With the words, "I never play over twenty-eight," Mae West supposedly ruled herself out of consideration for the role of Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. It's hard to work out why she was considered, since she had no associating with silent cinema, but perhaps at that stage the character was pre-Code rather than pre-sound. At any rate, Gloria Swanson took the role and enjoyed a renaissance, in the process obscuring the fact that she had enjoyed some brief success in early talkies (including one co-written by Wilder).
Maybe West just seemed like someone who wouldn't be shy about playing love scenes with a younger man. Much, much younger. She got her chance to prove this in Myra Breckinridge (1970), at the age of at least seventy-six. It's a moronic adaptation of Gore Vidal, directed by a British actor whose big idea was to make the whole thing a dream sequence. One has to credit Mike Sarne with a dash of genius just for convincing Twentieth Century Fox that this was some kind of solution to the problem of adapting a sex change comedy to the screen.
Some find Mae embarrassing in that film. Not me. True, she's still playing twenty-eight, although that's hard to tell. She's still playing Mae West, who was forty by the time she made a movie, after all. But her particular caricature of sex appeal seems invulnerable to reality, as long as she has the strength to project it.
But we're not here to talk about Myra Breckinridge (in which Ms. West should really have had the title role), as delightful as that would be. We're here to talk about Sextette (1978), in which Mae attempts to continue as if it were still 1933, even though she's now at least eighty-four and admits to eighty-two.
Written by West and Herbert Baker (Herbert West, Re-Animator would have been more help), this British-shot musical, made by Ken Hughes who did Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, pairs the grande dame with, variously, Tony Curtis, Timothy Dalton, George Hamilton...and duets with Alice Cooper, Ringo Starr and Keith Moon. And George Raft shows up for old times sake, though it's almost as brief as his appearances in Casino Royale and The Ladies Man. Dom DeLuise attempts to get some energy into the thing. You can feel the flop sweat cooling.
Curiously, the film is even more uncomfortable, terrible and wrong than the trailer makes it look. Mae is afforded a measure of protection by the quick-cut scenes that she doesn't get in the movie itself. She can still find the right pitch for her decades-old one-liners, but her timing is off: supposedly an assistant was reading the lines to her through an earpiece. A tale is told of somebody dropping something on the assistant's foot, causing Mae to dutifully repeat the impromptu expletive uttered.
Ironically, while she was using this technique to breathe something like life into "Marlo Manners," Marlon Brando was doing exactly the same thing in Superman. Make of that what you will.
I never know quite how sympathetic we're meant to find Norma Desmond, versus how repelled we're meant to be. I find her tragic, and if she at times makes the skin crawl it's not because she's getting on in years, but because she's deluded. Mae West in Sextette is certainly that, but there's also a creep factor that is, sadly, more directly to do with age. While in Myra Breckinridge, one can believe that the flames of passion still improbably flicker, in Sextette they are surely dead, the embers cold, and so the rote performance of desire has a risen-from-the-grave miasma. It's very sad, but perhaps we can still find it heroic too: Mary Jane West refused, until her last breath, to behave as society expected.
And if cinema can't hold back the advance of time, what is it for?
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.