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.