The Immortality Of Mae West
Nearly a century after she came on the scene, her wit, bravado, and sexuality are a bigger presence than ever
September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
When Mae West showed a trusted friend the manuscript of her 1970 autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, he complained that the book lacked any mention of her struggles, failures, and disappointments. She scoffed. “Her fans don’t want Mae West to have problems and have to struggle,” she declared in confident third person. “Mae West always triumphs.”
And so she does. Embraced by the public the moment she hit the movie screen in 1933 at the amazingly advanced age of 40, she still hasn’t lost her grip on the American consciousness. Two decades after her death, she continues to be a source of fascination and controversy, one of the most powerful sexual and cultural figures of our— as well as our grandparents’—time.
Her impact was immediate. She cropped up in Betty Boop and Walt Disney cartoons and in Cole Porter’s song lyrics. She came in for some ridicule—critics called her “the first female leading man,” “the greatest female impersonator”—but major writers championed her. F. Scott Fitzgerald thought her “the only Hollywood actress with an ironic edge and comic spark,” and the immensely popular British novelist Hugh Walpole wrote that only she and Charlie Chaplin “dare to directly attack with their mockery the fraying morals and manners of a dreary world.” Colette praised her independent spirit: “She alone, out of an enormous and dull catalogue of heroines, does not get married at the end of the film, does not gaze sadly at her declining youth … does not experience the bitterness of the abandoned ‘older woman.’… She alone has no parents, no children, no husband.” Nine of her witticisms appear in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and she herself has been a dictionary entry since World War II, when RAF pilots named their full-chested, inflatable life preservers after her.
A new generation discovered her when her two first—and best—films, sequestered since the 1930s after a censorship crackdown largely provoked by her sexual humor, were finally re-released in the 1960s. In the 1970s, feminists reviled her as a “reverse sexist,” yet she was voted Woman of the Century in 1971 by UCLA students, “in honor of her pioneering influence on sexual mores …as a pathbreaking advocate of sexual frankness, a courageous crusader against censorship.” The collage cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band features her haughty, masklike face. Her influence is clearly discernible in the look and work of performers from Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg, and Jayne Mansfield to Dolly Parton, Bette Midier, Patti LaBeIIe, Madonna, RuPaul, Fran Drescher, and a host of fleeting pop stars of both sexes. Her films are still shown on cable TV and stocked by your neighborhood video store.
A 1999 play about her, Dirty Blonde, was a solid Broadway hit, a celebration both of Mae herself and of what might be a legacy much greater than her movies: her power to inspire fans to tackle life with confidence, humor, and attitude, the way she did. More books have been written about her in the last io years than were in the preceding 50, and the turn of the millennium has brought us a flood of feminist studies, some condemning her as a female chauvinist pig (which she was) and others praising her as a groundbreaking pioneer in the cause of sexual freedom (which she also was).
Where were you when you first saw her onscreen? When you laughed at her showy gowns, stilted walk, and sexy wise-cracks, did you ever imagine that she would swagger along-side us into the twenty-first century?
I didn’t. When I discovered her in a Mae West marathon 2.7 years ago at a London art cinema, I thought her hopelessly dated and utterly ridiculous. For all her platinum-blonde wigs and glittering wardrobe, she was just a plump, double-chinned,middle-aged woman with a tight corset and a lot of chutzpah. It was only her singing that made me sit up and take notice. I had just begun my own career as a singer and was steeped in vintage jazz. Once I got beyond her voice—strident and nasal, with a vibrato like a whinnying horse—I realized she had great feeling for the music I loved most—jazz, swing, and the blues.
I watched her films again recently. She Done Hint Wrong and I’m No Angel (both 1933) hold up well, but the others had me riding the fast-forward button. I quickly tired of her unvarying character, a wisecracking, street-smart, gold-digging performer/hustler with an iron code of ethics. The salty oneliners are still funny, but the plots, which all revolve around her supposedly stupefying beauty, charm, and sexual magnetism, are woefully contrived and thin. It was only the song numbers that kept me watching. She may have been a one-note actress, but she was consistently adventurous in her use of music.