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Goodness Had Something to Do With It
By Sarah "Dixie" Feldman

Photo Courtesy Corbis.com 
The author of many plays, films, and an enduring legacy of bon mots, ultimately Mae West's best invention was: Mae West.

It may be hard for modern minds to conceive of how revolutionary Mae West was in her heyday. Only a decade after women's suffrage, Mae wrote and starred in plays and movies about women who lived for sex — and became one of the country's biggest box office stars while doing it. Mae West was one of the first 20th-century women to eroticize her autonomy, and make us laugh while she did it.

"When I'm good, I'm very very good. But when I'm bad, I'm better."

Without precedent, Mae West created a completely revolutionary female protagonist who was strong, smart, self-sufficient and capable — and clearly interested in sex. Mae expressed her interest in a way that had previously been the sole territory of men. Mae wanted sexual pleasure — and perhaps most incendiary — went unpunished for her predilections. She was a carnal connoisseur who not only lived to tell the tale, but was steadfastly triumphant. West reveled in her own sexual power and forged an identity that wedded independence and sexuality in away that was original and entertaining.

"I take [sex] out in the open and laugh at it."

When Mae busted (literally) into the public eye in the late 1920s, females generally fit neatly into two categories: good and bad. And as Mae might have pointed out, the good were very good, and the bad, well, they were even better. Until Mae came sashaying on to the scene, cinema heroines did not have sex, and those screen vixens who did — golddigging vamps or Mata Haris looking to abscond with the enemy's secret plans — always pursued sex as a means to an end. But Mae left her audiences with no doubt that for her, sex itself was a prize to be pursued.

West's offscreen life was as anomalous as her onscreen persona. Born in 1893, Mae worked in vaudeville as a girl, performing lascivious dances and peppering her act with the double entendres ("I wouldn't touch him if he had a ten-foot pole") that would soon become her trademark. Married at 18, she quickly discovered that marriage did not agree with her ("Marriage is a fine institution -- if you want to live in an institution") and lived as a bachelor for the remainder of her life.

"It is better to be looked over than overlooked."

Taking her career into her own hands, Mae began writing plays — including the tersely and aptly titled, Sex, in 1926. Later, in an era when miscegenation was still perhaps the most potent social taboo, Mae wrote a book (and later starred in a play) whose protagonist, Babe, becomes a prostitute for fun and actively pursues a black boxer. Not a social reformer, Mae's Babe is clearly interested in her heavyweight for one thing and one thing only.

"To err is human, but it feels divine."

Though criticized for her "corrupting influence" and jailed periodically for obscenity, the resulting publicity and Broadway success brought Mae to Hollywood's attention. Starring in nine films, she had writer's credit on five and consistently wrote her own lines in all her movies. Two of West's films, She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel, are generally credited with saving Paramount Studios from bankruptcy at the height of the Depression. Unfortunately, her ongoing battles with censors ending up diluting her films and Mae eventually abandoned films as a creative outlet, returning to the stage and new popularity as a somewhat campy cabaret performer.

But to remember Mae West as a kitsch queen would be to ignore her unique and inspiring contribution as a bona fide auteur. If she hadn't invented herself, we would have had to invoke her ourselves, because Mae West's potency as an icon and feminine philosopher would be sorely missed. Some may have thought Mae was a bit "too much," but as West once quipped, "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful."


This article originally appeared on www.oxygen.com.
Copyright 2001 Oxygen Media.

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