Gay City News [Volume 75, Number 34 | August 25 - 31, 2005]
In the noh
When West Meant Best
Mae’s birthday party . . .
By DAVID NOH
The evening also included an excerpt from LindaAnn Loschiavo’s play, “Courting Mae West,” and, in the title role, charming 24-year-old Marta Reiman had the old girl down, from the snowy, shifting shoulders to those rollercoaster eyeballs.
That we now live in the most debased of times was proven without a doubt by the recent Comedy Central TV Friars’ Roast of Pamela Anderson. Although The New York —don’t you know, we’re really hip, too!— Times saw fit to give it front page arts coverage, this one really scraped bottom as a craven display of vulgarity with Anderson’s ex, Tommy Lee, complacently listening to and adding his own crass references about her vagina and her fellatio expertise. A desperate Andy Dick actually gropes her famous breasts for a TV eternity. What hath Mae West, that pioneering female sex crusader, wrought?
MAE WEST was an original and a brave pioneer and on August 17, Bill’s Gay Nineties restaurant honored film icon Mae West on the occasion of the 112th anniversary of her birth.
These thoughts kept occurring to me as I joined the celebration of what would have been West’s 112th birthday on August 17 at Bill’s Gay Nineties restaurant, the perfect Belle Époque townhouse setting on East 54th, with its gaslight fixtures and vintage posters––Nazimova, Billie Burke, Olga Nethersole, Mary Garden in “Louise.”
All of us owe West, an original if ever there were one, a huge debt of gratitude, for not only breaking down puritanical barriers as a fully empowered, healthily lusty lady, but for all the sheer joy her comic writing and performances have given generations of fans. Her 1926 Broadway play “Sex” landed her in jail as a “lewd corrupter of youth,” while her follow-up work, “The Drag,” was an early attempt to deal with the subculture of homosexuality and cross-dressing, culminating in a big onstage drag ball.
West made her film debut in 1932 when she was nearly 40 with a slightly simian face and fulsome figure that were anything but conventionally beautiful, and yet managed to effectively wipe all her contemporaries off the screen. And she did it with a gift that is fast -- disappearing from our contemporary culture –– true wit, which relied more on a sly suggestiveness and faultless timing than any gross display of t & a or toilet humor.
West’s two best films are “She Done Him Wrong” and, especially, “I’m No Angel,” in which she plays Tyra––yes, the supermodel Banks was named after this character––who tames lions and every man in Manhattan. These pre-Hays Code nifties celebrated Mae in all her unabashed, ogling glory and, if there’s a more delightful film scene than the one in “I’m No Angel,” wherein she shimmies with her cadre of maids to “I Found a New Way to Go to Town,” I don’t know what that is.
Even her films made after censorship bit down hard on her are worth watching, like her engaging “Goin’ to Town” (1935). It includes her jaw-dropping rendition of the aria from “Samson et Delilah,” “Mon coeur s’oeuvre a ta voix,” unrivalled for brazen diva chutzpah until Aretha Franklin’s version of “Nessun dorma” at the 1998 Grammy Awards.
Marta Reiman, a charming 24-year-old actress, had Mae West down cold -— from the shifting shoulders to those rollercoaster eyeballs -— in an excerpt from LindaAnn Loschiavo’s play, “Courting Mae West,” presented at the West tribute at Bill’s Gay Nineties.
Show biz vet Joe Franklin recalled the time the diminutive West appeared on his show, with her muscleman companion towering above her: “She said, ‘Joe, This man’s 6 feet 8, I’m 5 feet tall, and he’s nuts over me,’ and this was on live TV!”
The Tulsa, Oklahoma native, a newcomer to New York, said, “I knew what Mae West looked like, but hadn’t watched any of her movies. Now I’ve seen all of them and, honestly, this is the most fun role I’ve ever played. She was a fabulous comedienne, and I love that she not only was a star, but broke so many barriers with ‘Sex,’ and was always pushing the envelope with censorship. I admire that and the fact that she was a writer and producer as well, and had complete control over her work, which I hope to do.”
Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.
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