She wasn't thin, she wasn't young (not at the height of her fame anyway), and she wasn't particularly beautiful, yet there's no denying that Mae West was a true sex symbol in her day.
What do you make of Brooklyn-born Mae West -- actress, playwright, singer, comedian, sexual trailblazer?
Many excellent biographies of Mae West have been written in the last decade and she wrote her own autobiography in the late Fifties, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It. Outspoken about female sexuality (and sexuality in general), she was a feminist before feminism had a name. And yet, especially toward the end of her life, she seemed trapped in the campy caricature she herself had created -- the raunchy, ever-sexually-available woman.
Apart from her movies, the best of which were made in the Thirties for Paramount, she's best known for her endless witticisms, among them, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere," “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted,""It's not the men in your life, it's the life in your men," and “When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better. ”
Mae started performing around 1900 and was still performing in the Nineteen-Seventies! To see Mae West in her last film, Sextette, however, wig piled atop wig, is to watch someone who seems to have lost perspective on how they come across. In her mind, she never changed -- which in one way (her taste) was true, but in another (her allure) was terribly false. I guess you can argue that it's heroic that she never dropped the mask in public; I'm not so sure.
I love Mae West, and in her early films she seems more like a real person than the lip-smacking, hip-rolling stereotype she became. Before the so-called Hays Code in 1934 forced her to censor her more explicit material (which she wrote herself) she was one-of-a-kind bawdy. She was still one-of-a-kind after 1934, but tamed, she was much less fun. She eventually stopped working in films to perform on stage in successes like Catherine Was Great (she played Catherine). She also had a touring stage show with loincloth-clad musclemen and was an occasional guest star on TV (Mr. Ed), usually playing herself. Her return to films in Myra Breckinridge in 1970 was a big comeback for her, and she was back in the limelight till the end, recording albums of rock music (The Doors!), giving interviews, and promoting new projects.
Mae nearly always appeared in spangly Gay Nineties-inspired gowns or variations thereof -- many designed by Paramount costume designer Edith Head -- that showed off her hourglass figure. Ostrich plumes, sequins, and huge hats were all part of the look that she stuck with throughout her career. She wasn't a tall woman, and she wore shoes like these for extra height, hidden under her gown. Can you imagine?
I have a wonderful Mae West giveaway today for all you Mae West fans out there, the Mae West Paper Doll book by Tom Tierney. It's full of beautiful color illustrations (and detailed information) of many of her most famous costumes from stage and screen, as well as biographical information about Mae herself.
If you'd like to be considered for the Mae West giveaway, just leave a comment below before Wednesday at midnight, EST. I'll announce the winner on Thursday, December 15, and will try to ship it out to you in time for Christmas. (If you want to comment but don't want to be entered in the giveaway, just let me know.)
What are your thoughts about Mae West? Do you find her inspirational and empowering, or embarrassing? Role model or relic?
Here's Mae still going (semi) strong, somewhere in her mid Eighties, speak-singing Captain and Tennille as only she could.