Thursday, August 17, 2017

Birthday: "I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond."

Mary Jane "Mae" West
Author, Playwright, Actor

“I believe in censorship,” Mae West famously remarked. “I made a fortune out of it.”

The five-foot-tall actress turned a handful of movie roles, quick wit, some physical assets, and a smart marketing sense into a seven-decade career that made her an international symbol of the sex goddess. She always favored tightly contoured, floor-length gowns in her roles, both to accentuate her figure and to enable her to stand on boxes to seem taller.

She caught her first break as a child star in vaudeville; in 1926 she produced her first play, Sex, in New York. The title alone scandalized the morals police so badly she was prosecuted for indecency and sentenced to ten days in jail. In a first- and probably last- she only served eight, winning two days off the sentence for good behavior.

Her 1927 play, The Drag, was about homosexuality, but after another furor, was never staged. Undeterred, she wrote and starred in 1928’s Diamond Lil, about a Gay ‘90s entertainer. The show was a Broadway hit and a revival vehicle for her career a number of times in the decades to come.

Nearing 40, she was offered a contract by Paramount and began a truly meteoric, five-year rise and fall in pictures. Her first outing, a 1932 George Raft vehicle, featured her famous (improvised) response to “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” Raft later said of the film that West stole everything but the cameras.

In 1933 she co starred with Cary Grant in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel; by 1935 she was the second-highest paid individual in America, behind William Randolph Hearst (who, in response to her racy lines, called on Congress to “do something about Mae West!”)

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West’s career took a header after the introduction of the new motion picture film code in 1934 and its rigorous enforcement by former Postmaster General Will Hayes. Her persona lost its edge, and by 1937 low box office numbers and her stratospheric salary landed her on the “box office poison” list. She tried broader comedic roles and enjoyed some success in the 1940 My Little Chickadee (opposite W.C. Fields and despite their mutual loathing and desire to constantly rewrite scenes), but after a 1943 flop, The Heat’s On, she turned her back on the movies for 25 years.

By then she was a cultural institution: a life preserver was named for part of her; Cole Porter wrote her into songs, and Salvador Dali modeled a 1937 couch after her lips.

Her love affairs were numerous: she said that while marriage was a wonderful institution, she wasn’t ready for an institution yet. When her boyfriend du jour, a black boxer, was denied an apartment in a segregated building, West met the problem head-on. She bought the bought the building and changed the rules.


West tried radio in the 1940s but was dogged by the censors; there was just too much she could do with the inflection of a word. Undeterred, she returned to the stage and presided over a long running Vegas act in the Fifties. She turned down the lead in Sunset Boulevard, denying that she was in any way washed up, and published a best-selling autobiography in 1958.

In the 1960s West turned to TV- a memorable appearance on Mr. Ed was just one of her turns- and recording albums of popular hits (though a Telegraph article considered her 1972 record, Great Balls of Fire, to contain an “ill-advised cover of “Light My Fire”).

At 75 she appeared on a foldout cover of Life, sparking a renewed interest in her career; it led to her appearance in the 1970 camp classic film, Myra Breckinridge. Rarely seen today, the adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel about a man who underwent a sex change showed West could still carry a role. It also marked the film debut of 24-year-old Tom Selleck, an aspiring actor West’s character plucked from her office waiting room, worked over, and discarded before lunch.

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In 1978, West reworked her play, Sex, as the movie Sextet, and cajoled an improbable array of stars to join her: Timothy Dalton, Dom DeLuise, Tony Curtis, Ringo Starr, George Hamilton, Keith Moon, Walter Pidgeon, Rona Barrett, Regis Philbin, and- 46 years after their first appearance together- George Raft.

Filming was a disaster; the script was rewritten so often the 85-year-old West couldn’t learn her lines and had them fed to her through a mic in her wig. For years Tony Curtis dined out on claims her mic also picked up police radio, causing West to purr, “Hey, there’s a 608 on La Cienega!” in one scene.

Sextet was a critical and box office bomb. West’s health began to fail, and she died at 87, leaving behind her companion of 26 years- a cast member of her Vegas act thirty years her junior- and a vast fortune derived from smart LA real estate investments.

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