And her new movie, Sextette, is so bad it's good
Opening her mouth so wide that the pink of her gums shows, Mae West taps her teeth with her fingernails. "See that," she says proudly. "All my own. Not a false one there." Then, holding out her arms so that her wrists protrude from her jacket, she adds, "I've never had any face lifts either. You can tell by my hands and wrists. They can't operate on your hands. I've never had anything done, and I look the way I did when I was 22." You can't argue with a lady, and when the lady will be 85 this summer, who would want to? Sixty years ago Mae West looked in the mirror and ordered the clock stopped. So far as she is concerned, it has never dared to start again.
To help maintain the illusion, she lives in a kind of time capsule. Her Hollywood apartment, which she has had since 1932, is still decorated in the style of the '30s, when she was one of the screen's highest-paid performers. A vase of fake white calla lilies stands on a white piano across from a white couch that rests against a mirror set in an off-white wall. Two 32-in.-high nude statues of her stand on the piano, a nude painting of her hangs on the wall, and there are photographs of her everywhere. Hers is an egocentricity so forthright and complete as to be pure, like that of a six-month-old baby, happy in the discovery of her body.
Back in the era when she did the decorating, she was a generation ahead of her time. Writing or adapting her own scripts, she made movies such as Go West, Young Man and I'm No Angel that were both sexy and funny, and when she laid down her pen, the formula seemed to be lost. My Little Chickadee, released in 1940, was her last major film. Now, two young producers, who had not even heard of Mae West until a few years ago, have sunk $4 million of inherited money into a film that attempts to prove that Mae is rightthat she really does look 22and that all the mirrors in the world are wrong. The result, Sextette, is one of those movies rarely seen these days, a work so bad, so ferally innocent, that it is good, an instant classic to be treasured by connoisseurs of the genre everywhere. It was released in Los Angeles in March but failed to win an audience. Now, says Co-Producer Robert Sullivan, he is looking for a distributor who will promote it nationwide as "a high-camp movie for everyone."
Adapted from West's own script, Sextette has her portraying a movie sex goddess, not unlike the Mae of 40 years ago, who has just married her sixth husband. Sullivan and his partner, Daniel Briggs, originally suggested Cesar Romero, 71, for the part of No. 6. But Mae said he was too old, and she auditioned 1,000 of the handsomest unknowns in Hollywood. She was the one, after all, who spotted young Gary Grant and helped to make him a star in She Done Him Wrong. None of the 1,000 satisfied her, however, and she started looking at the men in newer movies. When she came to the 1971 remake of Wuthering Heights, she took one look at Heathcliff, a British actor named Timothy Dalton, and yelled "Him!" The fact that Dalton was half a century younger than she was of no consequence.