Mae West was born on August 17, 1893, in Brooklyn, New York. She was a promising child star in Vaudeville, gaining an incredible knowledge of comedic techniques. As she grew older, she began writing plays of her own, one of which is notable for the scandal surrounding it (she was arrested) as well as for the time in which it was made. After all, how often do you hear of a play called "SEX" running in 1926. But this was typical audacity for Mae West.
Her film career began in 1932 when she played what was considered a bit part in Night After Night. Apparently she was unhappy with the role so she was given the power to rewrite all of her dialogue. As a result, Miss West stole the show in every scene she was in even though the film was originally made as a vehicle for George Raft
Being knee deep in the Depression, American filmgoers found in Mae West a risque, independent women, draped in jewels and enjoying life. The political and religious climate of the times, however, saw her open sexuality as pornographic and tried at every turn to censor her subsequent films. Will Hays, who had begun to enforce the Production Code, which was abandoned decades later in favor of the MPAA Ratings System, saw her as a major threat to the morality of the nation.
Her first starring role in She Done Him Wrong, based on her highly successful play, Diamond Lil, thankfully withstood such censorship. It is generally considered one of her best. However, each film thereafter was attacked more and more. As a result, her racy style of comedy became increasingly diluted and eventually, Miss West decided to abandon the cinema as a creative outlet.
By the time she retreated from the silver screen, she had made nine movies. Of those, she had writers credit for five of them. Her popularity had also raised enough capital to bring the near bankrupt studio, Paramount, into the black.
She continued to be productive for most of her life, producing, writing, and starring in assorted plays and musical revues. She was offered the part of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder personally, but turned it down for creative reasons.
She returned to film briefly to play "Leticia" in Myra Breckinridge, a gender-bender based on the book by Gore Vidal. Typically, she agreed to do the film on the condition that she had creative control over her part, which included rewriting all of her dialogue. Her last film, and probably her worst, was Sextette, released in 1978 when she was 85 years old and suffering from assorted maladies which were worked around as much as possible during shooting. One of the worst problems was memory loss which made all of her dialogue seem stilted. The sad thing is that her delivery had always been the most compelling and hilarious facet of her film persona.
She died on November 22, 1980, of natural causes.
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Last updated: June 29, 2004