Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Mae West

Most television biopics suck. Jennifer Love Hewitt as Audrey Hepburn, Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor, any number of bland blonde starlets as Marilyn Monroe. However, there are a few exceptions: Christina Ricci as Lizzie Borden, Gina Gershon as Donatella Versace, Loni Andersen as Jayne Mansfield and Ann Jillian as Mae West.

During the 80s, Jillian was in the sassy waitress sitcom It's a Living, playing the sassiest waitress. While she doesn't quite possess the pulchritude of Mae West, she does convey more than a little of the sexiness, the self-possession and the wit of that resoundingly feminine proto-femninist.

The movie covers Mae's career through her child star days, her time in vaudeville, her scandalous stage productions of the 20s, her film career in the 30s and her later comeback. (Although they stop well before Myra Breckinridge. Because there's pretty much no one who wants to acknowledge that ever happened.) The wide chronology also offers plenty of opportunities for fabulous period costumes.

We first see Baby Mae as a precocious child performer with a head of Nellie Olsen ringlets, stomping her feet and demanding her spotlight (a tale West was to tell often later in life). Giving Baby Mae constant encouragement, support and new frocks is her mother Matilda, player by Piper Laurie as pretty much the polar opposite of the mom in Carrie.

We see the brunette Mae West plug along in vaudeville, trying singing trios, dancing duos, solo shimmys. She picks up a husband, who seems to spend most of his time following her around going, "Awww, Mae!" until she finally brushes him off--from both the act and the marriage. Well, i mean, she doesn't divorce him, she just gets him booked "on another circuit, with a lotta women. For forty weeks."

Mae is mentored and taught the fine points of individuality and style by a drag queen played by none other than Roddy McDowall. He watches in horror as she squeaks and grinds her way through a tawdry cave girl routine but, in the great tradition down to Bianca del Rio HerSelf, he counsels the tacky newcomer on how to get better. He takes Mae through everything from the nature of being a star to how to develop a routine to the finer points of contouring. I recall watching this movie when i was a kid and thinking: I need someone like this in my life.

Mae doesn't just pick up stage business and dance steps fast, she's also a quick study in life. She learns quick that when two men fight over a woman, it's often more about ego than love; that a woman who'll put up with anything from a man usually does. As the real Mae said: "I made up my mind early that I would never love another person as much as I loved myself. Maybe that sounds selfish. It is. But I saw what a mess people could make of their lives when they're smitten. Some of them go temporarily insane."

But TV movie Mae hooks up with rich businessguy James Timony, played by power bottom James Brolin. Blonde and begowned, Mae becomes a headliner with a bevy of tuxedoed chorus boys and a nice way with "C. C. Rider" and "Frankie and Johnny."

She writes and stars in her own play, Sex, promptly gets arrested and, after some laugh-tracked courtroom scenes, is thrown in the clink and comes out bigger and badder than ever. She writes and stars in Diamond Lil on Broadway, goes to Hollywood--if it seems to be happening awfully fast, it's because it is. The only real pause point, interestingly, is during the shooting of West's first film, Night After Night, where she gives a fine clinic in standing up for one's artistic rights (and comic timing).
Timony trails besottedly behind her the whole way but Mae West is too busy with her career to let anyone put a ring on it (again).  "Marriage is not a natural state! It was something invented by women to hang on to men!" This is kind of the closest we get to authentic Mae once the de rigeur romance kicks in..

The "becoming" part of the film is much more interesting and it's largely because it's all about Mae, not about some tacked-on romance. Mae West may have been well know for being more interested in career than romantic relationships but, once this movie hits the romantic relationship, that's all it's about. Unsurprising. The movie also brushes past the controversial nature of West's plays -- interracial relationships, homosexuality, cross-dressing, drug use, adultery, prostitution, castration, political corruption. Mae West: Too edgy for the 80s....
Jillian is notably less voluptuous than Mae West (isn't everybody, though) but she rocks the flapper look well. And heaven knows she does a better job then other ersatz Maes, the worst of which must be Faye Dunaway in a bargain-basement pseudo-religious flick entitled The Calling (don't inquire further, but let's just say there's a really cheap-ass Liberace too). It's recently been announced that Bette Midler will be playing Mae for HBO and, heaven knows, ain't no one (living) going to deliver those lines better. Still, her Mae West will probably give us a latter Mae, while Ann Jillian's Mae West , before it lapses into sentimentality, gives us an interesting depiction of her early years.

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