Monday, March 09, 2009

Mae West: March Madness

Days away from the Ides of March, those who are mad about MAE WEST are tightening their toga and lifting up their voice to praise the czarina of the screen, not to assassinate her reputation.
• • Turner Classic movies selected Charlotte Chandler’s new work on Mae West — — “She Always Knew How” — — as their book of the month for March. Charlotte Chandler was the last person to interview Mae before she died in 1980, not long after her last motion picture “Sexette.” Mae told the blonde bi-coastal biographer: “Some women know how to get what they want. Others don’t. I’ve always known how!”
• • "Wisecracking West was clearly a figure to be reckoned with," notes critic Carol Crissey Nigrelli with admiration. [Instead of picturing Ms. Nigrelli in a Roman toga, however, we've selected this fanciful artwork by Adam Zyglis, whose talent runs the gamut from A to Z.]
• • Writing for The Buffalo News, Ms. Nigrelli weighs in on the latest tome devoted to the beloved screen queen born in Brooklyn, New York.
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• • Carol Crissey Nigrelli writes: Mae West reigns as one of the great architectural wonders of the 20th century. Her zaftig figure inspired legions of late-night comics and female impersonators. Fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who badly misjudged the actress’ tiny waist measurement, made up for some ill-fitting dresses by creating a perfume bottle in West’s shape.
• • During World War II, British Royal Air Force pilots called their yellow inflatable life preservers “Mae Wests,” a homage that put her in the dictionary. Clearly delighted, the actress let it be known that “the dictionary is my favorite book.”
• • West’s figure helped her become a star, but her sexually veiled one-liners made her an icon. And in Charlotte Chandler’s “She Always Knew How: Mae West — A Personal Biography,” the Brooklyn-born actress once again beckons us, as she beckoned Cary Grant in his first starring role, to “come up sometime. See me,” (the original line).
• • In 1980, at the urging of director George Cukor, the 86-year old West came out of “interview retirement.” She graciously granted Chandler access to her Hollywood home even though she didn’t like to give interviews. “I’ve only got one of me, and I don’t want to get spread too thin,” she told Chandler.
• • We learn early on that West loved her mother, a Bavarian-born blond who once modeled corsets, more than anyone on Earth — including a man. She tells Chandler she kept her “five-minute husband” a secret for 20 years because her mother would have been “disappointed because I had married so young and heartbroken because I had lied to her.”
• • West’s marriage to her vaudeville song-and-dance partner in 1911 lasted all of two months, wasn’t revealed until Mae hit Hollywood, and dissolved in 1941.
• • From her very first meeting with Chandler it was clear that West would cede no territory in the screen siren department. The actress/legend showed up dripping in diamonds. Chandler writes her face “was nearly hidden by its mask of makeup, but her throat and decolettage revealed strikingly fair, soft, youthful skin.” At various times throughout the book, West attributed her creamy skin to shunning the sun, baby oil, good sex or her five-enemas- a-day routine.
• • She may have projected the image of a sexually liberated woman on the screen, but when it came to other vices, Mae West was a prude. She didn’t smoke, drink or curse and she didn’t tolerate such behavior in others, as W. C. Fields found out on the set of “My Little Chickadee” in 1940.
• • “I got it in my contract that if he came to the set drunk, they would remove him from the premises. It looked OK for a while, and then he turned up drunk,” West said. “I didn’t hesitate. I said, ‘OK, boys — — throw him out!’ ” After that, she said, Fields was “a marshmallow — — no sign of any liquor.”
• • Friends since their vaudeville days, both West and Fields hit Hollywood at an advanced age—by Hollywood standards. West was 38 when she left New York to begin her film career. Paramount Pictures, on the brink of bankruptcy, was counting on the wisecracking sexpot to duplicate her Broadway success in its films. Moguls may not have fully understood the actress’ exact path to fame, however.
• • In 1926, Mae wrote and starred in a play on Broadway titled, simply, “Sex” — — the story of a Montreal Madam who sacrifices “a clean, wonderful love” when she realizes she can never escape her past.
• • “Sex” played to full houses for a year, but moral crusaders eventually hauled her into court. West spent 10 days in jail on obscenity charges. She emerged a star.
• • True to form, West kept the West Coast censors working overtime in her very first film, 1932’s “Night After Night” starring her friend (and lover) George Raft. Mae’s small part, which she wrote, produced a celebrated line. When the hat-check girl exclaims, “Goodness! What beautiful diamonds!” Mae replies, “Goodness had nothin’ to do with it, dearie.”
• • West did indeed salvage Paramount in the 1930s. “They oughtta build a statue to me, at least a bust,” she deadpanned later. But her risque banter put her at odds with the mores of the time and it cost her professionally. “When I was a girl,” she told Chandler, “I understood right away that there was this double-standard thing for men and women, not just in sex, but in everything. A man’s world was one of freedom, a woman’s one of limitations. I believe in a single standard for men and women.”
• • “She Always Knew How” is Mae West’s story in her own words in the months before she died, with Chandler, who has written a number of celebrity biographies, providing enough narrative to keep the time-line flowing. The actors, directors and assistants who add anecdotes are “friendly witnesses” who speak of “Miss West” with great affection, so the perspective remains one dimensional.
• • But a vision of Mae West as delightful, kind, honest, giving, supremely confident, smart, savvy, relevant, and fearless is just as entertaining.
• • Maybe goodness has everything to do with it.
• • By Charlotte Chandler
• • Simon & Schuster; 302 pages
• • • • Under the name Carol Jasen, Carol Crissey Nigrelli is a member of the Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
— — Source: — —
• • Book Review: "Wisecracking West was clearly a figure to be reckoned with"
• • Reviewer: Carol Jasen [aka Carol Crissey Nigrelli]
• • Published in: The Buffalo News — —
• • Published on: 8 March 2009
• • Illustration of Mae West by: Adam Zyglis/ Buffalo News

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• • Come up and see Mae every day online:
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• • Photo: • • Mae West • • Adam Zyglis, illustrator • •
Mae West.

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