…manifests on screen. Her film debut (she’d been on the New York stage for 20 years) was a supporting role in Night After Night in 1932, a film remembered now only for Mae and the exchange:
“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!”
“Goodness had nothing to do with it dearie!”
The more you think about it the funnier it is; with its lilting scansion it is also poetically simple. Maybe that’s why the line is so frequently garbled and misquoted – as with Marilyn needing 58 takes to recite “where’s that bourbon?” while simultaneously opening a drawer. Less is more. Legendary theatrical turns of a century ago were by modern standards basic, even nugatory, but nonetheless radiated a concentrated energy (Sarah Bernhardt expected nightly to die on stage). Mae undulated an idolent shimmy, yowled suggestive songs, rotated her hips and delivered startling innuendo in that curious voice, part nasal, part mashed potato, that veered between New York brashness and tom cat purr. It was an old music hall persona but brand new to the screen: Hollywood kept Miss West on ice till the talkies arrived. Despite her extraordinary appearance she was also a creature of aurality as her notoriety on the wireless testifies.
Once she appears, you can’t take your eyes off her: the only definition of a true star. Like Garbo – quite unlike, say, Davis, Crawford or Rita Hayworth – she ignores everyone else in the picture: they are laid on merely as feeds and props. Far larger and stranger than life, entirely self-obsessed, Mae loves Mae. While appearing so transparently lubricious and blatantly arousing she is in fact a complete enigma. Presenting nothing but sex, is she in fact sexy?
Entirely the wrong figure and silhouette for her era, she dresses in a parody of the styles of the 1890’s. Her sweeping spangled gowns conceal the 8″ inch heels and soles that, with pompadours and plumes, transform her from petite to Statue of Liberty dimensions. The legs are rarely glimpsed. Never a beauty, Mae was 40 before she filmed, with an odd little face which Cecil Beaton later likened to that of an ape. Was she laughing at herself or was she deadly serious? Was she really a man, as has often been suggested? Was she the experienced voluptuary she implied or a sexually neurotic woman who avoided intimacy, preferring (like Somerset Maugham) “to be touched only by prior arrangement”.
From increasingly bizarre interviews and memoirs over the decades it’s impossible to tell. I always liked the account of one interview where she generated electricity from the nylon carpet to transmit a shock on shaking hands. Why did Billy Wilder have Mae down as his first choice for Norma Desmond? Had he got her number right off?
Yet one of Mae’s most endearing features is that on film she always appears to be enjoying herself: another aspect of the star persona. This is so even in the movie mistakes of her old age, Myra Breckinridge and Sextette, despite microphones hidden in her false hair to feed her dialogue, and with technicians kneeling on the floor propelling her around the set. There is on You Tube a sweet interview with Mae talking to Dick Cavett – her vast bosom is corseted and tightly upholstered in black velvet, and she comes over as a darling and slightly raffish old lady who has spent a jolly life in saloon bars (needless to say, she was in fact strictly teetotal). She looks fun and – as was once said of Swanson – she is fun to think about, too.
Rochas took Mae at face value when he and Edmond Roudnistka created FEMME towards the end of World War Two. Couturier Marcel Rochas had known West for years as a client: he now designed the flacon as a surreal vision of the celebrated hips. Naturally it feels wonderful to hold. The box was patterned with the black lace panels that Rochas used to create the optical illusion of a slimmer figure. So maybe the sweet and fruity (prunes, but crystallised) chypre has a touch of tongue in cheek. Today – if you can find a bottle – it is still gorgeous and fascinating despite the passage of 70 years; and so, on celluloid, is Mae.
‘Peel me a grape.’
MAE WEST 1893 – 1980