Saturday, January 31, 2015

SEXTETTE 1978

“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).
(Above) Alice Cooper, the singing waiter, serenades Mae West on a glass piano. (Below) The glass piano - and also, by the looks of it, Alice Cooper's wig - appeared first in the 1974 Lucille Ball musical, Mame.

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)
Before it turned into a career embarrassment, Sextette was envisioned as something of a "best of" tribute to the career of Mae West. It was the hope that fans would delight in all the visual and verbal references to her old films. Here, West's famous Swan Bed from her 1933 film, She Done Him Wrong (below) is recreated (and widened) for Sextette (top).


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.
Although I can’t imagine she needed much convincing, Briggs & Sullivan came to West with an opportunity to pay tribute to her career while giving her fans what they'd been clamoring for: one last chance to see their idol in all her glory. She'd trot out her old gowns, sing a few songs, recite a few of her famous lines...everybody would be happy. The idea must have seemed like money in the bank. (I suspect West always felt the failure of Myra Breckinridge rested on there being too much Welch and not enough West).
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.
Do Not Disturb
Although she appears to be napping here, Marlo Manners is actually helping leading man Ronald Cartwright (Peter Liapis) with a screentest. Mae West was reportedly only pleased with Dalton and Hamilton as her co-stars. She thought Tony Curtis and Dom DeLuise "too old," and was less than thrilled at the lack of sex appeal of younger stars Ringo Starr and Keith Moon. Alice Cooper likes to repeat the story that West propositioned him, but I have a feeling he means she asked him to help her out of a chair. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
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 her first and last film with George Raft
West made her film debut in Raft's 1932 film, Night After Night. As a favor to West, he agreed to appear in what turned out to be the last film for them both, Sextette. Story has it that West didn't want Raft to wear the grey hair toupee he always wore (he'd look too old, you see), and Raft refused to wear the jet-black wig they'd picked out for him. Compromise: the hat

PERFORMANCES
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.
In 1964 Mae West made an appearance as herself on the popular TV sitcom, Mr. Ed. She wore the same gown in that episode (below) that she wears in the final scene of Sextette (above). If you've never seen this episode, I recommend it. Five minutes of it are funnier than the entire running time of Sextette.

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
In spite of the film's aggressive-but-unconvincing heterosexual thrust (Hmm, sounds like a West-ism), the casting of Sextette veers more to the gay-friendly. Sextette's entire cast of extras and dancers looks like gay pride weekend in West Hollywood. Timothy Dalton first came to my attention playing gay/bi-sexual roles in The Lion in Winter and Mary, Queen of Scots. Dom DeLuise always had a kind of comedy style that seemed very queer as well. And then of course there's the whole bodybuilder thing which has always seemed more gay than heterosexual in its appeal.
"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
That an Olympic team has for its "mascot" a blow-dried and dewy-eyed male starlet (Rick Leonard) is far more provocative than anything Marlo Manners had to offer. Here Leonard greets Miss West with his best Gloria Upson (Mame) straight-arm handshake. Next to him is Mr. Olympia, Jim Morris

THE STUFF OF DREAMS 
Those musical numbers....
Love Will Keep Us Together
Baby Face
Next, Next
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
One might have thought that the best way to deal with Mae West's age is to not make reference to the subject at all. Perversely, most of the songs seem to go out of their way to the topic. There's "Happy Birthday, 21" ; a disco version of "Baby Face"; and the reworked lyrics of "Love Will Keep Us Together"  - "Young and beautiful, your looks will never be gone!"  Um,...OK.


Walter Pidgeon as the chairman of the World Peace summit.
To the right is Van McCoy,composer of the popular disco classic, The Hustle, and contributor of  Sextette's "Marlo" theme song, and the finale "Next, Next." Some sources list him as the film's musical director.

BONUS MATERIAL
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

17 comments:

  1. Hi Ken,

    Good Gravy Marie this movie!!!! Your recap sums up about everything that can be said about this cinematic Titanic. I will admit I've watched it twice because I was sure that after the first viewing it was me who must have been in the wrong frame of mind when I undertook it during that initial look. I suppose I was since I was sane and the only way to make sense of the insanity on the screen was to be in the same state.

    I just felt sad the second time watching as an out of control ego and years of self delusion publicly shredded a carefully constructed image that it had taken decades to build. It's also awful to realize that not only was this the end of the line for West and Raft but the wonderful Walter Pidgeon after so many years of stellar work and quality films marked the end of his career with this woebegone travesty.

    Mae's teetering presence and ossified appearance cause the viewer concern for her well being more than anything else. You're just certain she's going to tip over at any moment like a Wibble who will wobble but then fall down and shatter a hip! Most unnerving. Due to his youth and actual ability Timothy Dalton was able to survive this fiasco with little interruption in his career and Deluise thanks to his many show biz friends, including Burt Reynolds who was huge at the time, shrugged this off but it damaged just about everybody else who chose to appear.

    Not even good in a bad way this horrifying train wreck of a film should only to be watched by someone with a love of bad, really bad, cinema.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Yes, everything you pointed out signals exactly what can go wrong when blind fandom mixes with a star's self delusion. The producers were die-hard Mae West fans who were able to flatter her ego with the idea of appearing in a star vehicle; low-tier "celebrities" were willing to embarrass themselves for the chance to work with her; and old friends were kind enough to appear as a favor. But nobody offered what would have been the biggest kindness: a voice of sanity saying that this would have made a great home movie for Mae to enjoy at Ravenswood and show to her friends, but it had absolutely no business being released to an unsuspecting public.

      As you indicate, it's a film that puts viewers in the uncomfortable position of either having to laugh at a 84 year old woman with a tenuous grip on reality, or feel sorry for same actress for what must be grand-scale self-deception, or the victim of more-to-be-pitied-than-censured exploitation.

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  2. I admit I haven't nerved myself to see this film. I'm a big Mae West fan and I cherish her sassy, sarcastic independence in her early 1930s Paramount films. What dismays me when reading your astute analysis is that her 1930s persona, of displaying yet sending up her hyperbolic sexual presence, was not a joke to her but was apparently something she took seriously. Or maybe (I can comfort myself) it was only increasing old age that made her lose her humorous sense of self-awareness. My sense is that enjoying this film as camp means making fun of an old woman's delusions, and I can't see the fun in that.

    George Raft was himself a bit of a Hollywood sad tale. Said to be the love of Mae West's life (he was also said to have been one of the most well-endowed men in Hollywood), Raft's career took a severe downturn in the 1940s; by the 1960s he was apparently living on the generosity of Frank Sinatra and had jobs as a "greeter" at casinos. Maybe West was doing him the favor in giving him a cameo in this film. They died within two days of each other.

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    1. Hi GOM
      Well, take it from someone who saw it back in 1979, the entire enterprise doesn't come off nearly as frightening now as it did then. Now that Mae and so many members of the cast have moved on to the realm of faint nostalgia, "Sextette" plays more in the vein it was intended now than it did in the 70s.
      In the 70s it was just monstrously out of step with the tastes, attitudes, and culture of the time. Today the film has a 70s-timepiece look to it, and its outre charms feel more like those associated with say, one of that episode of "The Love Boat" that featured Ann Miller, Carol Channing, Pearl Bailey, and Ethel Merman. It's horrific all right, but it just feels like your basic 70s level of tackiness.
      I didn't know that about the latter life of George Raft (true to form, the endowment stuff I DID know!). He was such an unusual "star" to me anyway....I never could figure out his appeal.

      Back in the 70s, Mae West being so delusional seemed very odd to me. But in the ensuing years of tell-all autobiographies, and the phenomenon of the DVD commentary, I've come to realize delusion is almost a Hollywood by-product.
      I listened to the director's commentary to a piece of glossy trash like "The Other Side of Midnight" and it's actually shocking to listen to the people involved in the making of that film talking about it as if it were "Citizen Kane."

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  3. Wow...just, wow! I haven't seen this movie and, as noted in the comment above, I almost feel that, while watching it for entertainment would be nigh impossible, watching it for camp value would be, well, bad karma. One of the great things about your essay, Ken, is its clear-eyed yet kind approach to Mae West's delusion (possibly Alzheimer's?). You bring a level of understanding and awareness to the movie that no one involved in the production of it did.

    And thanks for mentioning those appalling and oddly-sexless "sex comedies" of the 1960s. I remember watching about 20 minutes of "Under the Yum Yum Tree" (yes, they call "it" yum yum!) and being so grateful that era was over!

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    1. "Bad karma" indeed....That has always been "Sextette's"problem. When it was clear that the general public had absolutely no interest in the film, and desperate distributors tried to pander to the cult film,/gay camp trade, the movie still didn't succeed because people were coming out of the theater feeling bad for Mae West, or guilty for laughing at this clearly incapacitated old lady.
      It was a feel-bad musical.
      Having personally worked for an excessively delusional fitness guru for almost a year, I've had the opportunity of getting a close-up view of how these folks can surround themselves with such parasitic sycophants, reality never has a chance to crack the surface. And trust me, a narcissist of this level is never aware of failure or humiliation. They live in a bubble of self-deception that makes Norma Desmond look like a realist.

      And yes, those 60s sex comedies..."Under the yum Yum Tree" is one of the more despicable examples of the genre. It not only leaves you feeling like you need a bath afterward, but also loathing humanity.
      I think one of the reasons I so took to those harsh and explicit films of the 70s (klute, midnight cowboy) is because they were in essence "cleaner" than those odious wholesome sex comedies I grew up on.
      Sexttette's "Let's talk non-stop about sex in the most puerile fashion possible, but let's not have any" is to me, the epitome of America's screwed-up attitude toward sexuality.

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  4. This hideous, humiliating movie (which I've seen three or four times, but not lately) is such a train wreck! I really appreciate the way you've helped identify some of the musclemen in the bodybuilder sequence. I recognize the face (but hadn't the name) of Roger Callard from an appearance he made on a lunatic episode of "Wonder Woman" in which Henry Gibson kidnapped all the world's best athletes and made them train over and over all day to represent his (fictional) country in the Olympics!

    The whole thing is so painfully stilted, awkward and stagnant, the antithesis of what early, zesty Mae was all about in her wildly popular, envelope-pushing projects. Remember the (true or untrue?) tale of her having to have her lines fed to her in some scenes with an electronic earpiece and somehow the radio waves got in there and she began spouting the local news or something?!?! I do think its neat that some of the furnishings and costuming of her earlier work was incorporated. Thanks, also for pointing those details out. I recall being pleasantly surprised at Dom DeLuise's dancing dexterity, too, but like I said it's been a while.

    Ah... when we stay too long at the fair...

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      Yikes! That "Wonder Woman" episode sounds so lopy, it's like the 70s in a nutshell. There was obviously a brief run on bodybuilder appeal during this time, because no doubt those same athletes are the ones who appeared in a Charlie's Angel's episode about danger at a bodybuilding competition, as well as an episode of Cher's variety show.
      Bodybuilding has always seemed to me to be the male side of America's Monroe/Mansfield/Russell breast fixation, and as such they' bring with them the stamp of "cheesy bad taste" no matter what context they appear. "Sextette" bears that out.
      It really is such a unfunny and poorly paced film. Even if you enjoy watching West (as I do) the vehicle is the slowest-movie farce I've ever seen.
      On the DVD, Ian Whitcomb, the pop star "responsible" for Mae West's excursion into rock and roll in the 60s, confirms those rumors about the headpiece concealed in her wig to help her remember her lines, the sandbags needed to help her hit her marks (that slamming into the table incident I make reference to above seems to me to be the result of one of the moments recounted by Whitcomb where crew members had to sit below frame and literally grab her by her legs to get her to stop moving because she couldn't see the marks she had to hit).
      The thing about all those old furnishing, familiar dialog, etc. in "Sextette" shows that the genuine intention was to pay tribute to her career, but i think they should have opted for a testimonial dinner or petitioning for a special Oscar, this film did her legacy no favors.

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    2. Tony Curtis said once that because of the headpiece in her wig, West was picking up the local police scanner. "I've got a 608 on Madison Avenue." XD

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  5. Oh, Ken, agreed, this is one of the worst films of all time for a variety of reasons, and you've beautifully laid them all out in perfect detail...still, it is a film that is emblazoned on my memory, quite fondly actually, despite its status as a total stinkeroo...

    I must admit that though I own a VHS copy of Sextette, which I treasure as a cult film freak, I have only seen it all the way through once. (It truly is an artless and unfunny movie!) I have fast-forwarded to my favorite scenes thousands of times however, delighting in showing them to incredulous new viewers. You have to see it to believe it. (An octogenarian Mae West singing Captain & Tennille? No, I didn't dream it...) And YES!!! The bodybuilder scene with that cute trick Ricky is another one of the must-sees..."All this meat and no potatoes!"

    Funny thing is, the premise of Miss West as an object of lust has always been a mystery to me, even in her heyday. She was NEVER sexy in the same way her contemporary Jean Harlow was...West was smart, brassy, tough, ballsy and a master of the double entendre, but always seemed to be a dumpy, overweight schlub of a person masquerading as a glamour queen in those corsets, marcelled wigs and Victorian costumery. No wonder the legend persists that she was really a man in drag....the persona itself was that of a clown, total artifice. But she must have believed it herself...the only instance I can recall of high camp WITHOUT the knowing wink of conspiratorial fakery...her ego would not allow critical self-analysis.

    I will say this, though, to the divine Miss West...you go, girl. Kudos to a lady who refused to sit in a rocking chair and wither away, who pulled it together to try to turn the trick one more time...even if the humor is unintentional, this is a Grand Guignol Hollywood Wax Museum Field Day for camp and cult enthusiasts. I'm glad she was game for it!

    Thanks for the delightful memories, Ken, as always!
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      I'm with you in being in that camp that never knew or imagined that Mae West in her heyday was really supposed to be taken serious as a sex symbol. She was in her 40s I belive when she made her first film, and after that I just found her amusing because she was so hard-boiled and was to polar opposite of the ingenue/victim.
      Her take on female sexual licence seemed almost revolutionary, and I enjoyed that no one ever got the best of her. But I never belived for a moment we were supposed to take her posturing and primping for real sex appeal.
      I liked her chiefly because she seemed to be poking fun at that kind of sexuality.
      Who knew that she took herself and her image so seriously?
      I think that's why "Sextette" is so scary. At the age when she really could have been making fun of the so-called "Sexual Revolution" you felt she really wanted to participate in it.
      It's like when I see the cadaverous Hugh Hefner propped up in photographs by "girlfriends" old enough to be his great granddaughters. it's creepy and sad at the same time.

      but like you, i have a lot of admiration for Mae West, and even though the entire film is a curio, there are moments when she delivers her lines or stands with a hand on her hip, where you just have to give it to her for still being in there pitching.

      I just wish the film were as much fun as it could have been. Thanks, Chris!

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  6. Hello Ken, thanks for reviewing this bizarre film. You always find the most enexpected and fun films! I actually got to see this one. It was amazing but I haven't returned to it like I have to "Myra Breckinridge", probably for all the reasons that you mention. I did keep the dvd just in case I ever get the urge to see amzing Mae's last film. As you say, one has to admire Mae for doing her thing all those years. She was convinced she was sexy well into her old age.

    I remember that the songs were awful and the male stars were unappealing. I felt so acutely embarrased for Timothy Dalton. Why on earth did he sign on to play the male lead in this film? Was his career all ready down the drain by 1977? I sort of wish that Raquel would have climbed in and sparked som tension in this film!

    You are spot on when you write about movie trends like all those tame "sex comedies" from the mid sixties and the nostalgia craze from the mid 70s. Those are genres all to themselves. All your screen caps of the male athletes could make me change my mind about sseing it again. All those lovely 70s mustaches!
    -Wille

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    1. Thanks, Wille
      I think curiosity trumps entertainment value a bit in "Sextette". My partner actually finds a good deal of West's on-liners to be funny, and his delight in them tends to make me laugh. We both mostly just sit in amazement wondering why everything looks so forced and amateurish. Every scene looks like a rehearsal or first take.
      As for Dalton, in 1977, his career was actually on the way UP! He was largely unknown to American artists, and had previously appeared in mostly supporting roles.
      I've only read one interview in which he speaks of "Sextette" but he says he wanted to work with (and meet) Mae West, and that he enjoyed it. Given that he has such good cause to rake the film over the coals, he is the picture of graciousness about the whole experience. he says although it was an unusual, on-of-a kind experience, he doesn't regret it. Sounds like a nice guy...but I get a little embarrassed for him too. But he amazes me in never appearing to be ABOVE the material. I think that's why he emerges relatively unscathed.
      One of the things about having seen the film as often as I have, is imagining how it would play with an age-appropriate actress (like Welch or Joey Heatherton). In a weird way, I thin the movie would come off as unspeakably vulgar, and Marlow manners would come off as being a sex-addict, or perhaps a little demented.
      I mean EVERY word out of her mouth is about sex, and she even sleeps with and marries men for the government.
      Mae being so outrageously old actually neuters the whole affair and it all feels rather innocent...like when your grandmother says a dirty word without knowing what it means.
      I love your idea though, it would be a hoot to see Raquel Welch in this. By 1977 her career was in dire need of something.
      And yes, all those 70s porn-staches on the bodybuilders (what am I saying?...every third male in the film is sporting a cookie duster) bring back memories of my youth in San Francisco, where it was practically a law for every gay man to sport a moustache.
      Should you revisit "Sextette" any time soon, be sure to let me know how it strikes you after so many years.
      Thanks, Wille!

      And

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  7. An outstanding piece of writing, Ken. You've skewered every last hubristic, delusional facet of this fascinating, glorious mess. This is the review of Sextette I've wanted to read ever since I first saw it. Sextette is artless on such a scale that it needs to be explained and celebrated.

    For me, its most compelling aspect of Sextette is the way Mae somehow keeps her mystery. Did she believe her own hype, or was she wearily trying to live up to a long-gone image? There's something profoundly melancholy about anyone who dispenses endless quips while never seeming to smile, and we can only guess what the little old lady beneath the wig and make-up thought when she looked into the mirror at the end of each shooting day.

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    1. That's very kind of you! Thanks!
      Along with calling it "artless" - the perfect description of this film - I absolutely love the thought provoking point you make about West keeping her mystery with this film. It's so true, but that never occurred to me before.
      It's always very provocative when image and persona meld so completely with a public figure that you can's tell if the person has been consumed by it, or are they merely keeping themselves private and apart from the public.
      Hollywood makes it all too easy for the clinically delusional self-aware illusionist to occupy the same frame. I never thought about how Mae West's secrets (was she crazy, or crazy like a fox) stayed hidden even at the end! Excellent observation!
      Thanks so much for commenting!

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  8. Ken, your wonderful post and the question of whether Miss West was delusional or self-aware led me to this fascinating interview she did a couple years before her death...she seemed like a very lonely lady at the end...
    http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/sep/21/greatinterviews

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    1. Thanks for the link, Chris
      What an interesting (and somewhat sad) interview. It seems like somewhere along the line she chose a certain kind of fantasy as being preferable to the pain of reality. A woman in her 80s who still can't seem to get over the loss of her mother, preoccupied with so many superficial things...it's hard to fathom, but not really.
      It just seems like someone so far retreated into a fantasy world, no one could reach her.
      Fascinating reading, thanks for calling my attention to it.

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