West, Mae 1893–1980
Known for her clever quips, sexual innuendo, and buxom figure, Mae West was a vaudeville, Hollywood, and Broadway performer who became a part of American legend and folklore. Born August 17, 1893, in Brooklyn, New York, West became a child performer in vaudeville where she early learned many tricks of the performing trade. Even as a younger star, West performed in brash, vulgar bits portraying an assertive woman who frankly liked sex. As she became older, she performed often as a sexual predator, reversing the polite roles of Western mating practices with such lines as "It takes two to get one in trouble," or "Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before," or the most famous, "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?" and "Why don't you come on up and see me sometime?" In 1926, her first play, Sex, began its brief run in New York. West was arrested for breaking obscenity laws and spent six days in jail. Between 1926 and the early 1930s when she finally moved to Hollywood to make films, West wrote six more plays, one of which, The Constant Sinner, was adapted from a novel she had written. Like her first play, West's theater portrayed bawdy, lascivious women with a certain amount of power.
In the 1930s West moved to Hollywood to make films for Paramount. She starred with George Raft in Night After Night (1932), where she reportedly upstaged him in an "auspicious start," according to the reviewer in Variety. Her second film, 1933's She Done Him Wrong, in which she costarred with Cary Grant, was based on her own hit play Diamond Lil. Basing its appeal only on the star power of its two leads, She Done Him Wrong excites the Variety reviewer's comments that "Folks in the sticks seeing Mae West for the first time in this flicker, without having heard of her before, are likely to inquire as to what reform school Mae was brought up in." Continuing her act as a bawdy, frankly sexual woman, West's character quickly became a persona reflecting a humorous, healthily salacious reversal of conservative norms. For that reason and at the urging of the Hays Committee, the self-policing branch of the film industry, West toned down her later films. From 1932 until 1943 when she returned to Broadway, West made ten films for Paramount, helping them emerge as a competitor in film production. Perhaps her most famous part was with W.C. Fields in the 1940 film My Little Chickadee.
West's frank and open attitude about sexual pleasure often ran counter to the repressive representations made especially in film, where conservative production codes prevented showing even married couples in the same bed. Her open desire, joy, and even calculating attitude about sex turned the tables on mythologies of male dominance and drew attention to the idea that women might also enjoy sexual pleasure. One song from She Done Him Wrong, "I Like a Man Who Takes His Time," accomplished a commentary on sexual relations from the point of view of a woman for whom sex was anything but a duty. Many of her famous one-liners—"Some men are all right in their place—if only they knew the right places," "Every man wants to protect me. I can't figure out from what," or "When I'm good I'm very very good, but when I'm bad I'm better"—make visible a sexual relation in which women are willing and desirous partners.
West's aggressive sexuality was accompanied by an aggressively sexy physique. Only five feet, four inches tall, West had an exaggerated figure with a large bosom and hips. She wore platform shoes to make her taller and sexy clothes and jewelry to complete the image of a woman out for pleasure. There have been rumors that West was possibly a man in drag, produced in part by the way West's performance of clever femininity provided an attractive model later followed by drag queen performers. It is unlikely, however, that West was anything but a short woman with a lot of assets.
After the 1940s West became a caricature of herself, performing nostalgic versions of her earlier roles. She was reportedly offered the part of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder himself, but she turned the role down. She returned to movies in 1970 in a part in Gore Vidal's Myra Breckenridge, and made her last film, Sextette, in 1977. She died of natural causes in 1980.
see also Transvestism.
Hamilton, Marybeth. 1997. When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Watts, Jill. 2001. Mae West: An Icon in Black and White. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
West, Mae. 1997. Three Plays by Mae West; Sex, The Drag, and Pleasure Man, edited by Lillian Schlissel. New York: Routledge.