Screen Icon: Mae West

Born in 1893, Mae West became known as America’s sex-kitten due to her racy double entendres and iconic stage, screen and music performances. After starring in several other people’s plays, West decided to write and star in her own play in 1926, which she subtley titled Sex. The show was slammed by critics but did fairly well in revenue, however  due to it’s risque subject matter, the play was raided by police officials and the cast were arrested – including Mae. However, this did wonders for West’s career, gaining her mass publicity, although several of her other plays were not picked up, due to fears of corrupting America’s youth…

West started her film career in 1932, after being offered a contract by Paramount. Her first film was Night by Night also starring George Raft – due to her complaints with her role, the studio allowed West to rewrite her scenes – the end result was a fantastic scene stealing performance. Following this, West starred with the young Carry Grant in She Done Him Wrong, which was a huge box office success and gained her an Academy Award nomination. Her next project, also starring Grant, proved as successful and lead to her becoming the second highest paid person in the US.

She continued to star in several pictures for Paramount, most notably in Klondike Annie, which is often seen as her finest performance. In 1937, her association with the studio came to an end, however it was not long before Universal offered her the role of Flower Belle Lee in the 1940 film My Little Chickadee. Here she was paired with American comedic actor W.C Fields – however the two stars quarrelled over the screenplay and with their attitudes to alcohol – West a teetotaller and Fields a very heavy drinker. This proved a success, however her next picture did not – this was The Heat’s On, which was a commercial failure and suffered terrible reviews. West would not return to films until 1970.

During her break from the screen, Mae continued to work on Broadway (with plays such as Sextette) and wrote her autobiography which was a bestseller. In order to keep her appeal fresh with younger audiences, Mae released 3 rock and roll albums – Way Out West and Wild Christmas both in 1966 and also Great Balls of Fire in 1972, at age 79. These albums consisted of new songs and some bizarrely amazing covers such as – Day Tripper, Twist and Shout, Rock Around the Clock and Light My Fire.

Mae eventually returned to the screen when it was discovered that she was still owe the studio another picture – this became Myra Breckinridge. She accepted the part on the conditions of – $350,000 salary, top billing (despite a 10 minute role), her own choice of dialogue and a musical number. The 77 year old star, did not have a good working relationship with co-star Raquel Welch, with on-set arguments and demands. The film flopped, but has become a cult classic. Likewise, did her last feature, Sextette.

In Sextette, West (now 85) played a Hollywood idol and sex symbol, staying at a hotel with her sixth husband (a young Timothy Dalton) and the chaos that ensue their well publicised Honeymoon in London. The film featured bizarre roles for Ringo Starr, Tony Curtis, Dom DeLuise and George Hamilton. Rumours circulated that the eldery West had to get her lines fed through to her through a speaker in her hair. Also for many of the scenes West was filmed from the waist up and guided by the production crew, as her failing eyesight caused her to walk into tables etc. Although her health was failing, West was determined to finish the film.

West passed away at the age of 87 due to complications from a stroke, however has left a lasting legacy.

Top Three Mae West Performances

1. Myra Breckinridge
West was perfect in this bizarre gender swap comedy, as man-eating talent agent, Leticia Van Allen. She has some of the best lines in the film such as “Well, the end of another busy day. I can’t wait till I get back to bed. If that don’t work I’ll try to sleep” and
Van Allen: How tall are you when you’re off your horse, cowboy? 
Man: Six-feet 7 inches ma’am.
Van Allen: Never mind about the six feet. Let’s talk about the seven inches. 

2. Sextette
This is a mess of a film, but is so trashy that it’s hard not to enjoy it in some way. Whether the rumours about West are true or not, guess we’ll never know. It’s worth watching for the bizarre musical numbers such as this little classic featuring Timothy Dalton…

3. “Light My Fire” from the album, Great Balls of Fire.
She’s not the best singer. In fact, she can’t really sing at all. The end result is this… (and I like it a lot)

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