Friday, February 25, 2011

Mae West: Goodness

When he was hired in to help MAE WEST get her memoir together, ghostwriter Stephen Longstreet may have discussed autobiography's conventions — — the expected triumphs won after disappointments, the lessons learned from hard knocks, and the struggles along the way. Their collaboration during 1957 — 1958 produced a manuscript published in hardcover by Prentice-Hall on 14 January 1959. Using a well-worn line borrowed from Texas Guinan, Mae titled her life story "Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It."
• • Before the versatile New Yorker began writing about jazz and musicians, and before changing his name to Stephen Longstreet, he had worked as an illustrator using the byline Henri Weiner. Here is his cartoon version of Mae as Diamond Lil, which appeared in 1934. An upcoming column will offer a bit more on the engaging Stephen Longstreet who died in Beverly Hills, California in the month of February — — on 22 February 2002.
• • Cartoon: • • Mae West by Henri Weiner • • 1934 • •
• • According to the book reviewer from Time Magazine (who wrote this in 1959): With the "editorial assistance" of prolific Stephen (High Button Shoes) Longstreet, Mae makes a determined effort at total autobiography. The list of her male conquests seems to stretch to infinity: lawyers, politicians, theatrical agents, Wall Street brokers, film magnates, judges, operatic tenors, Mexican wrestlers, French importers, chorus boys, casual diners in a restaurant. Readers may get the impression that lovers lurk under every bed, in every closet, behind every curtain. Some of them showered Mae with diamonds, emeralds, and furs. Others gave more of themselves . . . [Source: Time Magazine 28 Sept 1959].
• • Mae-mavens who have read "Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It" followed the cosy diamond life version not the discordance and strife, nor the weighted failure of words to change an outcome. Mae West always triumphs is the underlying thesis, the projection of the perfect self, polished and presented without its human hesitations. It is the ultimate piece of theatre — — with anything unsightly left unlit and safely stuffed backstage, far from the footlights.
• • "An Evening with Mae West" has a different goal, however. Written as a one-woman bio piece for the stage by Ayshe Raif, and performed by Pene Herman-Smith, the whirlwind rites of Mae's days in April 1954 (when she was 60 years old) are shaded with sorrows, shudders, and secret sadness as well as the solutions the veteran performer would move towards. Handsome theatre-buff Ian Macnicol attended a performance this week in Glasgow. Here is a candid assessment from this seductive Scotsman and longtime connoisseur of rare Westiana, a critique written exclusively for the Mae West Blog.
• • • MAE WEST UNPLUGGED — A Review by Ian Macnicol • • •
• • Mae West — — a play by Ayshe Raif; Oran Mor Theatre, Glasgow; playing 22 and 23 February 2011
• • This is a play Mae West would not have wanted to be staged. But it is the one play I have seen which manages to get under the sparkle of Mae's highly polished star persona and gives us a glimpses of the woman who worked so hard to create and then sustain her legend for almost 60 years.
• • The play is set in 1954 at the time of and immediately after, the death of JIm Timony, her former lover, and her manager and stalwart friend since her early success in the 1920s. Mae has just turned 60, her career is in the doldrums and she is still reeling from the perceived insult of having been offered the part of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's “Sunset Boulevard.”
• • The action takes place in Mae’s Ravenswood apartment in Hollywood over the course of several days during which time Mae feels confined lest the outside world should think she is not grieving sufficiently for Timony.
• • Perhaps for the first time in her life Mae is plagued by self-doubt. Pinning her hopes on a part in the film of Pal Joey, these hopes are dashed when she is passed over in favour of Rita Hayworth. Rudderless without Jim, she doesn't know what to do career-wise and suffers guilt pangs over her feelings of personal release that he is no longer around to stifle her highly active love life.
• • She turns to "spirit," in fact the spirits of Jim and her dead mother, for direction. Mama tells her to "keep moving" and Jim encourages her to get her act together and follow through on his plans to take her to Vegas. The show ends with Mae reinvigorated and ready to begin again. As history shows, Mae’s Vegas act was a sensation and she toured it for several years to high acclaim, breaking box-office records wherever she went.
• • Pene Herman-Smith does a solid job of portraying Mae as a flesh and blood woman, and creates some moments of real pathos and high drama, well able to switch between the many facets of West's public and private personae. She manages to sustain a good American accent throughout but just misses in capturing West’s signature Brooklynese drawl.
• • The production benefits from the use of multi media which allows those unfamiliar — — and indeed those who are familiar — — with her work, to see the real Mae in action on screen. The costumes by Suzanne Field are good and highly evocative of those worn by Mae at the time.
• • Mae might not have approved of a play that focuses on her struggle to retain her star status but after the fact, this amazing achievement of hers is something that continues to fascinate, and this worthy play sheds a little light into some of the dark corners of her life.
• • The play was well attended and very well received by a highly enthusiastic audience.
• • • • Byline: IAN MACNICOL (writing from Scotland)
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• • Photo: • • Mae West • • 2011 • •
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