Monday, March 24, 2008

Mae West: Steady Supply of Sex

Eight years ago, Cintra Wilson wrote: "There has been a recent off-Broadway renaissance focused on Mae West."
• • With a new book on Mae West due to be released in April 2008 by Taschen, and a successful winter revival of "Sex" a sweet recent memory for the Aurora Theatre
[and actress Delia MacDougall] in Berkeley, and an a-Mae-zing new Mae West play about to be staged at the Algonquin Theatre this summer in New York, it seems time to revist Wilson's essay for Salon Magazine that originally appeared in February 2000.
• • Here is an excerpt fom the engaging feature written by Cintra Wilson.
• • Smart young women are starting to figure out that the outrageous self-possession of West's sexual persona is rather a cool and isolated thing in the world of celebrity. This was especially true back when she was doing it. It is especially true today, when the most pervasive attribute of "attractive" women competing for male sexual attention is the way they passive-aggressively (or aggressively) abuse themselves in one way or another with weight loss, surgical enhancements and other severe physical renovations, in supplication to physiologically unlikely and generally ass-out beauty standards, i.e., they dislike what they are and chain-whip themselves into fitting the currently reigning beauty template.
• • Mae West liked the other kind of self-abuse better. She was an unstopping font of self-approval, who could justify any passion for herself, any look, any sensation, any sin; she was, in her way, truly liberated. When the fashion of the time shifted away from her body type, she adopted a different decade; West got herself up as an 1890s good-time girl in order to make the most of her womanly mounds instead of trying to bind herself into the no-hipped, no-breasted flapper look of the '20s. When she didn't like her lines, she rewrote them. When acting roles stopped coming her way, she wrote her own. When the cops came, she laughed. . . .
• • When people think of Mae West, if they aren't very familiar with her work, they generally think of a big woman in a huge hat, a Dolly Parton wig, and a hazardously plunging neckline who growled innuendo at men in a sexually threatening fashion until she was so old it was downright scary.
• • One doesn't generally think of West as a playwright, but she was indeed the author of six plays produced on Broadway between 1926 and 1931, and ended up doing time for it. In 1927, West spent eight days at Welfare Island Women's Workhouse (now Roosevelt Island) after being convicted of producing a work "calculated to excite in the spectator impure imagination." West was tried on obscenity charges after police shut down her play "Sex" (ironically, after it had been in full production for nearly a year) in order to prevent the impending opening of her second play, "The Drag" (subtitled "A Homosexual Comedy") which featured transvestites. A man in a dress was always a good sight gag, but not, in the '20s, if he actually liked it.
• • West thrived on the bad publicity, however, tenaciously wiggling even harder into the public eye, after one 1926 review bore the headline "Monstrosity Plucked From Garbage Can. Destined to Sewer." West knew exactly how hypocritically full of shit all the flak she was getting was, and lustily reveled in getting her name in the papers for good or ill; she knew that ultimately the notoriety was the best thing possible for her career. "I expect it will be the making of me," she gushed to all the New York papers when she was hauled off to jail. She was right.
• • David Thompson wrote of Mae West: "The real conclusion of her work is that sex is an idea, an obsession for the human being, and one of the most reliable distractions from the equally potent idea that life is tragic."
• • "Sex" is the tale of a Montreal prostitute who decides to "go straight" after a stint following the naval fleet to Trinidad. It's fairly dumb, but funny -- there's a shiny, red double-entendre in virtually every couplet. The play exults in the eternal question: Is class the only difference between prostitutes and women who marry for money? I like that theme, and have always wondered why whores get arrested while Georgette Mosbacher is still free to roam the streets.
• • "Ever since I knew what sex was I knew that men were hunters," hisses Margy LaMont, West's demimonde heroine. "I blame men for the way I am." The story, sadly, winds up like just another Whore With a Heart of Gold tale: Margy has a moral breakthrough, opts for dismissing what might be her true happiness and selflessly moves to (here we go again) Australia, to live out her days in vigorous self-improvement and modesty. Boo. Once again, even in West's world, the scarlet woman has to be a thousand times more morally responsible than anyone else in order to balance and/or justify her experiences.
• • I wanted the hooker to marry the rich boy and make him very happy by loving him and giving him a red-hot good time for the rest of his life, forcing everyone to forgive and forget her checkered past with a little sophisticated wink, brazenly charting her own moral universe.
• • "When I'm good, I'm very, very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better," said West, often. Too bad she never went all the way with that idea, to become a true sexual antihero. She shocked and scandalized, but always in a way that could be deemed charming by the randier average Joes and good-time Charlies; she never really scared anyone but the super-puritanical squares.
• • West did chart her own moral universe, but more in her life than in her art. She also never really knew when to quit, ignoring all signs of wear and playing the come-hither screen coquette until well into her 70s and eventually becoming a frightening joke, a symbol of overripe sexuality. While we'd all like to be raucously humping into advanced old age, none of us really wants to visualize it too graphically; sex in old age, ideally, becomes more demure and spiritual. Mae West was always a brazen tramp, a great tongue-in-cheek sexual bully, down hard to the end, but there's a lot to be said for that, too. . . .
— — Excerpt: — —
• • Article: "Sex" and Synanon onstage
• • Byline: Cintra Wilson
• • Published in:
• • Published on: 17 February 2000
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• • Come up and see Mae every day online:

• • Photo:
• • Mae West • • 1927 • •

Mae West.

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