There seems to be a rather sad tradition among movie queens whose reign of public popularity spans decades within the Hollywood limelight to manage to make one last film just before they either die or retire from their adoring fans, a film that none of them should have made in the first place. In the case of Joan Crawford it was Trog. For Bette Davis it was Wicked Stepmother. For Veronica Lake it would be a sleazefest calledFlesh Feast. Even the great Marlene Dietrich bowed out of the public eye performing the title song in the lackluster Just A Gigolo. Perhaps the greatest example of not knowing when to quit has to be Mae West, whose public image in the collective cultural consciousness was always that of a powerful sex diva long known as a gay icon. Mae West insisted on making a film from one of her many long-ago unrealized projects The fact she chose a project created decades before when she was perhaps still in her forties to be resurrected in 1978 when the queen of the double-entendre was well into her 80′s at the time says it all.
Sextette was her final choice and it proved to be exactly what you would expect from a larger-than-life personality whose star power really never diminished with the passage of time. The rumors surrounding Sextette are many, and almost all of them false. I should know since I was not only an on-set visitor on the Paramount lot during filming but also a guest at the Ravenswood Apartment Building to meet the legend in the flesh. First of all, Paramount had nothing to do with the production of Sextette. Rumors began even before the film was finished that Paramount had decided to shelve it because it was too terrible to release, and this is a lie since the film was made by an independent company called Crown International, and Mae West did not contribute any money towards the making of Sextette, which was also the gossip at the time. The most damning thing of all was the fact that the majority of the rumors surrounding the film were all leveled at Mae West herself simply because she had survived into a time in Hollywood when ageism is inherent in our culture and almost a religion in the gay community. How many times have I had to sit and listen to some not-so-well-meaning film historian or fan relate the tales of senility that were fabricated by the reviewers of the day? They began with Mae West being almost deaf, forcing her handlers to place hearing aids in her wig to receive direction, and then these so-called eye-witnesses went one step further from the truth by fabricating this urban legend regarding a weather plane which just happened to be flying over Paramount one afternoon, causing Mae to start blurting out weather reports rather than her lines; this, of course, never happened.
The filming at Paramount went without issue for the most part and for the duration of shooting was an open set, allowing visitors to see for themselves how a real star behaves. Mae West was a force of nature in person. Her arrival on the floor of the soundstage was like Cleopatra coming into Rome; even the most jaded among the crew down to the lowest of stage hands stopped what they were doing to watch this tiny, well-groomed lady walk onto the set greeting various friends and fans alike, all of them caught up in the legend that was Mae West. The reality of that situation was simply this Mae West, at that moment in time, did not look her age, end of story. One of the reasons Mae West was so well-preserved was her always-positive attitude. She had been wealthy for decades so personal hardships never entered her life as they do most of us. She told me that on all twelve of her films if any problems arose she made sure it was done out of her presence. Mae West insisted on a happy set with everyone there knowing their jobs and making her look good. That was all that ever mattered. In this regard Mae West was a bit like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and this fact was not lost on Billy Wilder when he suggested she play the role before settling on Gloria Swanson. I think I speak for most fans ofSunset Boulevard by saying thank God she declined. Mae West was never a great actress, she was always a great star, and there is a difference. When you hired Mae West you got what you paid for: a sexual pioneer in terms of what she got away with in double-entendre. Even when playing the promiscuous man-eater, as she did in such films as She Done Him Wrong, Mae West made sure that her men were not attached to any other woman. “Mae West does not go after another woman’s man.”
One of the things that struck me at the time of filming Sextettewas just how very old-fashioned it was, even with the spy and secret-agent subplot placed there to connect Timothy Dalton with his Bond image making this production more like a TV-movie-of-the-week than a feature film. Ken Hughes was lost from day one since he was not able to cope with her lack of reality regarding making this film into a musical, especially at this stage in her life, where dialogue was spoken at a slower pace causing the timing of one-liners to miss that well-needed beat in order to be funny. There is humor in this film yet it is all in the “so bad it’s good” vein of cult cinema. The choice of material was way-off. A shining example of that comes about midway through the film when Mae enters a gym filled with musclemen and zeros in on the very youngest of the lot. This kid is perhaps 21, perhaps not, yet Mae poses in front of him while trying to sing Happy Birthday, 21. This sequence is painful to watch as she is so off and artificial. Everyone present is pretending to be fascinated. This is what is wrong with this film: we all have better representations of Mae West from the 30′s where her timing and sense of bawdy one-liners was always on-target. On this production Mae was catered to in the worst way possible by having everyone fall down laughing at every line she has or looking at her as if she was beyond any normal human being, and perhaps this is how Mae West survived the passing of the studio era and the advent of television—by always being the same and more importantly looking the same if at all possible. Mae rejected a chance to have Vincent Price play one of her ex-husbands in the film because he was “just too old for me.” Vincent was even willing to screen test with her, knowing full well he was at least 20 years younger than Mae, but she wanted actors that would “appeal to the youth market,” so they got Ringo Starr and Alice Cooper (who, ironically, would use Vincent Price himself in his show Welcome to My Nightmare).
I was fairly new to the Hollywood scene when this film was being made and depended largely on my newly-acquired contacts to get on soundstages like this in the first place. My contact onSextette was its casting director, Marvin Paige, who is a film expert as well as a collector of memorabilia. Marvin would go on to provide rare photos and poster art from his vast Hollywood collection for countless television shows and books. Marvin organized my set visit, which was not too difficult since there were no objections to on-set press since Mae loved all the attention she could handle. I was so impressed with her—make no mistake, this woman knew exactly what she was doing at all times and was alert and focused, especially at her age. Mae West was a creation carefully cultivated for nearly half a century if you consider Mae was in Vaudeville as far back as 1907, she was well into her forties when she was making those classic films over at Paramount in the early 30′s. In Sextette Mae West is playing her former self with no attempt to conceal her age in terms of career, however it does become problematic when she insists all the men in the cast, as well as extras, want to take her to bed. Mae told one reporter that she could not only tell a man’s penis size by just looking at him but moreover she could also get these men to go the extra few inches just to accommodate the oversexed star. This was the kind of suspension of disbelief that caused the backlash after the film was screened for the press.
Everyone in Hollywood went out of there way to comment on this elderly woman trying to prevent the hands of time from closing in on her. It was shameful that not one of these “critics” realized that this film (whatever its faults) was destined to be remembered and seen over and over again as a cult film simply because Mae West was in it. The gay community would happily keep this film from being forgotten, although there will be some that notice the largely gay dancers are forced to watch the decidedly-straight Keith Moon camping it up like a deranged gay hairdresser, or what he assumed one would act like, setting a new low in the medium of gay stereotypes. In fact Timothy Dalton is forced to try and explain why he is not gay to the Hollywood press in the film (including a cameo by James Bacon. There is reason for concern because he does not at any time touch Mae West or attempt to kiss her, even on their wedding night. Their duet ofLove Will Keep Us Together is mind-boggling to behold. The only other star from her era doing much the same thing, only with younger women was the nearly 100-year-old George Burns who, like Mae with muscle men, always had buxom starlets in his act as if he was having sex with them if he felt like it—and never got a sour note from the press about it either.
It was during the last days of filming that Mae West’s manager, a charming man named Stanley Musgrove who always told Mae the truth or nothing at all, sent me a note with an invitation to come up and see Mae West at her suite at the Ravenswood apartment building off Rossmore, not too far away from her old studio. I prepared myself for this encounter as best I could and brought with me a vintage 11×14 portrait of Mae in a Chinese costume in Klondike Annie. This was a gift to me from John Kobal, who had already made the pilgrimage to Ravenswood and made sure I had something special to mark the occasion. Mae West lived on the 6th floor of the Ravenswood, which represented the Spanish influence around that part of Hollywood. Paul Novak, Mae’s number one protector, lover and friend, was there by her door to suite 611, advising me to make no attempt to photograph her during the visit and please be seated in a specific chair once I was admitted into her inner sanctum. The living room was done all in white with gold trimmings and the only other color was cream in this rococo universe of Mae West. She had been living there since 1932 and the legend was that most of the furnishings came directly from the studio. This was not too difficult to believe since her entire apartment actually did resemble a film set, especially when Mae made her grand entrance into the room wearing a stunning cream-colored gown with a matching silk robe with a train of lace, giving one the impression she just stepped off a wedding cake.
I cannot remember the details our conversation from 1978 except we exchanged pleasantries while speaking of the show business connections we had in common like Marvin Paige, Harry Weiss (the lawyer who did a cameo as The Don in Sextette) or Vincent Price. When I finally showed Mae the photograph she was visibly impressed and asked me where I got it and if I had any others, since she herself never had this one. Once I handed her the photograph I kind of knew she was going to keep it and so I made the gesture. Mae West was certainly used to getting what she wanted in life and without missing a beat she said, “You know, David, you’re a nice man and I want to give you something to remember our time together,” so she glided over to her French Provincial desk and fished out a standard 8×10 publicity photo that I imagined was used to promote her Vegas shows. This was signed to me with the inscription, “To David, Sin-cerely, Mae West.”
The one thing I hold paramount during this visit was how lucid and bright she was in person. All the rumors about filmingSextette being a shambles because of Mae’s advancing years is nothing but wishful thinking on the part of her detractors. Towards the end of our visit she asked me to stand up and walk over to her. She then extended her hand, asking me to touch it. “I have never had plastic surgery. Look at my hands.” She then pulled up a sleeve and asked me to touch her arm, which was like wax, very smooth. Mae also had a head of beautiful hair, not to mention her own teeth. This woman, well into her 80′s, looked at least 20 years younger. I was told later that she loved to invite fans up to her place simply to educate them as to just how amazing and youthful the real Mae West was and in this regard she was right on the money. The only downside to my visit besides forfeiting a fantastic photo was that I talked like her for days afterwards, even on the phone, until my friends prayed I would not interview Fran Drescher.
After filming on Sextette was completed and then edited down into the film we see today on DVD, Mae was driven up to San Francisco for one of the many premieres it would have since it was not widely distributed at the time. The ad campaign boasted a billboard that proclaimed, “MAE WEST IS COMING!” Once again the Mae West touch with a double-entendre regarding her favorite pastime, sex. She had to share the screen that night with a drag queen named Craig Russell whose film Outrageous was shown first. Mr. Russell chose not to attend this particular screening. After all, Mae West, while no stranger to drag queens in her life, did not wish the comparison on this occasion. The crowds flooding the area around the cinema were amazing to behold: literally hundreds of fans turned out to see their beloved sex queen of the silver screen in the flesh. If Mae ever needed reassurance that she was indeed the greatest star of her era and beyond, then this was it. This was to be her last film and the first in nearly eight years after the infamous Myra Breckenridge, a film in which Mae survived nicely by not having the entire production resting on her tiny shoulders. I now believe that of her twelve films that will now be screened well into the next century and beyond it is important to have Myra and Sextette as souvenirs of the latter-day Mae glittering with fresh paint and feathers, an ageless white-and-gold pony like the ones you might find at the circus or carnival, part of a grand carousel. Perhaps her particular pony has been ridden a few too many times in the past, and yet how it shines and sparkles in the light.
A few years later Kenneth Anger called me asking if I could find a print of Sextette as he had never had a chance to see it in 1978. I did have a VHS copy and so my partner Chris and I screened it for him. Kenneth watch this film enraptured in the glory of just how awful it was with the absurd plot devices and the pandering to everything Mae said or did in the film. Kenneth waited until the film was over and then launched into how surreal the film was because Mae West’s will was so strong and her beliefs so ingrained into her persona that even at 87 years of age she could star in a motion picture and still be the Mae West that was wowing them back in 1907. Sextette has survived all the negative reviews, the mean-spirited references to the age of the star herself. I doubt if anyone outside of Stanley Musgrove ever told her what the outside world thought of her film and yet I know having met the great lady she would pause for a single instant reflecting ever so quickly on the situation and say as only Mae West could, “I just want my fans to remember that I am the gal that works at Paramount by day and Fox all night.” Mae West is coming, boys, and always on her own terms.