Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mae West: A New Bio

A new biography of MAE WEST penned by a British journalist has just been released. The Bay Area Reporter covered it. This is what they said.
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• • Mae West was director/writer Billy Wilder's first choice for Norma Desmond in his darkly comic masterpiece about Hollywood stardom, Sunset Boulevard (1950). He knew her narcissism matched that of the fictional Desmond, which explains why she rejected it. "No one would believe me as a 'has-been.'" At the time, West was 57, hadn't made a movie in 7 years, hadn't been a major box-office force for 15, and her last Broadway play, Catherine Was Great (1944), had run for less than 200 performances without recouping its investment. Nonetheless, she was certain that she was the most sexually desirable female on the planet. In his fascinating Mae West: An Interview and Biography (Grand Cyrus Press, $11.95), Clive Hirschhorn captures one of Tinseltown's most improbable legends in all her contradictory splendor.
• • They met when she was 75. Impressed by his English accent, she agreed to a Sunday Express interview in her Hollywood apartment. She wore a black full-length tea gown, a long blond wig, and enormous false eyelashes. He must have been starstruck, or else she had taped her skin underneath her wig and carefully controlled the lighting, because he claims her face had no wrinkles. (Candid shots of West taken when she was in her 60s disprove this.) During the interview, she asserted that what made her more popular than ever was her "glamour," and that only "pretty" Marilyn Monroe came close to rivaling her, but the others, like Jayne Mansfield, were "imposters" with "big chests, small voices, and no brains."
• • The interview inspired Hirschhorn to write this brief, astute biography. She was born in Brooklyn and began performing as a child, pushed by her adoring mother. If West loved anyone more than herself, it was mother. He astutely corrects her own, unreliable memoirs, Goodness Had Nothing To Do with It, and shows how, despite the notoriety of her plays The Drag and Sex (which resulted in a highly publicized jail sentence), West had only one successful starring vehicle, which she wrote herself, Diamond Lil (1928). Her one-liners were famous, but critics found her repetitive. She was difficult to cast.
• • In 1932, producer William Le Baron, who had worked with her in New York, and movie star George Raft, who had been one of her lovers, summoned her to Hollywood for a supporting role in Night After Night. She wrote her own dialogue, and as Raft said, "stole everything but the cameras." At 40, she was a movie star.
• • Paramount Studios signed her and filmed Diamond Lil, calling it She Done Him Wrong. Cary Grant co-starred, and audiences and critics raved. She followed with I'm No Angel (1933), again with Grant, and the success of the two movies saved the studio from bankruptcy. She became the most quoted woman in America. "It's not the men in my life that counts, but the life in my men." "I used to be snow white, but I drifted." "There are no taxes on the wages of sin." "It's better to be looked over than overlooked." When asked if she believed in love at first sight, she replied, "Well, I dunno, but it sure saves a lotta time."
• • She didn't cause censorship – the Production Code was already in existence – but became its most famous victim. The Catholic Legion of Decency cited her immorality. Censorship hurt all her subsequent films, as did her limited repertoire. By 1943, offers were scarce, but her impact had been indelible. She inspired countless drag queens, and some believed (incorrectly) that she was a man.
• • Unlike Norma Desmond, however, West had one comeback left. In 1954, she launched a nightclub act surrounded by handsome musclemen. It opened in Las Vegas, and was a smash. She sang and quipped before adoring audiences. She toured the country, setting box-office records. Occasionally, she appeared on television, notably on the 1958 Academy Awards Show, singing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Rock Hudson. Again, she created a sensation. It would be her last.
• • Amazingly, the movies beckoned, but her return tarnished her legend. She wasn't directly responsible for the awful version of Gore Vidal's Myra Breckenridge (1970), which gave her top billing over Raquel Welch. As Vidal noted, however, the film "embalmed" her nightclub act. No one else could be blamed for Sextette (1978), based on her play about a famous star whose sixth honeymoon is interrupted when the CIA asks her to prevent World War III by seducing an ex-husband, a Soviet VIP (Tony Curtis). Timothy Dalton was her child groom, and Ringo Starr, George Hamilton, Alice Cooper, Raft, and Walter Pidgeon were among her admirers. She recycled old lines. "Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?" West couldn't remember her dialogue, which was fed to her via a microphone hidden under her wig. She was barely ambulatory, but managed to complete this unprecedented vanity production. It had brief runs in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and is available — — for masochists — — on DVD. She died two years later, from complications following a stroke."
• • Hirschhorn documents her many love affairs and one marriage, and her obsession with spiritualism. He writes sympathetically yet critically about her career and place in the Hollywood Pantheon. He concisely shows why, despite only 13 movies, only three or four good ones, she finished 15th in the American Film Institute's Greatest Female Legends of the 20th Century. West undoubtedly would have dismissed the 14 named ahead of her.
— — Source: — —
• • Article: "Disconnected from reality"
• • BY: Tavo Amador | Book Reviewer
• • Published by: Bay Area Reporter — —
• • Published on: 11 March 2010

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