Welcome to The Golden Age of TV Movies, a monthly column about those wonderful made-for-TV movies of yesteryear.
Some have said that Mae West (1893-1980) was the Madonna of her day, but in actuality it was the other way around. It was West, after all, who came first.
Mae West was unique in the annals of show business. Pushing middle age and somewhat plump when she became a movie star in 1932, West simultaneously presented herself as both a sex symbol and a satire of a sex symbol. She celebrated and owned her sexuality during an era in which polite society pretended that sex didn't exist — West was only too happy to remind folks that it did.
In Mae West's world, sex was something to be celebrated.
She knew that she wasn't a classic beauty and so she tossed around her naughty, innuendo laden one-liners with a wink and a nod to her audience. West owned not only her sexuality, but also her career. An accomplished Broadway playwright, she often rewrote her lines after making the move to Hollywood to the chagrin of her directors but to the delight of moviegoers.
West found what worked for her and never let it go. Well into her 70s and 80s she continued to play the Mae West character.
When ABC aired Mae West on May 2, 1982, the former sex queen was a mere two years in her grave. Even though Myra Breckenridge (1970) and Sextette (1978), her final two films, were box office failures, West retained her hold on the public's imagination to the end. The film premiered to viewers who remembered West quite well.
Mae West opens in 1926, the year West was arrested on obscenity charges. She served 10 days in jail for starring in a ribald and campy Broadway musical with the then-shocking title Sex. She often referred to this incident as the best thing that ever happened to her — the press coverage of the trial made West famous and popular beyond her wildest dreams.
As she awaits sentencing, West recalls her childhood in 1900 New York City, her early days in vaudeville, and the gradual development of the Mae West persona. Ann Jillian, then a major star in her own right, plays West to perfection. Jillian captures not only West's voice and mannerisms, she allows us a peak inside the private thoughts of who the real Mae West might have been.
Much of this is speculation of course, as West guarded her privacy with an iron fist. Based upon what's known about West's life, much of E. Arthur Kean's script seems entirely plausible — even if a few minor facts are wrong. (It was West's father, not her mother, who died suddenly in 1932.)
Jillian paints a fascinating portrait of a complicated woman who loved sex and didn't care who knew it. But West could be vulnerable in private — she was only human, after all. She was also a consummate professional, always on time, off book, and ready to work.
Mae West underscores how ahead of her time West actually was. An adored movie star by the mid-1930s, West refused to compromise her image or her art when religious groups campaigned to get her “pornographic” films banned. When she saw that the battle was lost she turned her back on Hollywood and returned to Broadway, her persona and her audience intact.
Today it might be hard for people to realize how much of a boundary breaker Mae West actually was. West refused to be a “lady”. She was who she was and didn't care what anyone thought of it. Women today owe her Mae West a tremendous debt of gratitude.