Archive for August 1, 2008

West-ward ho!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on August 1, 2008 by dcairns

Mae West: what’s she like?

A bit like a battleship, possibly, but in a good way. The way a ship is like a woman, with its proud curves and sleek grandeur.

A bit like a dirty jazz trumpet, parping out sleazy tunes with lusty relish. That voice may be an unlikely instrument but she’s a fine vocalist. The tones are inflected with that unique mixture of pride and randiness. I think perhaps my friend B. Kite, the God Who Sits Like a Man, is right to rate her higher as a blues singer than as a comedian.

As a writer, she favours complicated melodramatic plots with lots of characters, which sometimes delays her entrance for ten minutes of agonizing exposition. Then come the quips, and we’re in safe hands. The combination of quips and personality make her a comedy persona along the lines of Groucho Marx, except that Groucho didn’t originate his own movie scripts. WC Fields, another writer-star, has a far wider range as actor and convinces more as a character in a story, whereas West is always a star being a star, but her approach is absolutely sufficient for her purposes. I think she’s partly admired so much because, apart from being funny and weirdly glamorous, she’s an example, or embodiment of an ideal. This can’t be said of many male comics, who tend to illustrate comic flaws. Mae incarnates the idea of total self-belief, which makes her physical oddness actually an advantage — she’s a glamour icon in her own mind, and therefore in reality. If she looked like Faye Dunaway it would be less obvious how much of the effect was being sustained by sheer force of personality.

“I think she’s a female faggot, actually,” suggests Jason Holliday in Shirley Clarke’s PORTRAIT OF JASON, before attempting an impersonation. He might be onto something. West patterned her walk and her routine on drag artistes, and her sex life was rampant, insatiable and restless. She pursued sex in a way that’s more often associated with men than women. If you buy the stuff about male and female brains (with statistical tendencies that are often completely reversed in individual cases), we could say that Mae had a fairly male brain. But with a definite female slant.

When she closes her eyes, it seems to be from the sheer bliss of being Mae West. It’s a joy to see someone who’s so happy being who they are.