Between Nelson Mandela’s death, Eleanor “the Baroness” Parker taking one look at NBC’s live Sound of Music and making haste to the big Von Trapp Family ballroom in the sky, and the fact that it has been unreasonably, un-contractually cold in Los Angeles this week, I’ve been in need of some good news.
And praise the Lord and pass the—well, not the ammunition, because what the hell would I do with it—there is some! Discovered: HBO’s inspired plans to produce a biopic about Mae West, the scandalous star of stage and screen. Based loosely on her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It, it will focus on the making and aftermath of Sex, her hit Broadway play that made her instantly famous and instantly notorious when she was charged with obscenity and made to serve 10 days imprisonment on Roosevelt Island. William Friedkin is directing, and Harvey Fierstein (!!!) is writing the script. The role of the divine Miss West will be played by none other than the Divine Miss M: Bette Midler.
This news hasn’t shaken me out of my winter doldrums merely because every time Bette Midler makes one of her rare appearances on the small screen the results are uniformly delightful (Macaroni Midler, anyone? Some of us are still waiting for Rochelle, Rochelle to make it to Broadway), or because of my wholehearted approval that HBO seems determined to continue their thoroughly charming habit of making really great movies about really campy subjects: Grey Gardens, Mildred Pierce, Liberace—it’s like their entire focus group lives at 28 Barbary Lane, the apartment building-cum-commune in Tales of the City.
But many of these previous projects have relied on a kind of stunt casting—could Michael Douglas really pull off Liberace? Would Drew Barrymore manage to parlay her own cracked childhood into a feasible portrayal of “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale? The answer to both questions, of course, was yes—this is HBO, after all. They know what they’re doing. Yet there’s something refreshing about the fact that they’ve thrown the frisson of casting against type to the winds here and simply picked the perfect person for the perfect role, a seamless historical progression. Without Mae West, there would be no Bette Midler—and I’m pretty sure Bette would tell you the same thing.
A prolific playwright and producer as well as performer, Mae West is often misremembered as a kind of sexpot bombshell, a sort of ur-Monroe who stopped men dead in their tracks with a single glance. This recollection couldn’t be further from the truth. West was not traditionally beautiful by any stretch of the imagination, and if she was a sex symbol, it was entirely on her own terms. Encased in her Belle Epoque armour, her smirking face virtually immobile apart from her rolling, suggestive eyes, there was nothing remotely vulnerable about Mae West, nothing to suggest that she was dependent on anyone or anything for her material safety or sense of self. Her famous one-liners treated the men she addressed them to as her playthings—they were the objects, not she—and her sex appeal came less from the unspoken appreciation of the male gaze than her frank acknowledgement of her own desire.
It was this suggestion—or more than a suggestion—of feminine autonomy that scandalized West’s critics as thoroughly as her double entendres. It’s impossible to understand West’s work fully without looking at the tough Brooklyn crucible from which it sprang. West’s father was Irish, her beloved mother a smart-mouthed rough-and-tumble Bavarian immigrant. (West always claimed her mother was Jewish, although her mother’s religion was listed at Ellis Island as Lutheran; whether this was a family secret or wishful thinking is unclear.) West’s peers, and her mother’s, were a generation of so-called “tough girls,” making their own rules in a new country that bore little resemblance to the one they had left. Many of West’s fans—like those of Sophie Tucker or Fanny Brice—were the main breadwinners in their family units, the sole speakers of English, a group of brash young women intoxicated by the freedoms—social, monetary, and sexual—available to them, young women who saw something better for themselves than an arranged marriage leading to a lifetime of drudgery and who, in the short term, saw nothing particularly problematic about the idea of sex for material gain, entertainment, or pure pleasure. Mae West was their greatest chronicler and patron saint.
It was an attitude that would swiftly be curtailed by the Great Depression, bringing with it the penitence of more traditional values. But liberation is a genie you can’t ever quite put back in the bottle. The spirit Mae West symbolized would come back again in full force in the ’60s and ’70s, with the feminist movement, the sexual revolution, and in the stirrings of gay liberation deep in the bowels of the Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side, where another hilariously funny, shockingly candid, ballsy, and not-quite-beautiful girl—the daughter of a Jewish seamstress and housepainter who named her after Bette Davis—would make a name for herself singing bawdy songs by a pool and take her act all the way to Broadway, proving there’s always a place in American culture for a ballsy broad with a sense of humor who does it her own way.
And now, it’s come full circle. I only hope that, somewhere, Mae will be watching.
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