Cover Story: Goddess of Gob ; Sometimes It's Better to Talk about Sex Than Actually to Do It - Well, It Was in the Case of the Great Mae West, Hollywood's Queen of the Double Entendre. but Did Mae Really Get off on Life or Was Her Gift of the Gab a Cover for a Deeply Unhappy Existence? without Further Innuendo, David Thomson Surveys a Troubled, Brilliant Career
Thomson, David, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
To this day, if you mention "Mae West" in City offices engaged in law, money or ecclesiastical-trust property, young women with Oxbridge degrees in Chaucer or Spenser will put their hands on their hips - or where once in the history of the female frame hips were - lapse into a molasses-slow drawl and begin to play off double entendres, wordplays that would be enough to make them blush if they were still in their tough north London voices and Amis attitudes.
Everyone can do Mae West, including young people who assume she must once have made as many films as Chaplin or any of the other standard institutions of film history. We all hear that voice, and take delight in the slow- motion lasciviousness that will give a man - any man, they're all alike, they want just one thing so it's up to us gals to show them what we keep under the counter - a prolonged eyes-only examination before sauntering on. Lines are left hanging in the air like flies for fish, lines like: "Why don't you come up and see me some time?" And the modern purveyor of the routine may pause in the doorway, pause long enough for paint to dry, look back and give you the murmured add on, "and I do mean up." The Mae Wests of the world can utter that last "up" as if... well, as if their typing chair had taken it into its mind to elevate seven-and-a-half inches on the spur of the moment. And Mae feels every inch - she learned the metric system because that gave her more to feel. Though her gaze is infinite and serene, she has the touch and the knowingness of a masseuse. It's just that the muscles she works are all those of language and lewd anticipation.
And Mae West is back. In 1997 a new biography - thorough, fond and both modern and feminist in its admiration - appeared: Becoming Mae West, by Emily Worth Leider. The title addressed the historical progress of a Brooklyn girl born in 1893. In 2001, another biography, An Icon in Black and White by the black academic Jill Watts, was much intrigued by Mae's sympathy for black culture. There was also a play on Broadway, Dirty Blonde, very nearly a one-woman show, written by and starring Claudia Shear. Why did it take so long to cross the Atlantic and arrive in London only this month? Let Mae answer: "Well, I only have one stroke y'know - breast stroke, and I like to stop to see the scenery."
The play seemed modest to me when I saw it in San Francisco three years ago, but in large part that's because the impersonation of Mae West is in so many crucial ways redundant - after all, long before copy-cats, she was a puss who was doing this daringly filthy act on what it might be like to be pussy. Sooner or later, if you stay in this voice of Miss West's you're going to get a newspaper's lawyer or a prospective mother- in-law edgy. "What do you mean by `pussy', Mr Thomson?" Well, it's not what I mean, it's all in what you're wondering. And Mae West might have majored in social satire in her own rough education: for she knew that the lawyers, the clergymen, the teachers and the policemen were required to have filthy minds. How else could they protect the happy idiots from innuendo (and out the other side - don't even think about that one)?
What I'm striving to reclaim from history here is something that you might think was lost for ever - to be sexually suggestive in such a way that respectable people believe they have been outraged. Now, I think most of us will admit that the hardest thing to do in these cynical times is to be truly outrageous - though the talent is not quite dead in America as you will have noticed. The cutest thing about Dirty Blonde is the way it reminds us of the history of Mae West as one of those people who understood the fine balance of getting the ordinary viewer so stirred up that he or she couldn't always tell horror from excitement (hence another classic West line - "Well, say, is that a gun in your pocket or …
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Publication information: Article title: Cover Story: Goddess of Gob ; Sometimes It's Better to Talk about Sex Than Actually to Do It - Well, It Was in the Case of the Great Mae West, Hollywood's Queen of the Double Entendre. but Did Mae Really Get off on Life or Was Her Gift of the Gab a Cover for a Deeply Unhappy Existence? without Further Innuendo, David Thomson Surveys a Troubled, Brilliant Career. Contributors: Thomson, David - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent on Sunday (London, England). Publication date: June 6, 2004. Page number: 7,8,9. © 2009 The Independent on Sunday. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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