One of the best characters in Hollywood. Ever. Mae West.
Born Mary Jane West on 17th August 1893, in Brooklyn New York. She was very close to her mother Matilda (nicknamed Champagne Til for her love of said beverage) of who inspired the name of her most famous character ‘Diamond Lil’. Encouraged by her doting mother to express herself, Mae would develop her love of entertaining on the stage.
Vaudeville was were West honed her craft and refined her style. In addition to appearing in shows, West also penned her own plays. Creating the types of characters that she wanted to portray; tough, sassy, desired by all men and always in charge. Basically Mae was playing herself (or a more exaggerated version of herself ), her most notorious play was ‘Sex’. In 1926, to have the word sex on a marquee was utterly scandalous, so much so that West was arrested for ‘corrupting the morals of youth’ and sentenced to 10days in prison. This episode was an important learning curb for West. Despite the controversy and jail time, ‘Sex’ was a smash hit. Mae learnt that censorship could actually help her, creating a career that feed off of scandal. Her most famous play was ‘Diamond Lil’, became a massive hit on Broadway.
In 1932, Paramount offered West a contract. It is important to note that Mae was almost 40; which in Hollywood years is about 70, the fact that a major studio wanted her is very rare. ‘Diamond Lil’ had her big screen make over and became ‘She Done Him Wrong’, the film was such a success that she actually saved Paramount, from bankruptcy. This was followed up ‘ My Little Chickadee’, ‘I’m No Angel’, ‘Belle of the Nineties’ and ‘Klondike Annie’. In Hollywood’s long history, few women have been able to enjoy such creative control as West. She starred in the films that SHE wanted, writing the scripts that SHE wanted, working with the people of HER choosing.
West was unique in the way that she viewed and handled men, but especially sex. While women at the time were encouraged to be passive playthings to please their men, in the hope of obtaining marriage. West was never interested in marriage (even though she was briefly married as a young woman), she just enjoyed men and then moved on when she was bored.
As West approached middle age and her elder years, Mae was acting less and pursuing more ‘vanity’ projects such as her stage show which featured West and a plethora of body builders. Oiled and pumped. One of her final films was the infamous train wreck ‘Myra Breckinridge’. A campy, trashy flick that has become a cult classic. Mae died on 22nd December 1980 aged 87.
Now West is seen as a gay icon, while she loved gay men. She was not as keen on lesbians. As icons go, few actresses could ever carve out the kind of career that West cultivated. Being so in control; creatively and literally. Who never compromised nor ever allowed social norms get her way.