Reportedly, August is the only month in which there are no major American holidays. I am therefore proposing that we make August 17th “Mae Day”, in honor of the birthday of late star Mae West— not to be confused with “May Day” (AKA Beltane), the Wiccan/pagan fertility holiday celebrated on May 1st. Actress/writer Mae West only made 12 movies, yet she is considered to be one of America‘s most iconic sex symbols in the history of cinema. To this day, her emblematic quotes are still engrained in pop culture: “When I’m good, I’m really good. But when I’m bad, I’m better!” Or how about, “It’s not the men in my life; it’s the life in my men!” (I‘ll drink to that!) The actress was entirely her own creation. Mae wasn’t the first woman to be sexy on the big screen… but her in-your-face sexual persona was completely unique at the time. Unlike other female sex symbols of vintage Hollywood, her image wasn’t based on using sexuality for manipulation, or about being sexy by the terms of the men in her life. She was bold about S-E-X because, well… she wanted it– but on her own terms. Her hidden intentions and double entendres were not lost on more sophisticated audiences… nor, sadly, were they lost on the virulently repressive movie censors. The fascist censorship policies of Hollywood at the time was, in fact, largely credited with the decline of Mae’s film career.

     Although her significance may have been lost somewhat on the younger generations of gays, Mae was a bona fide gay icon and remains one of the women most imitated by drag queens to this day, whether or not the queens themselves even realize it. Her gay appeal was not lost on Mae herself. Just as she knew what straight men wanted, she seemed to know what gay men wanted too. West was definitely a friend of the homos, although many sociologists would argue that her opinions on gays, well-intentioned as they may have been, would seem dates and even derogatory today: She reportedly referred to gay men as “The Third Sex” and also supposedly claimed that homosexual sex was “a form of masturbation, bringing temporary relief but no real satisfaction.” Reportedly, Mae also stated that “A bitchy itchy homosexual can be worse than a bitchy woman.” (How can you argue with that?!) Before she became a movie star, she presented a play in 1927 called “The Drag” (“A Homosexual Comedy in Three Acts“), which dealt “confidentially and frankly with the subject of male homosexuality“. The play opened in Bridgeport, Connecticut (!) where it was a sell-out on opening night and had many hopeful attendees turned away… but the play never made it to Broadway because of the fear of riots. There was even an urban legend that West herself was actually a man in drag or a hermaphrodite… a piece of gossip that sporadically is applied to other predominant female celebrities (Donna Summer, Jaime Lee Curtis, Lady Gaga, Ciara, and Megan Fox among them… ).

     She died at age 87 in 1980, just as a gay male sex revolution was exploding in New York City, San Francisco, and other urban areas… and just before the advent of the AIDS epidemic partly turned the pendulum in the other direction. Her last two movies, the X-rated “Myra Breckinridge” in 1970 and “Sextette” in 1978 (made when Mae was 86 years old!), are both misguided messes… and both are among my favorite movies of all time. Anyone seriously interested in the depiction of America’s sexual mores on the big screen in vintage Hollywood, however, is advised to check out Mae West’s collection of films from her glory days– almost all of which are available on DVD. (E-mail me if you have trouble finding any of them.). Another of Mae’s quotes was, “Marriage is a fine institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.” Now, there’s a woman after my own heart!!!

     Get ready for Mae Day 2012!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s