“Late Movies” Blogathon: Swan Songs

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I’m pleased to join David Cairns’ Shadowplay for his annual blogathon. This year’s theme is The Late Show, and it’s a celebration of neglected late films of favorite filmmakers and actors. Here, we take a look at Just a Gigolo and Sextette, the final films of two great ladies of the screen. 

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Swan Songs

Marlene Dietrich and Mae West, two of the most famous women of the past century, had more in common than you might think.

Their paths first crossed at Paramount in the early sound era when Hollywood was raiding the stage for talent—the naughtier the better. Their dressing rooms stood side by side until both were purged from the contract list, after increasing censorship had made them more a liability than an asset. They were both on the list of stars famously declared “box office poison” by movie exhibitors late in the decade. Their careers temporarily on the skids, they met again at the second-rate studio Universal in 1939, where they each had a hit. And in 1954, they appeared in succession at the Congo Room at the Sahara in Las Vegas, for one-woman shows which reaffirmed their huge popularity and legendary status. They also liked each other, it seems, and maintained a long-distance friendship into old age.

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As performers, they did have little in common. Dietrich, the worldly Berliner, presented herself with wide-eyed mock innocence; her style was ironic, detached, disdainful. She was mistress of the feline art of pretending indifference, of seeming oblivious to her own impact while remaining utterly self-conscious. Multilingual, bisexual, a cross dresser, she played with gender like she played with everything else. Even men. In one of many letters, her close friend Ernest Hemingway wrote “What do you really want to do for a life work? Break everybody’s heart for a dime? You could always break mine for a nickel and I’d bring the nickel.” In public, he added: “If she had nothing more than her voice, she could break your heart with it. But she has that beautiful body and the timeless loveliness of her face.”

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You can tell a lot about a lady by her admirers, perhaps. Mae West’s most famous tribute came from the surrealist and absurdist Salvador Dali, who painted her face as an eerily empty room. The steely, mascaraed eyes are flat paintings; the flaring nostrils a misshapen fireplace; the pursed lips a sofa that might not be as inviting as it looks. A tough broad who snapped wisecracks out of the side of her mouth in a nasal Brooklyn rasp, West was 40 years old, five feet tall and around 140 pounds when she made herself a legend of the screen by sheer force of will. What Dali captured was her mysterious mixture of attraction and repulsion; her greatest gift might have been for making people extremely uncomfortable.

What Dietrich and West did have in common was that both were important and influential sexual pioneers. Both were women who slept with anyone they chose and paid no price for it (onscreen and in life). Ironists who sneered at men who wanted sentiment to be part of screwing. Aggressors who broke decisively with the Victorian image of passive, pure, weak femininity. And most of all, both were fanatically devoted to maintaining the image of themselves they had created: Dietrich as a sultry, mock-weary survivor, West as a boisterous carnal wit. This disciplined self-concern ensured them both unusually long careers, beginning on the stage in the 20s (earlier, in West’s case) and proceeding to films and concerts through the next four decades.

And each made her last appearance on film in the same year, 1978. Dietrich appeared in two scenes of the David Bowie vehicle Just a Gigolo; West starred in the film of her play Sextette. The amazing return of these two goddesses 50 years after their initial burst of fame should have been an occasion for rejoicing, but the reviews they received, and continue to receive, were not exactly worshipful.

On Dietrich, then aged 77:

“[She] plays the mistress of a gigolo service in a mummified appearance that suggests nothing more than the limitless possibilities of makeup.” “…the old face… in the merciful shadows of a hat… her voice… pains us as a parody of herself.” “Photographed through gauze and a veil from a distant camera, she croak[s] her song and a couple of lines in a pathetic reminder of past glories.”

On West, who was 85:

“[She looks] like a plump sheep that’s been stood on its hind legs, dressed in a drag queen’s idea of chic, bewigged and then smeared with pink plaster. The creature inside this getup seems game but arthritic and perplexed.” “She’s clearly not all there [and looks like] the peroxided living dead… In most shots her features resemble Mr. Potato Head accessories pinned into a shapeless pink blob.”

Ouch.

It’s not my purpose to rescue Just a Gigolo or Sextette from critical purgatory. They’re both dreadful films, in their very different ways, and you should do anything you can to avoid seeing them. Gigolo is a disjointed mess, with somnambulant actors wandering through elaborate sets with nothing interesting to say or do. The script, a series of floating cryptic remarks, is acutely painful to listen to. Sextette is acutely painful to watch: a farce in which the consummation of the 85-year-old West’s marriage with 34-year-old Timothy Dalton is continually, and thankfully, interrupted by her ex-husbands, the male U.S. Olympic team, and the leaders of the free world… all of whom have the hots for her. Sextette tries to get by as a good natured cartoon, but the winces come much more frequently than the laughs.

And yet, the fact that Dietrich and West were still in there pitching as Disco gave way to Punk seems valiant and heroic to me. The scathing reviews seemed to be punishing these ladies for the sheer fact that they’d grown old—not a crime, exactly.* Maybe disappointed expectations played a part in the almost hurt reaction. Dietrich and West were from an era where an entire studio system was devoted to elevating performers to godlike perfection. Everything—scripts, co-stars, photography, lighting, atmosphere—was designed to set off, and show off, personality. When that system began to fail them, they both returned to the stage, where technique, charisma and distance could offset the ravages of time. Having created such intensely powerful images, both were finally excoriated for attempting, and failing, to maintain them.

In a better movie, Dietrich might have pulled it off. She did Just a Gigolo strictly for the money, having been reduced to sad circumstances in the previous years. Forced to retire after being seriously injured in an inebriated fall off a concert stage, she was now old, crippled, drinking heavily, and on the verge of eviction from her Paris apartment for non-payment of the rent. A fee of $250,000 for two days’ work was announced, though in reality she accepted one-tenth of that amount. She had one scene with David Bowie, and these two icons of androgyny might have been able to create some real sparks… if they’d been in the same room. Instead, their scenes were shot in separate cities and spliced together. What with that disconnect, the phony dialogue, and her frailty, the scene has a tentative quality even beyond the zombified ambience of the film itself.

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But then, a bit later, she returns to sing.

“Just a Gigolo” was a popular song in Austria and then America in the late 20s, written originally to express the disillusion of a World War I soldier who is now reduced to being a hired dancer. A rinky-dink song, as David Lee Roth once demonstrated conclusively. Dietrich hated it, but knew it was integral to the film. Despite the intense pain and difficulty of moving, she sidles at a doorway before walking to the piano. It’s late in a deserted nightclub. The camera is very close at first. The piano player looks down, intent, as cigarette smoke rises. With a gloved hand, she pats the back of his head, her own head lowered. For a moment time seems to stand still as we get a glimpse of the face that enchanted Hemingway: a heavy-lidded eye, the familiar nose, lips, and cheekbones. Looking up to sing, she is aged of course, and vulnerable. Her voice is at once rough and thin, the phrasing labored and slow. But it works for her, as the song becomes the valedictory statement of a woman who has sold sex for half a century and now feels the onset of illness and death:

There will come a day
Youth will go away,
Then what will they say about me?
When the end comes I know
They’ll say “just a gigolo.”
And life goes on without me.

“When she was finished,” recalled director David Hemmings, “I was supposed to say ‘Cut!’ and I couldn’t. The moment was so charged and the spell she cast so total that the beats went by, one-two-three-four, until finally I came to my senses and said ‘Cut!’ and there was—literally—not a dry eye in the house.” It was Dietrich’s last moment on a sound stage, and though she lived another 14 years, she never allowed herself to be photographed again. She did make one more film, Maximillian Schell’s documentary Marlene, in which her refusal to appear is made the subject of the film. Schell’s camera seems to be chasing her through the billowing curtains of her empty apartment, as her recorded voice argues with him, insults him, lies to him, and dismisses him, as well as her entire life and achievement, as rubbish—“Quatsch!” She’s still utterly fascinating. And of course, she knew it.

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Mae West was in some ways a simpler personality. She did not drink; she didn’t smoke. She believed in the power of positive thinking, and ascribed her youthfulness to that and the regular use of colonics. Oh, and sex once a day. She chose her lovers from the ranks of prizefighters, gangsters, musclemen—including men of all races in an era when that could get you arrested (in fact she was arrested, but for her raucous play “Sex” rather than sex itself). These mostly anonymous men were not allowed to call her “Mae,” but only “honey” or “sweetheart” in private and “Miss West” in public. None was allowed to spend the night—Miss West slept alone. Famously, she had a mirror installed over the bed in her Hollywood apartment, and her comment on that (“I like to see how I’m doing”) got a late TV interview yanked from the air. Aware, perhaps, that she wasn’t the youngest, thinnest or prettiest woman around, she committed herself to a personal and professional life in which she was the fairest of them all.

Call it self-belief or self-deception, it’s on full display in Sextette. In a previous comeback at the age of 77, the unfairly maligned Myra Breckinridge, she seemed armored in clothing, wigs and hats. But here, eight years later, she wears low-cut gowns and negligees and looks fairly amazing for her age. However, her physical infirmity is evident, and in the end that’s what kills her act. Not so much because she’s not sexy—a good case could be made that Mae West was never “sexy” onscreen, but rather a comedian whose subject was sex. It’s because she’s no longer in complete control. She had the clout to get Sextette made, but at 85, not enough stamina to sustain it. After the premiere of the movie, a pretty sad occasion (I know because I was there, but that’s another story), she reportedly turned to her escort and said “I can’t think about that. I have to think about tomorrow.”

Wobbly as she seems, she does have a couple of lovely moments. The movie features several rock stars doing goofy turns, and they seem the right kind of excessive people to be hanging around Mae West; at one point Alice Cooper is singing something at a piano and she stands behind him with her hands on his shoulders, grinning with pleasure. She seems happy just to be there, though we may not feel that way, exactly. At another point she meets a young athlete who blurts out that he’s a pole vaulter, and she rolls her eyes and murmurs “aren’t we all?” as she saunters past him.

On her funny, loose DVD commentary on Myra Breckinridge, Raquel Welch complains that West didn’t connect with other performers, that she was essentially off doing her vaudeville act in a movie of her own. She wrote most of her own dialogue, and took the credit from any writer who helped. Onstage, she had other actresses darken their teeth so that hers would shine brightest. She fought with her directors, and if she lived in our time she would have probably functioned as her own director outright. She was her own Colonel Parker, keeping “Mae West” front and center and away from other performers, actors, and co-stars in a hermetically sealed universe. Everyone else in her movies is a feed and a stooge—her former lover George Raft, the ultimate stooge, appears in her last movie as in her first, thus closing a 50-year show business circle. This endless self-reference was meant to exalt her but ultimately limited her, and in Sextette it makes her seem a lost and pathetic figure—ironically, the very last thing she would have wanted.

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Better to remember her in Myra Breckinridge, in a musical number added to the movie after filming had wrapped. She plays a talent agent, so why she’s singing in a nightclub is anybody’s guess, but it’s not the kind of movie where you ask those kinds of questions. With men in tuxedos gyrating behind her, she coos and snarls out a kind of rap version of Otis Redding’s appropriately titled “Hard to Handle.” Still vital at 77 and looking more or less like a million bucks, she shimmies in her black and white dress, at one point ecstatically clutching her own hips, waist and breasts. She could have written the words herself; maybe she thought she did:

Action speaks louder than words
And I’m a girl with a great experience.
I know you had you another,
But I can love you better than any other.
Take my hand, come with me,
I wanna prove every word I say:
I wanna love you baby, gonna have you every day.
Good lookin’ thing, let me light your candle
Cause baby I’m sure hard to handle.

As a poet once wrote of West, “she loves herself… and the rest of us, who do not, can only look on in wonder.” This blazing Technicolor rock and roll number is a world away from Dietrich’s past-it-all Weimar fatalism. Youth will go away? Quatsch! But in her strength and sheer life force, West could be singing for both of them—warriors of sex who blazed a trail, took no prisoners, and lived to crow about it. Self-creators. Survivors. And in these last movies, to my eyes at least, more beautiful than ever.

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* There’s sexism at work here too: nobody said anything remotely similar about Fred Astaire in wig, white tie and tails, embarrassingly dance-hosting That’s Entertainment 2 around the same time at the age of 76.

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15 responses

  1. How interesting! I didn’t know they had so much in common (besides being sex symbols and sexual pioneers) and I also had never seen Mae’s “portrait” by Dalí. These films really seen to be hard to watch. Marlene in a David Bowie film? It’s something I would never expect, but somehow this makes sense.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Greetings!
    Le from Critica Retro

  2. A beautiful, perceptive and quite moving piece! Both films are wretched, as you say…but what’s truly horrible is the gratuitous age-ism that shines through in the reviews. It’s as if Mae West and Marlene Dietrich somehow didn’t have the RIGHT to get old! Excuse me?! Both ladies were living legends, and their sheer guts in working at that advanced age was (or should have been) a cause for celebration and applause.

  3. Wonderful post about two of my favorite actresses; for me they have an enduring quality, even in their old age. I found Dietrich’s clip infinitely touching, while West brought out all of her customary joie de vivre in hers. Above everything else, these two were great troupers, and did not deserve such cruel criticism for their last efforts. Thanks so much for your perception and appreciation.

  4. Beautiful! I seem to recall just reading that Mae and George Raft died within a couple of days, and their coffins shared a waiting room at the mortuary. Life can be poetic, but death beats it hands down.

  5. Very Good Eddie. Saw both of these bits of damaged celluloid goods and must admit I enjoyed “Sextette” a tad. “Just a Gigolo” was simply hopeless. That still suggests Marlene would have been advised to work with Marguerite Duras. She would have been perfect in “India Song” — provided she could walk, and poor dear at that point I’m not sure she could. In 1968 I saw her in all her glory at the Lunt-Fontaine theater with Burt Bacharach and his orchestra for accompaniment. Just one woman and an orchestra, with a sound system much more primitive than the once we have today. Yet she obviously did a lot of work on it as — seated in the mezzanine — her voice sounded as if it were right next to me. She talk/sang with a sultry half-whisper that was unforgettable. It remains along with “Marat/Sade,’ “Deafman Glance,” and Chereau’s production of Genet’s “The Screens” one of the greatest pieces of theater I’ve ever seen.

    “Sextette” was produced by two mad young queens who adored her. That they managed to get it made at all is amazing. In the most fascinating scene Dom DeLuise sings and dances with a cardboard cut-out of Mae as she was under the weather that day.

  6. Pingback: The Late Show | shadowplay

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