Mae West wasn’t just ahead of the curve during her 1930s prime; she was a veritable one-woman sexual revolution. Unencumbered by shame, self-consciousness, and the shackles of propriety, West was utterly unafraid to turn herself into a bawdy cartoon of female sexuality, to say and do things no one else would, to fly flagrantly in the face of social respectability. Mae West was a countercultural hero. She was a feminist and gay icon. She was a genius. She was a pioneer. She was an icon. Everyone from Lady Gaga to Nicki Minaj to Madonna to RuPaul can trace their lineage directly back to West and her purring, drawling, quipping outrageousness. She was rock ’n’ roll well before rock ’n’ roll existed, embodying its rebelliousness, raucous sexuality, cheeky humor, and unabashed vulgarity.
That doesn’t mean that West should have actually made rock ’n’ roll records. In a fascinating interview included on the DVD for the West-starring 1978 rock/disco musical Sextette, British singer-songwriter Ian Whitcomb, who worked extensively with West and produced her 1972 rock album Great Balls Of Fire, cheerfully relays his thought process for choosing suitable covers for the project: “I thought if Mae West sang ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ she would make the word ‘balls’ mean ‘balls’ in the other sense of the word.” (He’s talking about testicles!) To make sure everyone got the joke, Whitcomb even re-wrote (and I would argue immeasurably improved upon) the original lyrics by making them about West’s famous fondness for oiled-up musclemen of a much younger vintage.
In her prime, West was the cutting edge of the cutting edge, a bold, much-censored sexual provocateur in a much more inhibited era. By the time Whitcomb produced her album in the early ’70s, she had long since devolved into a parody of a parody. The bawdy wit of vintage West had ossified into one long, dumb sex joke. She wasn’t a sexual revolutionary anymore; she was more of a quaint, living nostalgia piece, an inconvenient truth highlighted by her disastrously received, incredibly distracting supporting turn in the 1970 adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge.
That somehow didn’t stop West from proceeding with a comeback vehicle that wouldn’t just showcase her in a flashy supporting role a la Myra Breckenridge. No, it would make her and her 80-something sexuality its undeniable centerpiece, the meaty main course.
1978’s Sextette was a slow-motion trainwreck seemingly everyone saw coming except for West. In the interview, Whitcomb, who clearly adores West and considers working with her one of the highlights of a busy and eclectic career, shares the tragicomic story of watching an already-senile West meet with a costumer for the film early in the project and look at an old picture of herself from decades before. A nostalgic West told the costumer that she wanted a diaphanous gown exactly like the one she wore in the picture. Furthermore, she proclaimed, she wanted the handsome co-star in the picture to star in her new film as well. As tactfully as possible, the costumer told West that wouldn’t be possible, since the man in the picture had died more than 20 years earlier.
Sextette was based on a play West herself had written that premièred in 1961, when West was already in her late 60s, and rooted so indelibly in her well-worn persona that her character might as well have been named “Mae West.” Yet West’s memory was so shot by the time the film version rolled around that she couldn’t remember her lines—variations on lines she herself had written as well as a veritable “Greatest Hits” of her most famous one-liners—and had to be fed them via an earpiece by director Ken Hughes.
West could no longer memorize dialogue. She couldn’t dance. As Whitcomb acknowledges in the interview, her gyrations were largely limited to constantly patting her breasts and hips as if to reassure herself that they were still there. And she couldn’t really sing, either. Yet the show went on all the same, resulting in a star vehicle forced to find ways to shoot around a fragile, aged star. (West claimed to be 84 at the time, but Whitcomb says the vain and image-conscious star might actually have been much older.)
It’s telling that West doesn’t make her first appearance onscreen until eight minutes in, after West’s ego has been massaged in ways that would be comic if the film weren’t so doggedly, consistently unfunny. We begin with Regis Philbin (cast against type as a preternaturally enthusiastic media figure named “Regis Philbin”) crowing about West’s movie-star character and “the wedding of a world-famous figure, and surely this figure is famous the world over. Hollywood’s all-time favorite superstar, the greatest sex symbol the screen had ever known, a legend of our time, the unique, the one, the only, Marlo Manners!”
It’s the Poochie principle in action. West’s octogenarian sexpot (a phrase, incidentally, that has never before appeared in my writing and perhaps never will again, or at least until Helen Mirren hits her 80s) is the center of the film’s universe: When she’s not onscreen, all anyone can talk about is how unbelievably sexy, desirable, and attractive she is.
In a clear bid to waste more time before West is forced to make an appearance, the opening credits feature an endless motorcade sequence featuring newlyweds West and aristocratic British husband Timothy Dalton gliding through the streets, surrounded by adoring onlookers. Meanwhile, the theme song of West’s character articulates, in appropriately understated terms, the nature of her appeal: “ “Marlo! / The female answer to Apollo! / As lovely as Venus De Milo! / A living dream! /Marlo! / You hold the promise to tomorrow! /Boy, you’re the rainbow that we follow!”
At the hotel where West and Dalton will be spending a very momentous and eventful wedding night, a worshipful press corps, clearly orgasmic to be in the presence of a star of West’s magnitude, peppers her with “questions” that feel suspiciously like set-ups to West’s patented “naughty” quips. When, for instance, a reporter asks, “Miss Marlo, do your fans like you better married or single?” West reduces the press corps to uncontrollable laughter by quipping, “They like me any way they can get me!” When another fearless newshound inquires, “Do you get a lot of proposals from your male fans?” West shocks the assembled press by joking, “Yeah, and what they propose is nobody’s business!” The press corps devolves into delirious cackling after every joke. Sextette has its very own unofficial laugh track reminding us, as if we need the assistance, that Mae West has just delivered one of her Mae Westisms as only Mae West can Mae West Mae West Mae West Mae West Mae West. (Sorry, I got a little stuck in West’s massive ego there and it short-circuited my ability to think clearly).
Sometimes the press corps whoops and hollers and busts a gut over statements that aren’t even vaguely jokes, like when West answers a question about whether getting married means she’s giving up Hollywood with an indignant, “Me, give up Hollywood? Are you kidding?” This “quip” nevertheless sets up the film’s first staggeringly awkward musical number, a bizarre sequence set to a disco version of “Hooray For Hollywood” in which scores of busboys hoof up a storm and try to divert attention away from the film’s very sedentary and slow-moving star.
It’s worth noting that the “Hooray For Hollywood” sequence is a song-and-dance number in which the star neither sings nor dances. Instead, she does what she does throughout Sextette: walks very slowly and cautiously (with a strong, handsome man at her side to hold her up in case she falls) and delivers canned quips to an adoring, hysterical audience.
This sequence contains a moment that would seem utterly surreal if it weren’t in the midst of such staggering, wall-to-wall weirdness. In it, West silently mouths something that sends the press corps into utter hysterics. The world is so utterly in love with West and amused by her antics that she literally doesn’t have to say anything to crack them up. The filmmakers undoubtedly hoped against hope that her mere presence—which was essentially all that was left of her at that point— would have the same effect on audiences.
It isn’t just the press corps that operates as a set-up-dissemination machine; the hotel staff does as well. When the head of guest services obliviously greets her with a gushing, “May I welcome you to my Sussex Court and say that I and my entire staff are at your disposal day and night,” West replies, “If it wasn’t my wedding night, you’d have a deal!” For those of you who have difficulty understanding even the most obvious double entendres, every line West delivers is essentially a good-natured, less profane variation on, “I like to fuck, and have done so with great vigor and variety over the course of my hundreds of years on the planet.”
But it isn’t all fun and games for West. The ancient vixen’s sexuality isn’t just good for cracking up an easily amused press corps and sending the men of the universe into a carnal frenzy; it’s also a powerful tool for resolving global conflicts and promoting world peace. As explained in this clip, Uncle Sam has, for decades, dispatched West to help achieve foreign-policy objectives by having her seduce diplomats and politicians all over the world.
Agent Dom DeLuise calls West “America’s secret weapon,” but it appears her days of serving the country with her irresistible sexuality are not quite over: The U.S government wants her to use her charms to get Russian diplomat and ex-husband Tony Curtis to start behaving in a more U.S.-friendly fashion. In a nifty coincidence, in that very hotel, as a reporter explains, “The leaders of the world’s great powers are locked together in a determined effort to resolve the tensions and crises which threaten world survival.” Wouldn’t you know it, West ends up playing a pivotal role in those proceedings as well, beginning with getting Curtis to make “vitally important concessions to the United States” just by agreeing to a romantic dinner with him.
To distract Dalton from his wife’s affairs, DeLuise has her husband commit to an endless series of interviews, beginning with a one-on-one with gossip columnist Rona Barrett in which Dalton accidentally appears to confess to a lusty and sex-filled past involving gay romps with the football team, the rugby team, “bi-play in the locker room,” and “jolly give-and-take in the shower.”
I will concede that this exchange brought me to the verge of laughter thanks to Dalton’s pixilated underplaying of the its groan-inducing double entendres. Dalton’s approach to the material is markedly different than West’s. Where West winks and rolls her eyes and underlines every naughty remark, Dalton plays it cheerfully straight, no pun intended. For a role that requires him to both sing “Love Will Keep Us Together” and lust after a woman old enough to be his distant ancestor, Dalton emerges surprisingly unscathed. He’s charming and handsome and boasts a surprisingly light touch in a work of leaden camp. Then again, Dalton always was better at spoofing his Bond image in movies like The Rocketeer and Hot Fuzz than playing a glowering, vaguely sociopathic James Bond.
In a remarkable bit of multitasking, West finds time to entertain the muscle-bound, scantily clad likes of “The United States Athletic Team” (they don’t play any sport, specifically, but rather all sports) with an altered rendition of the Neil Sedaka chestnut “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” screen-test male leads for her next movie opposite director and ex-husband Ringo Starr, and save the world by threatening to spill the beans on world leaders’ secrets and foibles unless they play nice and make with the world peace.
(In the interview, Whitcomb also expresses profound frustration that the filmmakers did not use his original composition, “How Miss West Won World Peace” for a scene in which, it should be noted, Miss West wins world peace, opting instead for a disco desecration of “Baby Face.”)
Sextette ends more or less as it begins, with a song-and-dance number in which Mae West neither sings nor dances, but rather defers to the piano-tickling and crooning of guest star Alice Cooper, who claims that West sexually propositioned him and many of her other male co-stars during filming. It’s also revealed that Dalton’s character is in fact one of Britain’s “top secret agents. He’s bigger than 007!” (Oh, the foreshadowing!)
Sextette perhaps only makes a smidgen of sense if you don’t think of it as a film about events that might plausibly happen to human beings on planet Earth. Rather, think of it as a doddering old woman’s feverish daydream of power, desirability, and eternal youth. Stick in a coda revealing that the whole thing was a ridiculous fantasy by an impoverished washerwoman nearing death, and the whole film would take on an unmistakably bittersweet, melancholy dimension.
In the liner notes for Sextette, critic Dennis Dermody jokes that West’s original fans, the ones who had swooned during I’m No Angel and Klondike Annie, were so old they couldn’t make it up theater steps, while her gay fans were so traumatized many of them “stumbled shell-shocked out of the cinema.” He also adds, cruelly but amusingly, “I managed a theater on Cape Cod that premièred the movie when it opened and one man came over to me afterwards, ashen and visibly upset, and muttered, ‘It was like watching your grandmother at a gangbang…’” Even during the decadent ’70s, when Jimmy Carter passed into law a bill demanding that everyone in the world be high on cocaine and involved in an elaborate orgy at all times—or at least entertainment and memoirs chronicling the time would have you believe—nobody wanted to see that foolishness.
I don’t think the comparison to watching your grandmother at a gangbang is all that fair, because there’s something incongruously sweet about Sextette. For all its leering asides, it’s actually incredibly tame. Double entendres, after all, are fundamentally innocent, since they pre-suppose that overt displays of sexuality, especially sexual desire, are somehow forbidden and must be tiptoed around and alluded to indirectly. In the early years of West’s career, that was certainly true. In the ’30s, a woman hinting onscreen, however indirectly, that she liked to have sex was scandalous. By 1978, a character flat-out stating she wanted to have sex barely raised an eyebrow. Going back to “naughty” double entendres in the debauched pop and sexual culture of 1978 was like professing to be shocked by French-kissing immediately after returning from a three-day bisexual orgy at Plato’s Retreat.
Sextette is both an extended act of self-love and a valentine to an icon of an earlier, more innocent era. Starr, DeLuise, Dalton, Cooper, George Hamilton, Keith Moon, and George Raft are all clearly in the film for the same reason you go to your grandmother’s 90th birthday party: Not because they expect to have a good time, but because it’s a nice thing to do for a sweet old lady. West herself, the engine without which the film would not exist, died just two years after its release. I’m tempted to write that she perished of Sextette-related embarrassment, but West appeared incapable of embarrassment. In the glory years, that was a huge component of her influential genius; by the time of Sextette, it was more like her downfall.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco