What was your intro to her?
I had two older sisters who told me about her movies and I would see her referred to in movie magazines in the 1940s, which is when I really got going to the movies. My first Mae West film was “I’m No Angel”; that’s the best of them.
What struck you about her?
Women were often very independent figures in the ’30s and ’40s, but even when you’re really young, you know this is not a traditional female movie star. I saw right away that she was in control. It was not about who was going to take care of her. She made fun of men and I found that funny and wonderful. As I became a teenager what I loved about her was she seemed so sassy, but in a very controlled way. She was genuinely funny. She wrote a lot of her lines. She was really bold. She was a woman who was going to have it her way, was totally confident, and no matter what happened, she would bail herself out. Mae West, for the most part, did not have to be rescued. In “I’m No Angel,” she tried her own court case. She was not defined by a man; She picked the man for her own needs and pleasures.
Did she have any predecessors?
There are all kinds of sexy women in the silent era, although generally it was a time of virginal beauty to be loved and cherished. Mabel Normand is a type of flashy, out on her own comedian. She was active; she did stunts, chases and pratfalls. But it was very important that sound came in to make Mae a movie star.
She was like W.C. Fields (with whom she costarred in “My Little Chickadee”) in that respect. A large part of their appeal is the way they sound; they sound funny.
She needed sound to bring out what was unique about her. Her voice was designed to be unconventionally bold and sexy, to not be polite. She sounds like she’s in a kind of conspiratorial conversation with herself. She makes lots of “mmmm” sounds in a voice (that’s the audio equivalent of giving someone a once-over). She once said of herself that it wasn’t what she said, but how she said it.
What can Mae West teach us now?
She reminds us that women are equal. They have feelings, ideas and bodies of their own. If you really know who you are and what you want, life opens up; and we as a culture need to recognize that. She’s reminding people that women are people, too, but she’s doing it without suggesting you have to be angry. She lives life with confidence and open sexuality on her own terms, but with humor. People are much more willing to listen to what you’re teaching them if it comes from humor. Mae West is a legend to us all.