Go West, Old Mae
By Gilbert Adair
1. Sextette is, of course, a bad film, shakily acted, carelessly written (from “a play by Mae West”) and directed without an iota of style by Ken Hughes. What is striking, however, is the wholly relative degree of its badness. It is a reasonably bad film, disqualified for entry in one of those smart-alecky, if all too well-founded, Ten Worst Lists and comparable, rather, to Jerry Lewis circa The Big Mouth, whose crudity of caricature it shares: a heavily pin-striped suit to denote George Hamilton’s mobster and Tony Curtis’s Soviet diplomat hurling champagne glasses over his shoulder with White Russian abandon. In short, its badness is not campy.
2. The title Sextette (although, like Rivette’s Duelle, etymologically suspect) suggests a group of six women, conjoined for possibly musical pursuits, a combination, in any case, which has no bearing on the plot of the film. Even the pun on “sex” is exceedingly feeble, being already implied in “sextet.” It cannot therefore be equated with wordplay of the “sexciting” or “sexcessful” type, or that (a shade more inventive) of an earlier Mae West title, Go West, Young Man. In view of the facility with which in English, the word “sex” lends itself to punning, the title’s meaningless banality only further exposes the tired and approximate nature of the enterprise.
3. In its very illogicality, however, this title relates the film to Surrealist cinema: Un Chien andalou, The Seashell and the Clergyman, etc. (The relation is admittedly neater with those other sacred monsters of Hollywood, the Marx Brothers, whose early, most characteristic films bore titles, Duck Soup and Horse Feathers, which were the precise vaudevillian equivalents of, for example, An Andalusian Dog. Indeed, Groucho’s monologue “When the moon comes creeping’ round the clouds, I’ll come creeping’ round you. Ah! the moon and you. You wear a necktie so I'll know you” to Margaret Dumont—a very Buñuelian presence—might have served as commentary to that film’s celebrated opening sequence.) Coincidentally, both the Buñuel-Dali films and Sextette were privately financed.
But that’s not all. Not only were Mae West’s lips the model (presumably by proxy) for one of Dali’s most endearing inventions, his red satin sofa, but the plot of Sextette—newlywed Mae and her bridegroom (Timothy Dalton) attempting against the odds to consummate their wedding night—recalls the coitus interruptus of Lya de Putti and Gaston Modot in L’Age d’or (not to speak of the movable fast of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), while its setting, a farcical hotel with guests popping in and out of each other’s suites, is reminiscent of the Hôtel des Folies Dramatiques from Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of the Poet.
4. With incest, the coition of May and December (or, in this case, May and Mae) constitutes, perhaps, the last repository of whatever subversive value l’amour fou could once lay claim to, and of which Sextette and Bertolucci’s Luna are the most impressive recent manifestations. But incest poses a curious problem of representational credibility. Other forms of deviant sexuality—male and female homosexuality, sado-masochism, bestiality—can be and have been represented on the screen; and even when they are simulated, the illusionist code, if properly operating, will swiftly recuperate any disbelief left unsuspended.
In the way of “incest,” however, all Luna has to offer is a simulated erotic relationship between an adolescent boy and a woman Old Enough To Be His Mother. Hardly the same thing. Although the rapport which they establish goes a long way toward catching the emotional intensity one imagines must inform such a relationship, Matthew Barry is not Jill Clayburgh’s son; and incest will apparently remain, in cinema as in life, the ultimate taboo. (Only Roger Vadim, by having Jane Fonda make eyes at brother Peter in his silly and meretricious episode of Spirits of the Dead, can be said to have attempted to breach it.) Even if, for obvious reasons, their relationship is not at all articulated, the few strenuously erotic exchanges between Mae West and Timothy Dalton are, in the context of contemporary cinema, proudly shocking.
5. To paraphrase Cocteau’s oft-quoted aphorism about Victor Hugo, Mae West is a madwoman who things she is Mae West. The extreme fascination of Sextette derives not merely from its star’s age—she was 86 when she made it—but from the fact that the film pretends not to notice it. The entrance of Marlo Manners, which character she plays, is long delayed, while some clumsy exposition seeks to prepare us for a beautiful movie star, just married to a Lord and due, after a brief honeymoon, to embark on a new picture. Outside the hotel where she is to arrive, fans, predominantly young, both male and female, wave We Love Marlo placards and scream in anticipation, like those of homonymous Rita Marlowe (played, nota bene, by Jayne Mansfield) in Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Marlo, wearing a virginal white wedding gown, emerges from a limousine in a cloud of soft-focus. This is followed by more suspenseful teasing with the frame to prevent our obtaining a premature glimpse of her features. Then an abrupt close-up, facially full frontal—which compares, routes proportions gardées, with Kubrick’s famous cut from a caveman’s bone to a spacecraft in 2001.
6. No less intriguing, hardly less of an aberration, than Jayne Mansfield’s mammary development, both Mae West’s age and the exposure it receives in Sextette are calculated to gratify the most prurient cinephile’s obsession with the ravages wrought by time on the features of Hollywood sex goddesses and their poignant attempts to reverse the process. It should be noted, however, that although American movies in the Fifties and Sixties—predating, that is, the current generation of actors—depended to a fault on performers themselves aussi vieux que le siècle, these turned out almost always to be male. Bette Davis old in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was no different from Bette Davis “plain” in Now, Voyager: she was in disguise.
7. Old age as a theme, incidentally (I say “incidentally” as, whatever the theme of Sextette might be, it is not old age), has been shamefully undertreated in the cinema, yet capable on occasion of inspiring success (Sunset Boulevard, Baby Jane), cult success (Harold and Maude, Harry and Tonto), two of the most original documentaries in recent years (the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Winifred Wagner) and what some of us consider the most sublime American film of the Seventies, Billy Wilder’s Fedora, of which Sextette is a naïve and credulous paraphrase.
8. In its negation—by conspiracy of silence, as it were—of the leading lady’s age, Sextette resembles Pierre Zucca’s brilliant and peculiar Roberte, about which I already wrote in my Paris Journal (July-August, 1978). Zucca could not but cast Denise Morin Sinclaire in the role of Roberte, since she had been Roberte (Klossowski’s Muse) all her married life, just as Mae West continues to play the self she once had been. That neither lady is any longer in her prime was doubtless deemed less crucial a guarantee of authenticity.
Perhaps the most legitimate comparison is with Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge with Kazuo Hasegawa, re-creating a role he had played umpteen times on the stage and once before in the cinema, as Yukinojo, a Kabuki female impersonator whom every woman in the film persists in finding the acme of desirability and who is, accordingly, envied by every man. Unlike his interpreter, Yukinojo himself is not old; one might argue that Hasegawa, like Bernhardt playing l’Aiglon at the end of her career, had spent a lifetime of preparation for this performance. Sextette, the most extraordinary compliment ever paid by the medium to one of its stars, the most chivalrous film ever made, is an actress’s revenge, indeed. Cinema as mirror, mirror….
9. Sextette can boast, if that is the word, a decor of cut-rate opulence (the London hotel), a sprinkling of low budget co-stars (Curtis, Hamilton, Dom De Luise, Walter Pidgeon), two guest appearances (Rona Barrett, Howard Cosell) and the sort of plot that, in a generous mood, one might call “serviceable.” Given such a framework, one would have expected at its center a Britt Ekland, say, or a Farrah Fawcett Majors. That it is occupied by Mae West causes a veritable dislocation of codes, a wrenching together of extremes, almost an effect of collage—as if the star had been forcibly imposed on the background of quite another film.
In certain portraits by Picasso, where a landscape straightforward pictorial illusionism is foregrounded by some amorphously undefined being who could not logically inhabit the Euclidean space in which it finds itself, the result is rather like looking at the painting of a sculpture, whose “modern” angularity is offset by the tidy perspectives of a museum garden. So it is with Mae West in Sextette: visibly ill-at-ease in movement, never touched by Dalton, only brushed against in very gingerly fashion, corseted to within an inch of her life, she is reminiscent of nothing so much as an equestrian statue—or, rather one of those centaur-like matrons one comes across in nineteenth-century lithographs.
10. She also has problems with her dialogue, both hearing and speaking it (and, if Sextette is genuinely adapted from one of her plays, writing it). As if to persuade us how uproarious it all is, her every line is greeted with uncontrolled laughter from supporting actors and extras; similarly, as if to remind us that she is Mae West, her every line is prefaced by a wistfully obscene “Ohhhh…,” a trademark soon debased and rendered meaningless by repetition. The only wisecrack to make its effect without the support of such oversignification is, however, magnificent: “I’m the girl who works at Paramount all day and Fox all night!” (It helps to speak it aloud.) The charm of this conceit derives less, it seems to me, from the direct equation of love-making and movie-making, itself the epitome of camp, than from the contrivance of the “I’m the girl who…” construction to obtain the required third-person singular of “Fox.”
11. If Mae West’s birthdate had not been authenticated as 1892, I would be tempted to claim her as the reincarnation of Oscar Wilde. Where else, save in photographs of Wilde, have I seen the same odalisque’s posture, the same sailor’s gait, the same corseting and rouge, the same court of adoring and adorable young men? Her resonant wisecracks resemble Oscar’s universal epigrams as a wad of chewing-gum may be said to resemble an iridescent soap bubble. Although genius would probably not be what she had to declare to a customs officer, the basic form of the riposte need suffer little alteration.
And if the deus ex machina of Wilde’s comeuppance was the seedy Marquis of Queensberry, it was Will Hays of the notorious Code who presided over Mae West’s tragicomic decline and fall.
12. Sextette offers the unique spectacle of Mae West living, as Wilde died, “beyond her means.”
Also read Adair's The Cliché Expert’s Guide to the Cinema from the November/December 1979 issue.
© 1980 by Gilbert Adair