Special Report By Casey McCabe
It was coincidence that I saw the film "Bridget Jones Diary" and the hit Broadway play "Dirty Blonde" in the same week. The former features a young woman of remarkably normal size — and by that I mean bizarrely foreign to show showbusiness — who is unsuccessful at losing weight but ultimately triumphant at attracting men. The latter is a play about Mae West. A woman who refused to lose anything. What seemed less than coincidental were the number of recent articles in which Mae West's name has been popping up.
Mae West was born in the 19th Century, and though her enduring fame was in film, she remained a product of the vaudeville circuit. One of the first pop culture sex symbols, and a big, bawdy and unapologetic one at that, she was nearing 40 when her film career finally took off during the Depression. But West would contend it was the world that was finally catching up with her. She was wrong. The world never quite caught up.
West wrote and starred in her own theatrical plays. Her subjects oozed provocation: from sexually confident women to open homosexuality. They would shut down her plays and throw West in jail. But West understood the old saw about no bad publicity. At the same time her sexual adventurism, her rebellious streak and her self-confidence were no acts. But when Hollywood could no longer resist West's growing fame, making her the highest paid performer in the world, West found herself emerging in film just as the Hays Code began wielding its spurious moral authority. She had just enough time to indelibly forge her status as a cultural icon before drifting into a long twilight of campy self-parody that she quite possibly wasn't hip to. Billy Wilder offered West the lead in "Sunset Boulevard," the kind of serious acting role she had never been offered. West reportedly refused the mere suggestion of herself as a has-been. Though it was the fictional Norma Desmond who claimed she was still big, it was the pictures that had gotten small, the line seems tailor made for Mae West.
So now it was no coincidence that I picked up "My Little Chickadee" at the video store the same week. Co-starring West and W.C. Fields, it is among the most famous, if not the best, of West's films. It confirms that "Sunset Boulevard" was much better off with Gloria Swanson. Mae West played one note, played it well, and did nothing in public or private to go against her image. It was her legacy to bend for no man, and that included Billy Wilder. The play "Dirty Blonde," written by and starring Claudia Shear, is a wonderfully entertaining theatrical love letter to West, with just enough time and distance to portray her as both a genuine hero and cultural misfit. The film "Bridget Jones Diary," in which legitimate leading lady Rene Zellwegger actually put on weight to play an object of desire, was #1 at the box office this week. But still, there in my VCR was a trussed up 50 year old heavyweight playing an irresistible ingenue, and nobody daring suggest it the slightest bit unusual.
Let me look around a second. Nope. The world still hasn't caught up with Mae West.
© 2001 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 04/25/01
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