Monday, August 17, 2009

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.

1893 - on this date the American actress, sex-positive, gender-blurry icon MAE WEST was born (d. 1980).
Her famous walk was said to have originated in her early years as a stage actress. West had special eight-inch platforms attached to her shoes to increase her height and enhance her stage presence. West began performing professionally in vaudeville in 1905 at the age of twelve. She performed at that time under the name "The Baby Vamp." Though she had not yet matured, the slinky, dark-haired Mae was already performing a lascivious "shimmy" dance in 1913 and was photographed for a song-sheet for the song "Everybody Shimmies Now." She was encouraged as a performer by her mother, who, according to West, always thought that whatever her daughter did was fantastic.

She began writing her own risqué plays using the pen name "Jane Mast." Her first starring role on Broadway was in a play she titled Sex, which she also wrote, produced and directed. Though critics hated the show, ticket sales were good. The notorious production did not go over well with city officials and the theater was raided with West arrested along with the cast. She was prosecuted on morals charges and, on April 19, 1927, was sentenced to 10 days in jail for public obscenity. While incarcerated on Roosevelt Island, she was allowed to wear her silk panties instead of the scratchy prison issue and the warden reportedly took her to dinner every night. She served eight days with two days off for good behavior. Media attention to the case enhanced her career.

Her next play, The Drag, was about homosexuality and alluded to the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. It was a box office success but it played in New Jersey because it was banned from Broadway. West regarded talking about sex as a basic human rights issue and was also an early advocate of homosexual rights. She famously told policemen who were raiding a Gay bar, "Don't you know you're hitting a woman in a man's body?"… a daring statement at a time when homosexuality was not accepted. During her entire lifetime she surrounded herself with Gay men and stood up for Gay rights at any and every opportunity.

West appeared in her last movie during the studio age with The Heat's On (1943) for Columbia. She remained active during the ensuing years. Among her stage performances was the title role in Catherine Was Great (1944) on Broadway, in which she spoofed the story of Catherine the Great of Russia, surrounding herself with an "imperial guard" of muscular young actors, all over six feet tall. The play was produced by Mike Todd and went on a long national tour in 1945.

She also starred in her own Las Vegas stage show, singing while surrounded by bodybuilders. Many celebrities attended West's show, including Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, Louis Armstrong, Liberace, and Jayne Mansfield (who met, and later married, one of West's muscle men, Mickey Hargitay, after which West dismissed him).

When Billy Wilder offered West the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, she refused and pronounced herself offended at being asked to play a "has-been," similar to the responses he received from Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, and Pola Negri. Ultimately the more amenable Gloria Swanson was cast in the role. In 1958, West appeared at the Academy Awards and performed the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Rock Hudson. Her autobiography, titled Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, was published by Prentice-Hall in 1959.

The famous West quip "Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?" is accurately attributed to her. She made it in February 1936, at the train station in Los Angeles upon her return from Chicago, when a Los Angeles police officer was assigned to escort her home. She first delivered the line on film in My Little Chickadee, and again to George Hamilton in her last movie, Sextette. It is one of the most quoted lines in movie history. Another favorite, said to Ezra Pound, no less, "An ounce of erection is worth a pound of allure."

After a 26-year absence from motion pictures, she appeared in the role as Leticia Van Allen in Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1970) with John Huston, Raquel Welch, Rex Reed, Farrah Fawcett, and Tom Selleck in a small part. This movie failed at the box office, despite popular excitement. It became a camp classic, however, due to its sex change theme. It has since been re-released several times doing much better than originally and has also had successful multiple releases on DVD and VHS. Near the end of her life, she was known for maintaining a surprisingly youthful appearance. She stated in her autobiography that she spent two hours every day massaging cold cream into her breasts to keep them youthful. West continued to surround herself with virile men for the rest of her life, employing hunky companions, bodyguards and chauffeurs. Mae West is buried, with her family, in Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

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