Mae West was diminutive in size but towering in talent and, more importantly, she was an original. Tiny, trash-talking, and attention-grabbing, she pushed on through a seemingly doomed vaudeville career. On onlooker commented, "Mae was more than tough. She believed she was going to be a star the way the guys in the loony bin believe they're Napoleon"
It was this unflagging drive that propelled her through 10 scandalous Broadway plays. Sex, the first and most infamous, in l927, landed her in jail. This inspired one if her famous Mae-isms. When the judge accused her of contempt of court she responded, "But judge, I'm trying to hide it.' When sentenced to 10 days in jail, the indomitable West countered, "But what about my nights?" Mae was a pioneer. She got her material from drag queens, Harlem dancers, and vaudeville. Typically, she pushed the envelope when she wrote The Drag in l927, bragging, "I'm gonna have 40 real life fairies on the stage", which led to more arrests for indecency. Diamond Lil, her first big Broadway success in 1928, featured lascivious lyrics like "I'm a fast movin' gal who likes it slow."
She appeared in and wrote many of her films, whose early success rescued Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy. Her first starring role, in 1933's She Done Him Wrong, was based on Diamond Lil. Mercifully, that film withstood the censorship that diluted her subsequent films. Out of place in Hollywood, she found friends among flappers, queens, and boxers, not the "snooty Hollywood crowd." New York made her; Hollywood destroyed her. In a rare but devastating error in judgment, West turned down Sunset Boulevard because she refused to play a has-been.
Both her stage and film career ended in the 1978 film adaptation of her 1971 play, Sextette, featuring an 85-year-old, deaf Mae toddling through this surreal movie playing an irresistible siren, which prompted a critic to say she "looked like a plump sheep that had been stood on its hind legs and smeared with pink plaster." Undaunted, Mae launched a cabaret career in which she surrounded herself with young musclemen who frequently had to lift and move her around the stage in her 20-pound, jewel-encrusted dresses and impossibly high platform shoes.
Claudia Shear's Dirty Blonde was conceived by director James Lapine, who contacted Shear to write it after seeing her successful one-woman Off-Broadway show Blown Sideways Through Life. Dirty Blonde focuses on the relationship between Jo and Charlie (Shear and Kevin Chamberlin) as a pair of self-proclaimed losers obsessed with Mae West, who meet on West's birthday at her gravesite in Queens. These present-day scenes, which are the better part of the play, are juxtaposed with biographical vignettes from West's early career and a fictionalized glimpse of her last days in Hollywood.
Like West, Shear is a self-made woman, having created her own niche in entertainment when she didn't fit the norm. However, a friend who worked with Mae West on her nightclub act noted how tiny she was, teetering around on platform shoes. Claudia Shear is anything but, and therein lies the chief problem in this slight fare. A scene in which the director of one of her films observes, "You have an unusual quality. It's sex, Mae. You reek of it," is hard to reconcile given Shear's image. One wonders whether Shear the writer might not have better served sacrificing Shear the performer in favor of, say, Nancy Anderson, who brought the house down with her portrayal of Mae in the musical Jolson.
But Shear cannot be faulted as writer. Her script is so immersed in the spirit of its title character, it's hard to determine where Mae's words leave off and Shear's take over. In seamless cuts between the historical Mae and her ardent admirers, the fans are given such bon mots as, "She's my teenage fantasy. My mother's revenge"; "She didn't look young, but she didn't look old either. She looked sort of un-old"; and "Tequila--the heroin of alcohol." In which appears to be an autobiographical role as Jo, the secretary/wannabe actor, Shear quips, "I'm not married, and the worst of all, I don't keep a nice house. You say the word 'art' in my family everyone thinks you mean my uncle." One senses the loneliness of both Jo and Chamberlin's Charlie, a quality common to celebrity-obsessed fans.
The show sits comfortably in Douglas Stein's simple, versatile set, nicely enhanced by David Lander's lighting. Aside from critics and Tony voters, Dirty Blonde's audience seems largely made up of non-judgmental Mae West fans ecstatically receiving whatever is delivered onstage. The two young men next to me sat perched on the edge of their seats, lapping up every line. For the uninitiated, Dirty Blonde is less fulfilling. West was a magnetic, charismatic person, but one never feels that here. Lavishly laced with her lewd one-liners, the script relies on them to project a sense of her when there was so much more one could tell. However, in true show-biz fashion, Dirty Blonde leaves you wanting more. This might be rectified by the soon-to-be-produced Come Up 'N See Me, a pure, light, raucous musical of Mae's life with 20-plus wonderful songs embellished by Mae's wit.
Mae West died in l980, at 87, of natural causes. When asked how she thought the world would respond when she died, she said: "The world will be shocked." Surely, whether she is looking up or down on Broadway, she will be enjoying a great big appreciative laugh!