Saturday, June 06, 2009

Mae West: Read All Over

Books about MAE WEST, revivals of her plays, reverberations of her witticisms, impersonations — — the public dialogue about the Brooklyn bombshell still wends its way through the traffic of noisy reviews, bell-ringing blogs, clamorous articles, toots and tweets. Though other twinkles have gone out, her light shines on.
• • Within the vague infinitude that is the West Coast, many admirers are still buttoned to Mae's glory days. And some Californians will boldly let you know they have read the books, seen the movies, cherished the souvenirs, kept one votive candle lit.
• • In the Castro, they are a bit more careful with their cadences — — weighing the texts, deciding which are too reverent, or too lax, or merely too content to wrap the comedienne in a mythic haze.
• • The Bay Area Reporter's critic Robert Julian has much to say, and now it's his voice you will hear.
• • Robert Julian writes: It remains to be seen if the world will seek out yet another Mae West biography, especially after Emily Wortis Leider's definitive Becoming Mae West
[NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997 hardcover; Da Capo Press, 2000 paperback]. Emily Leider's work favored social anthropology and intellectual analysis over anecdotal recollection. But author Charlotte Chandler's She Always Knew How relies almost exclusively on anecdotes, supplemented by material from an interview Chandler had with West in 1980.
• • The blessing of Chandler's work is the opportunity to hear the gospel according to Mae, exactly as it was articulated by the star shortly before her death at the age of 87. Some of the Westian gems include statements like, "In my whole life, I've never envied anyone. I was too busy thinking about myself." When confronted with the fact that she was not a good student, West acknowledges, "I'm not very grammatical, because I'm only a third-grade graduate. And I didn't exactly graduate. I sort of retired from it."
• • Mae West opted for a childhood spent on vaudeville stages. After puberty forced a hiatus, West crafted her bawdy adult stage persona and forged a career in the theater via self-penned theatricals that placed her at the center of various sexual shenanigans. Success in Hollywood films began in 1932, when West was almost 40. And there is no disagreement on one point: West's films single-handedly saved Paramount Studios from bankruptcy.
• • Chandler's book contains nothing critical about Mae West. But Leider's biography surfaced the "ungrammatical" star's practice of appropriating words written by others and working them into her plays and screenplays without credit. Chandler gets high marks for readability, propelled by West's own Brooklynese delivery. The most interesting parts of Chandler's biography may be the last decade of West's life, when she returned to the screen in the films Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Sextette (1978).
• • The material relating to West's final foray into motion-picture history benefits greatly by quotations from those who participated in the films or witnessed their creation. At the age of 85, West cast herself in Sextette opposite leading man Timothy Dalton, who was 34 at the time. West believed that at 85, she looked just as she looked at 35, and therefore she was — — at least in her eyes — — the perfect object of desire for any man in his 30s.
• • Obsessed with physical perfection, West's last great love was bodybuilder/ chauffeur/ lover/ companion Paul Novak, who spent the last 25 years of the star's life living in her Hollywood apartment. It was originally a lust match — — one that eventually became a quiet love story. Chandler treats her subject with respect, and offers a believable presentation of a movie star whose carefully crafted image made her a proponent for female sexual liberation. The only question that remains unanswered is why Chandler waited almost 30 years from the time of her interview with West to turn the material into a biography. It may be a moot point, but this reviewer would love to know the answer.
— — Source: — —
• • Book Review: "Way of the West"
• • Title: She Always Knew How: Mae West, a Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler; NY: Simon and Schuster, 2009
• • Byline: Robert Julian | Critic
• • Published in: The Bay Area Reporter Bay [395 Ninth Street, San Francisco CA 94103] — —
• • Published in: Issue: Vol. 39 / No. 23 / 4 June 2009
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