Jun 17, 2013

Mae West: Gay Diva of the 1930s

She appeared in ten movies between 1933 and 1943 -- a rather small body of work (during the same period, Mickey Rooney appeared in over fifty).  And two others during the 1970s.  Yet she is instantly recognizable today, and her lines are still being quoted.

Like 1970s sitcoms, comedy movies of the 1930s were about people not having sex.  The Hays Code forbade any implication of sex, premartial, marital, or extramarital, so you could only talk about it through code, hints, and innuendos.  Mae West was an expert on innuendo -- her body language and intonation could make the most innocent line sound like it wasn't.

Maybe that's why she became an icon for gay men of the pre-Stonewall era.  Faced with police-state repression, where discovery would be catastrophic, they learned to communicate with body language, gestures, code-words.  That's the origin of the term "gay."

She was also a favorite model for drag queens of the era.  In fact, she claimed that she invented drag.

Mae West had a number of close friends who were LGBT, such as bisexual Cary Grant, and wrote the first play to openly mention gay people. It was closed down by the police during a run-through in Connecticut in 1927, but copies are available.  Her attitude was rather progressive for the era: she believed that gay men were feminine souls trapped in male bodies, and thus doomed to sad, empty lives.  But they weren't innate criminals plotting the overthrow of civilization.

Unfortunately, her attitude stayed the same as seasons changed, and by the 1970s it was old-fashioned and homophobic.

In her last film appearance, Sextet (1978), Mae West is presented as an ongoing sex symbol.  There's nothing wrong with the elderly having active libidos, but seeing the 85-year old actress surrounded by fawning musclemen and married to 34-year old Timothy Dalton is rather ludicrous.

Still, we get to see the musclemen.

See also: Madonna.