Fans of a strong female lead should hit pause on binge-watching to focus on the pioneering woman who played – and wrote – the part. Mae West: Dirty Blonde, the first major documentary film to explore West’s life and career, gets an encore on American Masters, Thursday, November 26 at 8 p.m.
The film reveals the improbable success of a Brooklyn native who “climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong” to become a writer, performer and subversive agitator for social change. Mae West achieved great acclaim in every entertainment medium that existed during her lifetime (August 17, 1893 – November 22, 1980), spanning eight decades of the 20th century.
West worked hard to achieve and maintain her fame. She became a full-time actress at seven, a vaudevillian at 14, a dancing sensation at 25, a Broadway playwright at 33, a silver screen siren at 40, a Vegas nightclub act at 62, a recording artist at 73, and a camp icon at 85.
Known for her trademark strut and swagger, bawdy double entendres, hourglass figure, and bold sexuality, West possessed creative and economic powers unheard of for a female entertainer in the 1930s and still rare today. One of her brilliant moves as a playwright was to parlay scandal into publicity. Her scandalous 1926 play, Sex, may have landed her a 10-day prison sentence on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island), but the papers loved reporting on it. She wound up dining with the warden and his wife and was released two days early for good behavior.
By 1933, West was one of Hollywood’s biggest box office draws and studios encouraged her to rewrite her character’s lines. By 1935, she was the second-highest paid person in the United States after newspaper and media mogul William Randolph Hearst.
Her mainstream popularity by no means dulled her edge. As a comedian, she grappled with the complex social issues of the 20th century, including race and class tensions, and imbued even her most salacious plotlines with commentary about gender conformity, societal restrictions and what she perceived as moral hypocrisy.
Whether she was inviting preacher Cary Grant to come up and see her sometime as saloon singer Lady Lou in the 1933 hit movie She Done Him Wrong or spicing up a Life magazine interview by declaring “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted,” one thing is certain. When Mae West was good, she was very good. And like she said: When she was bad, she was better.
Mae West: Dirty Blonde premiered on American Masters June 16, 2020.