Mae West, who was born 130 years ago this month, made a career out of being funny, smart, and sexy in an industry that doesn’t often give women the space to be more than one thing at a time. Both on screen and off, West turned sexism on its head as a bad girl who flaunted her promiscuity without apology or shame, but plenty of humor. And while many of today’s best comedians stand on West’s shapely shoulders, she was a decidedly tough act to follow.
In a 2019 documentary titled Mae West: Dirty Blonde—produced by longtime admirer Bette Midler—celebs like Candice Bergen, Ringo Starr, André Leon Talley, Dita von Teese, Margaret Cho, and Natasha Lyonne (who would be our top pick to play West in a future biopic—please make this happen, Hollywood) talk about how West changed the game for women performers. We have our own thoughts to add to the discussion of West’s legacy. Here, then, are just some of the ways she left indelible marks on the history of show business.
Like many actors working today, West got her start on the stage. As a teen, she sang and danced in vaudeville and burlesque shows, eventually making her way to Broadway. In late 1926 she starred as sex worker in a new play titled Sex, which she also wrote, produced, and directed. Despite strong ticket sales, the play drew complaints from the exact sort of people you’d imagine, which may have been West’s intention all along. She was arrested by New York City’s Vice Squad, hauled into court, and spent eight days in jail for “obscenity and behavior designed to corrupt the morals of youth.” West turned the scandal into a publicity stunt, telling reporters on the courthouse steps, “I expect this will be the making of me.”
It was the first indication of what would become a recurring theme throughout her career. West reached the height of her stardom in the years before the vigorous enforcement of the Production Code, which prohibited morally objectionable material in studio films. Even then her dirty jokes and bawdy sense of humor often got her in trouble with conservative and religious groups, and eventually the modesty police within the studios caught up with her too. In the press she claimed that censorship was actually a good thing for her career and that the code didn’t change her act much, she just had to make the references more subtle. The facts tell a different story, though.
West only made a handful of pictures during this period, and the censors often took a hatchet to her wittiest lines and scenes before the films were released. In response, she would purposefully include some lines of extra risqué (at least by the standards of the era) dialogue into her scripts that she knew wouldn’t fly, so the less racy material would look tame by comparison and be left alone. By all accounts, she had a miserable time making My Little Chickadee with W.C. Fields in 1940, and it turned out to be the last successful film of her career.
West wasn’t just a performer, she was a writer, too. She knew her voice like no one else. Even when she appeared in films written by someone else, she would punch up the dialogue with her classic one liners. No one complained, because her contributions almost always made the material better. One of her most fondly remembered lines came from her very first film, 1932’s Night After Night, and wasn’t in the original script. In response to a hat check girl commenting, “Goodness what beautiful diamonds,” she replies, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” That was pure Mae West (she eventually used the line for the title of her autobiography).
In addition to authoring many plays and books, West is credited as a screenwriter on nine films, not including Night After Night, for which she wrote most of her own dialogue. Women writers weren’t unheard of in Hollywood at the time, many had found success in the silent era, but none of them were performers on the same level as West. She proved that letting women tell their own stories could be a profitable endeavor. Still, she was forced to share an equal writing credit W.C. Fields on My Little Chickadee, despite the fact that his contributions were minimal in comparison to hers. Disillusioned with Hollywood, she returned to writing for the stage a few years later, where she had more control over the material.
You already know many of Mae West’s best lines, whether you realize it or not. One of her greatest skills was her absolute mastery of the one-liner. She confidently tossed off double entendres with a wink and a smirk that left no doubt of her intention. Here are just a few of her memorable gems:
- “When I’m good I’m very good, but when I’m bad I’m better.” (I’m No Angel)
- “It’s not the men in your life that counts, it’s the life in your men.” (I’m No Angel)
- “Well, it’s better to be looked over than overlooked.” (Belle Of The Nineties)
- “When I’m caught between two evils I generally like to take the one I never tried.” (Klondike Annie)
- “I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t resist it.” (My Little Chickadee)
- “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?” (Sextette)
While we’re on the subject of famous lines, it’s worth noting that one of West’s most often quoted catchphrases isn’t a direct quote at all but a paraphrase. In the film She Done Him Wrong, West tells Cary Grant’s character, “Why don’t you come up some time, see me.” West was always inviting gentlemen to “come on up” and see her in various plays and films (it was kind of a running joke), but she never actually said it on screen the way most people remember.
West made her second and third films in 1933—She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel—both opposite newcomer Cary Grant. Grant had done a handful of films the year before and was starting to get noticed, but it was this pair of films that really shot him to stardom. Years later, West would famously take credit for giving him his first big break. She claimed to have noticed the handsome actor on the Paramount lot one day and inquired about getting him into her next film, telling a director, “If that guy can talk, I’ll take him.” The story may just be a Hollywood tall tale, but it’s true that both films were financial successes and certainly helped boost Grant’s career.
Besides showcasing the talents of a young Cary Grant, She Done Him Wrong also has the distinction of rescuing a struggling Paramount Pictures from total bankruptcy during the Great Depression. The studio was in serious financial trouble and was under the control of trustees in 1933 when She Done Him Wrong provided the studio with a much-needed influx of $2 million in ticket sales. I’m No Angel would also become a hit later that year, bringing in an additional $2.25 million. It was enough to keep the studio afloat for a little while longer (it’s been around for about 112 years now). To this day you can still find the Mae West building on the Paramount lot in honor of her contribution to the studio’s history.
In Mae West: Dirty Blonde, Dita von Teese calls West a “sexual gangster.” Indeed, she could be quite aggressively seductive in her roles. West embodied the flip side of the male libido, with a feminist twist. No one could shame her for her wantonness, because she reveled in it. The way she dressed, the way she walked, the way she entered a room, it was all very intentional and orchestrated to highlight her femininity and sex appeal. Her power was rooted in self-confidence and the absolute certainty that no man could resist her. And she was constantly signaling to men that she wouldn’t or couldn’t resist the temptation either. She made a living by being very good at being bad.
By the time West arrived in Hollywood she was already 40 years old and far too mature to take the kinds of roles usually offered to up-and-coming starlets. Though her true age was one of the most closely guarded secrets in town, there was never a time where she would have passed for a blushing ingénue. She’d never have wanted to anyway. She was 50 when she made The Heat’s On in 1943, a financial disappointment that prompted her to return to the stage. She wouldn’t make another film until 1970.
If you do the math, that makes her 77 years old when she was lured back to the screen for Myra Breckinridge, a bizarre disaster written by Gore Vidal and also starring Raquel Welch, John Huston, Farrah Fawcett, Rex Reed, and a young Tom Selleck. It bombed in theaters, but has since gained cult status among the worst films of all time. And it wasn’t even the weirdest film West made in her later years.
In 1978, West adapted a play she had written decades earlier into a comedy called Sextette. At the age of 84, she cast herself as an actress and sex symbol with multiple lovers and ex-husbands played by Timothy Dalton, Tony Curtis, George Hamilton, and Ringo Starr. The film didn’t make a lot of sense, but it cemented West’s reputation as a camp icon. It would be her last project before her death in 1980.
West stands out among her contemporaries and those who came after her for combining the blonde bombshell archetype with brains and a quick wit. From the start, West was a straight shooter; what you saw was what you got. Though she played many characters, she was only ever really playing an exaggerated version of herself. There’s a comforting consistency in her performances because she couldn’t be anyone else.
Her career and persona continues to linger in our pop-culture consciousness, and likely always will. She was even spoofed in a Saturday Night Live sketch In 2011, more than 100 years after West made her Broadway debut. That’s a pretty incredible legacy. As the eminently quotable queen herself once said: “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”