We’ve become quite used to modern entertainers being open about their sexuality. It’s not taboo for actresses and models to be sexually liberated the way it once was. Well, for that, you’ve got Mae West to thank.
Mae West was an actress, writer, singer, sex symbol, and an American icon. In fact, it’s safe to say that she was an institution in herself. In 1999, the American Film Institute voted her as the 15th female screen legend of classic American cinema! A position she truly deserved and would have enjoyed!
But we’re jumping ahead! How did Mae West get her start? What made her so different from other actresses of her time?
Let’s learn about Mae West’s fascinating life and career…
MAE WEST’S BEGINNINGS
Mary Jane West was born on the 17th of August, 1893, in Brooklyn, New York. It seemed that the rebellious spirit that she was later known for was embedded into her genes.
Her mother, Mathilde, had emigrated to the United States from Bavaria. She married John Patrick West, and it seems that both sides of the family disapproved of the marriage. John West was a prizefighter and later started his own private investigation firm. Mathilde worked as a corset and fashion model.
She began her “acting” career at the age of 5 when she performed at a church social. Little Mae must have made an impression because she never stopped entertaining crowds since then. By the age of 7, she began appearing in amateur talent shows. By the age of 14, she began performing in vaudeville shows.
It was during this time that she developed her signature walk and her unique speaking style. Through the years, she went through many stage names from “Baby Mae” and “Jane Mast” until she finally settled on “Mae West.”
Mae as a Broadway Star
She performed on stage often, and she eventually became a Broadway star. While she’s often remembered for her unique acting, one should also mention that she wrote many of the plays in which she performed. Many of these plays were risqué and went against the social norms of the time.
So, when Mae West flirted and exuded her sexuality in her performances, it’s because that’s how she wrote her own parts!
Her first lead role on Broadway was in a play she wrote entitled Sex. While such a title may seem rather tame or even bland by today’s standards, it was quite a shock in 1926 and must have drawn large crowds.
The play was eventually shut down by the NYPD and Mae West was charged with obscenity. On April 19, 1927, Mae West was sentenced to 10 days in jail…
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AN UNFORTUNATE POSITION – OR, WAS IT?
Spending ten days in jail for writing and performing in a supposed- “obscene” play isn’t a position most of us would like to find ourselves in. But it seems that Mae West could enjoy any position and have fun with it.
One of the most memorable stories about her stint in jail was that she refused to wear the underwear that was required of all inmates. Instead, she wore her own silk underwear. Even in jail, she wanted to be rebellious and carry her own style. It was clear that these 10 days weren’t going to stop her from pursuing her ambitions.
Now, you would think that her refusal to wear the burlap that the other female inmates had to wear would land her in more trouble.
Quite the opposite happened! Mae developed a reputation both inside and outside the jail for her rebelliousness. In spite of this rebelliousness, she only had to serve eight days of her jail sentence. She was relieved of the remaining two days for “good behavior!”
Once she was back on the outside, she returned to writing and starring in plays. Her next play was The Drag. This play is notable for its depiction of homosexuality and cross-dressing, which were extremely taboo subjects in those days – January 1927 to be exact!
Mae West Reputation
It was around this time that Mae West began expressing her support for gay rights and women’s rights. Though her views sometimes clashed with the mainstream activists, she was one of the first actresses to show support for these causes.
She was a hit on stage and audiences flocked to see her. Her reputation preceded her and no matter how hard the censors tried to fight her, she always ended up on top. Through her plays, she continued to develop her famous persona. No doubt audiences all over New York discussed the mystique of Mae West.
But stage performances eventually fade out of memory. There was only one other medium that could immortalize Mae West.
She was just getting started. Her true calling came in the early 1930s. This was the decade when Mae West went from Broadway star to movie star…
FROM BOTTOM TO TOP
Mae West was almost 40 when she began her movie career. One might think that as a newcomer to cinema, she’d have to start from the bottom.
But her persona from her theatre days made her a natural fit for the big screen. Actor George Raft suggested Mae West to play the role of Maudie Triplett in Night After Night – which became her debut film.
While this may have been her debut film, she was given her opportunity to showcase her now-famous persona. She was allowed to rewrite some of her lines to suit her persona. There’s one famous scene when a hat-check girl looks at Mae’s diamonds and proclaims, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds…” to which Mae replies, “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie!”
This line became one of Mae West’s most famous lines. Decades later when TV host Dick Cavett interviewed her, he noticed she was wearing diamond jewelry. He stated “goodness, what diamonds,” and Mae smiled and gave the same response she did in her debut film!
While the role was a supporting one, it wouldn’t be long until Mae West became a leading lady!
Mae Second Film
Her second film paired her with Cary Grant. It was called I’m No Angel, and it remains one of her most popular films. She received a writing credit for the film, and it went onto become her most successful film at the box office. It also became Paramount Pictures’ biggest hit of the year.
She continued to act in films throughout the 1930s. While many of her films were fun comedies, some of them also hit a nerve with America’s conservative values. Her film Klondike Annie challenged religion and tried its best to navigate around the Hays’ Code censorship that existed at the time.
She was often paired with some of the most famous actors of the time. In 1940, she was paired with the famous comic actor W.C. Fields in the film My Little Chickadee – which went onto become of his and her biggest hits!
Following her appearance in the 1943 film The Heat’s On she took a very long hiatus from cinema – upset at the strict censorship that existed at the time. She returned to mostly performing in nightclubs. She only appeared in two more films during her lifetime after The Heat’s On. In 1970, she appeared as “Leticia” in the film Myra Breckinridge and her final film role was as Marlo Manners in the 1977 film Sextette.
Though she had taken such a long hiatus from films, she played the lead role in both of her final films. She may have forgotten about cinema for a while, but it seemed that audiences could never forget about her.
MAE WEST’S LEGACY
So how is Mae West remembered today? Over forty years after her death, you can still find fans impersonating her unique style. Mae West had a particular style of acting which she carried out in all her performances, whether on stage, in films, on television, on the radio, and in nightclubs.
This specific style of acting is often used to critique entertainers who don’t have a broad range. But this didn’t matter to Mae West. Her off-screen persona and her on-screen characters were one and the same.
Forty years after her death you’ll see people imitating her style even if they don’t fully know who she was.
She’s remembered as an entertainer who was unabashed about her sexuality – which was extremely taboo for the time. But she should also be lauded for her bravery to stand up against censorship and to critique the social attitudes of the time. This is one of the responsibilities of artists, but few are brave enough to take it.
She gave voices not only to women, but to homosexuals, cross-dressers, and other groups not shown to the larger society. Mae West wasn’t afraid to make a statement and she was quite good at it – though she may have insisted that her ‘goodness’ had nothing to do with it!
Mae never really faded away from the limelight and continued to give interviews throughout her career. She remains one of Hollywood’s most famous and perhaps most notorious sex symbols.
Mae West sadly passed away on November 22, 1980, at the age of 87 in Los Angeles, California.
Are you a fan of Mae West? We’re sure you have a favorite film of hers!
Now, we’d like to know your opinion:
Do you think that Mae West influenced the openness of sexuality we see today? Or are we actually more prudish than we may think?
Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.
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