Only in the 70s: Sextette (1978)
AFTER last week’s break from Torments, we return with a senile vengeance for 1978’s self-regarding debacle: Sextette.
Mae West was one of the most notorious performers in Hollywood during her 1930s-40s heyday. Mired in controversy for her outrageous approach to singing, writing and acting and covered up with rampant censorship in a Code-era Hollywood, she made a name for herself with a lascivious attitude and an astonishing, often overwhelming capacity for double-entrendes. A sex symbol for a repressed industry, West was the human manifestation of innuendo: Dick jokes incarnate.
Then Sextette happened. Well, let’s be fair: Myra Breckenridge happened first (and believe me, its day is coming, and not in the other way). West’s first cinematic role in 27 years was a disaster; much like the film, it was received with a scathing disregard so fierce that she didn’t emerge again until 1972’s Great Balls of Fire – a rock n’roll album. She was 79.
When she did return to the screen, it was with 1978’s Sextette, a film so patently ill-conceived that it must have seemed like the fever dream of an old woman suffering from dementia – which it was. West was 85 years old and, by all accounts, acted like it. She couldn’t sing, she couldn’t dance, and she couldn’t remember her lines. For reference’s sake, Sextette is an all-singing, all-dancing musical, in the traditional sense of the word. Oh yes. Adapted from West’s own play, appropriately titled Sex, it’s a sad, flaccid, celebration of all things Mae West.
It fell to director Ken Hughes (the man behind, bizarrely, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) to surround West with a cavalcade of supporting players and random cameos, ranging from Timothy Dalton(!) to Tony Curtis(!!) to our old friend Ringo Starr(!!!), most of whom look like they’re in on some Brechtian joke at the audience’s expense. Much of the running time, and these actors’ lines, are dedicated to lofty eulogising of West’s bombshell status, with scores of men going giddy-kneed at the very mention of her character’s name.
To call Mae West’s character by that name – Marlo Manners – is to suggest she is an entity entirely separate from Mae West. Manners is West, through and through, there’s no getting around it. Lines delivered opposite her are set-ups for innuendos so thuddingly obvious that their in-film reaction – rapturous laughter and, often, applause – is a surrealist exercise in itself.
“Do your fans like you better single or married?” asks a starry-eyed journalist. “They like me any way they can get me!” quips Marlo, prompting the assembled throng to erupt in volcanic streams of gushing ebullience. You can almost hear the collective gnashing of gritted teeth from these poor extras.
On top of being a world-renowned and vied-after Aphrodite, West/Manners is also in the business of brokering world peace while marrying her sixth husband, Sir Michael Barrington (Timothy Dalton). Dalton, unsurprisingly, provides one of the few highlights in the mire. While West delivers her bawdy clunkers to the suggestive hilt, Dalton plays Barrington without so much as a flicker of the eyebrow, even when he seems to unwittingly out himself as a homosexual in several interviews. In a role that demands he sing to and be sexually attracted to a woman double his age (one turned down by Arnold Schwarzenegger, no less), Dalton is a class act, as suave and charming here as he would be when he became James Bond.
With a couple of exceptions, everyone else serves as a soundboard for West to bounce West-isms off. Even Ringo Starr, scene-stealer that he is, cannot sustain his wavering Hungarian (Dominican? German?) accent for long in the face of this relentless barrage, all of which boil down to, “Yes, I will fuck you.” All characters, without exception, want to fuck Marlo, and the script makes no bones (SEE, I CAN DO IT TOO) about this fact.
Of the parade of cameos, Keith Moon’s is the best, presumably because he was snorting mountains of cocaine during filming. Whether this was the case or not, Moon’s performance here is as dynamic and as furious as any of his drumming in The Who. He’s a whirling miasma of energy in his role as “Dress Designer”; saucer-eyed and twitching, he’s the yin of physicality to West’s arthritic yang.
Watching West try and awkwardly shuffle her way through big-band numbers like ‘Happy Birthday Twenty One’ and ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’ is both uncomfortable and more than a little sad. West famously turned down the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard; in that light, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that Sextette exudes a similar air of profound melancholy.
To see the 85 year-old West sing and dance without rhythm or cadence, propped up by her handsome male co-stars, is to watch her imagining herself as she was in 1933, opposite Cary Grant in I’m No Angel. In its own narcissistic, self-indulgent way, it’s rather poignant.
It’s a shame the film is so shit. The atmosphere of acute discomfort might have been provided levity had the film actually been funny. Dreadfully, it isn’t, relying exclusively on West’s lifeless quips that are unbearably tame; 1978 was the same year that saw such family-friendly hits as Animal House and I Spit On Your Grave, after all.
West’s ‘bawdiness’, with this knowledge in mind, seems cute in comparison, but it’s actually intensely grating and spectacularly unfunny. Sextette is an open love letter to Mae West, written by Mae West and starring Mae West. More importantly, however, it’s a lamentable send-off to one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars.