just remember as you watch it that this is as good as the film gets. It’s all much, much worse than this.)

Mae West is a perfect example of how becoming a legend often means doing something before anyone else. Her utter lack of shame and willingness to shock in an age where such acts could result in jail time made her an icon. Unfortunately, some legends are best left in the past. Society didn’t want to let Mae West go peacefully and honourably - and neither did she. The results speak for themselves - sometimes it really is better to go gentle into that good night and leave others to rage about the dying of your light.

Picture Credit: Rex Features