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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
I’m No Angel is my favorite Mae West movie, not just for the amusing parallels between the real-life Mae and her character, Tira the Lion Tamer, but for her wonderfully skillful use of everything she had learned in 30 years on the stage. The long, anticipatory buildup for her entrance. The lavish costumes: elaborate evening gowns, voluminous furs, clouds of feathers, gigantic hats. The artful movements with props-folding screens, mirrors, canes, parasols, perfume bottles, necklaces, cigarettes. The languid draping of the body on banisters, balconies, columns, couches, chairs, and chaise longues. The hyperfeminine gestures that draw constant attention to her best assets: face, hands, hips. The odd, swaying walk, described by one writer as “a shuffle on stilts”; it was necessitated by the nine-inch platform heels she wore to make her five-foot, i3O-pound body appear taller and slimmer. The molasses-and-vinegar voice with its unregenerate Brooklyn accent. The unique fusion of street slang and attitude (“I’ll trouble you to scram”). The immaculate phrasing and timing of comedy lines. The trademark “ohhh,” uttered in three syllables and on two notes. Now completely in command of her new medium, she takes advantage of every resource the movie industry offers to enhance her appearance and emphasize her importance: gowns by the finest Hollywood designers, makeup by the best cosmeticians, the handsomest leading men, the hottest musicians, the most flattering possible lighting and camera angles. The bejeweled hands planted resolutely on her busy hips, the insinuating smirks that twist her painted mouth, the big, bright eyes rolling to the heavens and back are meticulously captured by her ally the camera as she lures her prey and lets us in on the joke.
She loved ordering lions around and performed every trick herself except putting her head in the lion’s mouth, a shot the studio insisted on faking. Her love scenes with her discovery Gary Grant (she had spotted him on the studio lot and declared, “If he can talk, I’ll take him”) were less exciting to her. She had their intimate moments filmed in two parts, each actor playing to an empty chair, then spliced together just before they actually kissed. Filmed alone, she could be specially lit to look radiantly beautiful without sharing the spotlight.
THE PUBLIC TOOK TO HER IMMEDIATELY, BUT HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY CUT HER DEAD. “SHE WAS A TRASHY DAME,” SAID FAY WRAY.
The public took to her immediately, but Hollywood royalty cut her dead. “She was a trashy dame. You could tell it from her pictures,” the 94-year-old actress Fay Wray told me recently. Mae didn’t care. She preferred her usual haunts: the fights, the races. She didn’t drink, smoke, or swear, and she considered her life quiet. The constant stream of white, black, and Latino fighters who visited her at home were, she claimed, “the one departure I have made from the average citizen’s way of life.”
I’m No Angel cost $2.2.5,000 and earned $3,000,000. A review in Variety concluded that Mae was now “the biggest conversation-provoker, free-speech grabber and all-around box office bet in the country.” In 1934 she earned more money than any other woman in America. She paid off debts from her plays and her lavish wardrobe, sent for her father, brother, and sister, and made shrewd investments in local real estate that would later make her a multimillionaire.
SHE TURNED DOWN NORMA DESMOND AND JULIET OF THE SPIRITS: SHE HAD NO INTEREST IN PLAYING ANYONE BUT HERSELF.
Yet, by 1937, censorship, a newspaper boycott by William Randolph Hearst, and the public’s changing taste had seriously diminished her star power. She made a few more movies, including her best known, My Little Chickadee, with W. C. Fields, whom she loathed, and she kept active in stage shows. In 1941 she turned to spiritualism, consorting with religious leaders of wildly varying repute. She went on to decline two Cole Porter musicals, the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, the older female lead in the film version of Pal Joey, a television detective series, an Elvis Presley movie, and Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits. She had achieved legend status with her own carefully devised character and had no interest in playing anyone else.