“Do you have a thing about older women? That’s sort of faggoty, isn’t it?”
Carrie Fisher interrogating Warren Beatty in Shampoo (1975)
Thinking back to those old Popeye the Sailor Man cartoons I watched as a kid, I used to think it was funny the way Olive Oyl ‒ tall, gangly, big-footed, needle-nosed, granny-voiced, and severe-of-hairdo ‒ saw herself as this breathtaking dreamboat, irresistible to men. Funnier still was the fact that in the bizarro world of Popeye cartoons, especially in episodes featuring shapely females of more conventional appeal, not only did Popeye and Bluto pay little heed to the flirtations of more comely lasses, but, obviously sharing Olive’s delusion, fought each other tooth-and-nail for her affections. Of course, it helped that the writers and animators of Popeye were in on the absurdist joke. A factor that goes a long way in making Olive’s subversively contagious brand of self-enchantment feel more like nonconformist self-acceptance than uncurbed mental illness.
Alas, not a trace of fun or self-awareness is to be found in Mae West’s live-action feat of self-delusion titled, Sextette. A film that started out as novelty, slipped into curiosity, careened into embarrassment, and, through its plodding execution and pedestrian lack of wit, leapfrogged right over camp. Its ultimate destination: Bizarre has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed cult oddity.
|Mae West as Marlo Manners the female answer to Apollo|
|Timothy Dalton as Husband #6 Lord Michael Barrington|
|Dom DeLuise as Manager, Dan Turner|
|Tony Curtis as Husband #3 Russian diplomat Alexei Karansky|
|George Hamilton as Husband #5 gangster Vance Norton|
|Ringo Starr as Husband #4 film director Laslo Karolny|
|Keith Moon as Roger, the excitable dress designer|
Sextette takes place in a world where an 84-year-old silver screen siren is enthusiastically pursued and fawned over by throngs of excited males; the mere sight of her inciting near-riots of inflamed masculine passion and desire. Obviously, such a place does in fact exist in the real world...it’s called the world of the gay fanbase. It’s the world of the camp aficionado, the admirer of the drag queen aesthetic, the diviner of covert gay sensibilities in mainstream entertainment, and the upholders of that enduring mainstay of queer culture - diva worship. Had Sextette installed itself in this world, the only world where it made the slightest bit of sense for men in their 20s to go ga-ga over a woman old enough to be their grandmother, a hint of verisimilitude might have graced this otherwise preposterous Hollywood (it can’t be helped) fairy tale.
But were talking Mae West here. The unapologetic egotist who once told a reporter she never wanted children because, “I was always too absorbed in myself and didn't have time for anybody else.” A woman so self-serious and protective of her image she slapped Bette Midler with a cease and desist order when she saw the up-and-coming performer do an impersonation of her on The Johnny Carson Show. A woman who adored her gay fans yet bristled at any suggestion that her appeal to them might have anything to do with camp.
And so although Sextette’s existence as a film at all is wholly due to the efforts and participation of a battery of gay men both behind and in front of the camera (not to mention a gay sensibility running through it with a ferocity unmatched by any movie until Can’t Stop the Music); gays don’t really figure in the absurdly heteronormative world of Mae West, Sextette, or geriatric sex-goddess Marlo Manners (except as the setup for a tiresome running gag).
The world of Sextette is the world of Mae West, and in Mae West’s world, all men are straight (despite flaming appearances to the contrary), and frail-looking octogenarians mouthing puerile vulgarisms while dressed in 1890s finery are the stuff of wet dreams. Watching the film as anything other than a colossally bad joke played on both the actress and the audience is a Herculean task worthy of West's small army of porn-stached bodybuilder co-stars. To be asked to accept the plot particulars of this wheezy sex farce while pretending to ignore the fact that the object of unbridled lust and erotic desire at its center is in serious danger of falling and shattering her hip, is more than any viewer should have to take on. Small wonder that the film (completed in 1977) took a full two years to find a distributor and enjoyed a brief, money-losing limited release before taking its place in the annals of misguided movie megaflops. How could it be anything but? The experience of watching Sextette was like a Vulcan mind-meld excursion into the delusional, soft-focus fantasy world of a real-life Norma Desmond.
|Hooray for Hollywood|
Slow-moving Marlo is welcomed to her honeymoon hotel by a phalanx of singing bellboys
The story is simple…simple for a farce, anyway. Amidst much hoopla and fanfare, movie star and international sex symbol Marlo Manners (West, who else?) checks into London’s ritzy Sussex Court Hotel to honeymoon with husband number six, one Lord Michael Barrington (Dalton). The never-to-materialize comedic hilarity arises out of the happy, horny couple being unable to consummate their marriage due to an endless stream of ex-husbands, show-biz obligations, and a world peace summit (you can't make this stuff up).
While the wacky Love, American Style disturbances are painfully labored and unfunny, they do at least serve to keep West and Dalton from ever getting anywhere close to doing “the deed,” and for that we can all be grateful.
Given how enjoyably smutty Mae West was in 1970’s Myra Breckinridge (the film that brought West back to the screen after a 26-year absence) I thought Sextette - made a full seven years later in the hedonistic atmosphere of disco, gay liberation, porno chic, and Plato’s Retreat - had the potential to be a fun, over-the-top, musical comedy capitalizing on everything that there was too little of in the Raquel Welch film. No such luck.
Instead of a hip, off-beat entertainment like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) or cheesy curio like The First Nudie Musical (1976), Sextette was just a crass throwback to those smirking, sexless “wholesome” sex comedies of the 60s. All wink-wink, nudge-nudge, but for a few touches of 70s bluntness, Sextette would have fit right in among those neutered, pre-sexual revolution comedies like A Guide for the Married Man, Boy, Did I Get the Wrong Number!, or Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?. Shot in that murky, flat style so prevalent in on-the-cheap exploitation films of the era, Sextette doesn't recall the Mae West’s glory days or even the glamour of old Hollywood. It feels very 70s, very desperate, and very much an ill-conceived, opportunistic attempt to meld the nostalgia craze with the new permissiveness.The film Sextette most resembles, in both style and content, is the tawdry soft-core vaudeville of trash like The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977)
There would be no movie stars without their fans, but sometimes fans can be an artist’s worst enemy. Fan disapproval kept the talented Doris Day trapped in virginal, goody-two-shoes roles well past the age of expiration, and fans allowed Mae West to believe there was actually a public clamoring to see her shimmy and sashay one last time on the big screen.
I totally get how Sextette came into being: The 70s nostalgia boom was in full swing. In 1976 alone, the following nostalgia-based films were released - W.C. Fields & Me, Gable & Lombard, Bugsy Malone, Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood, That’s Entertainment II, Silent Movie, Nickelodeon, A Matter of Time, & The Last Tycoon.
That almost all were resounding flops might have raised a red flag for seasoned producers, but in 1976, two first-time movie producers in their early-20s, Daniel Briggs and Robert Sullivan (Danny and Bobby as they were youthfully known in the press) paid no heed and followed instead the clarion call of Late Show fans everywhere. Gable was gone, Bogart was gone, but Mae West, one of the last living legends was still with us, that's all they needed to know.
|Hollywood columnist, Rona Barrett|
Sextette also features appearances by journalist James Bacon (the white-haired reporter in the hotel lobby), Regis Philbin, and sportscaster Gil Stratton.
The finished product proved far more dire, of course, with Mae West's performance in Sextette evoking the out-of-control narcissism of Sunset Blvd.'s Norma Desmond making Salome. Aghast critics responded to West's elderly sex symbol act with a virulent stream of misogynist, gerontophobic insults on par with the "Old woman's p*ssy" jokes leveled at Valerie Cherish aka Aunt Sassy (Lisa Kudrow) in The Comeback.
Miscalculations of this caliber are rare and should be treasured. Sextette is valueless as a straightforward musical comedy, but it's priceless as a glimpse into a certain kind of insanity possible only through ego (you know who), greed (a good argument could be made for the producers cruelly exploiting West's delusions), and bad decision-making at almost every turn. Perhaps most shocking of all is that Sextette was directed by Ken Hughes, the director of the charming (if odd) children's film, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).
A few of my favorite things.
1. The grab bag of songs comprising this musical's soundtrack are not only odd, but sound as if they were culled from scratchy recordings made at wildly different points in West's career. In one scene the tinny arrangement sounds as if started up on a Victrola. Another sounds overcranked, and many of the recordings have the hollow sound of demos.
2) The ungainly musical numbers were choreographed by 60-year old Marc Breaux (The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins) and assistant, Jerry Trent (Xanadu). I would like to think the post-dubbed taps coming from the busboys on the hotel's carpeted staircase is an intentionally camp touch.
3) Mae West has exactly two spot-on perfect line readings: (Following a knock on the door) DeLuise: "Who's that?" West: "It ain't opportunity!". The second comes at a moment of exasperation when she says (with all too much feeling) "I don't know how I got into this!"
4) In a film with so many obviously gay men playing straight, casting Keith Moon as a flamboyantly effeminate dress designer is more than a little perverse.
5) In Mae West's opening interview with the press, I love the way everyone laughs uproariously at everything she says, only to stop in unison while they await her next quip.
6) The way she just kind of slams into that table during the "Next, Next" number.
7) The weird, decidedly sexist reverse alchemy that goes on when older women are paired with men a third of their age (think Judy Garland, Martha Raye and Margaret Whiting): They don't make the woman look younger, she makes then look gayer.
8) Mae West to an athlete- "And what do you do?" Athlete -"I'm a pole vaulter." Mae - "Aren't we all!"
9) The way DeLuise's dialog referencing Marlow's insatiable sex drive has a way of backfiring when you realize it's in relation to a senior, senior citizen: "This is her wedding night and Marlow's going to need all the oxygen she can get." or "By the time Marlow gets out of bed there'll be a new Administration."
Mae West made a total of twelve films, always playing a variation of the Diamond Lil character she created way back in 1928. As a writer, actress, singer, and comedienne, she's a genuine trailblazer and groundbreakingly feminist icon from early days of Hollywood. But, I find (unlike her quote "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!") a little of Mae goes a long way. I like her a great deal in some of her old movies, and she isn't without a little bit of charm even in this misbegotten horror show. She doesn't bother me too much in Sextette, possibly because she is virtually impossible to take seriously.
Sure, she makes you gasp or laugh at first viewing, but later you kind of have to give it up to the old girl for still being in there pitching. Also, at her absolute worst, lowest ebb, Mae West is still more talented and interesting to watch than today's no-talent Kardashians, Lohans, or Beibers.
Mae West never carries on a conversation. People feed her straight lines, she delivers the gags. This leaves the other actors adapting an every-man-for-himself approach to the material. Every "guest star" doing their bit independent of what anyone else is doing, and then disappearing to the sidelines. George Hamilton comes off perhaps best, with Dalton achieving the near-miracle of escaping the whole mess unscathed. There's a curious prescience in Sextette in casting Hamilton as a mafia lug (he would appear in The Godfather:Part III in 1990), and Dalton playing a spy (of course, he became James Bond in 1987).
|Keith Allison of the 60s pop group, Paul Revere & the Raiders|
|"They're flushin' my play down the terlet."|
Mae West speaking to companion Paul Novak as overheard by Ringo Starr
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Images of Mae West surrounded by bodybuilders were used extensively in advance publicity for Sextette. Her gymnasium musical number promised to be more outrageous that Jane Russell's beefcake-heavy "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love" number in 1953s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Unfortunately, like everything else in Sextette, the end result was a disappointment. While there is plenty of eye candy on hand, the entire sequence is little more than a lot of guys standing around feeding West straight lines for her familiar comebacks.
Like my own high-school locker room experiences, this scene is awkward, uncomfortable, full of exposed male flesh, and you'll want to avert your eyes but find you can't.
|Former Mr. America Reg Lewis was an alumnus of West's 1954 Las Vegas act|
|To the left is Cal Bartlett as the coach of the US Athletic Team. Front and center is Ric Drasin. Recognizable to fans of 70s physique porn as Jean-Claude(!)|
|Roger Callard (aka Stacy) is another 70s alumnus of Colt Studios, a studio specializing in nude male physique photography. At the center is Denny Gable, to the right, former Mr. USA Cal Szkalak|
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Those musical numbers....
|Love Will Keep Us Together|
This upbeat Van McCoy disco composition was a replacement for the ballad "No Time for Tears" which Mae West vetoed for being out-of-character
You have a chance to hear Alice Cooper singing "No Time For Tears" , the finale song from Sextette vetoed by Mae West because (as everyone knows) Mae West never cries over any man.
Watch the season 4 episode of Mr. Ed titled: Mae West Meets Mr. Ed (1964) on YouTube
A 1976 interview with Mae West by Dick Cavertt. Not really an interview, he feeds her a lot of lines, and she says the very same quips you expect. However, there's one terrific moment when she talks about the loss of her mother where you get a fleeting glimpse of a real person and not an image. See it on YouTube
|Miss West and the boys bid you goodbye|
I think this is the first time I've ever seen her so covered up, or wearing anything even remotely approaching a contemporary garment.
I can see why she stuck to the Gay 90s
Copyright © Ken Anderson