Amy Schumer’s hilarious skit about discrimination against middle-aged women in Hollywood has me wondering about Mae West. It’s true that modern films imply that women aren’t attractive enough past their 40s to be worthy of sex onscreen. But Mae West starred in Sextette in 1978; the film cast her as the object of all men’s desires in her eighties. While the movie was a box office failure, the simple fact is that no such film would be made today.
West’s role was hardly surprising, given that she was in her late 30s when her film career as a seductress began. She was, in addition, penning all of her own lines, and usually the whole screenplay. While many (Schumer among them) question why women haven’t made more progress in entertainment, few express the more disturbing possibility: Have we backtracked?
Mae West was a pioneer, it’s true. But pioneers are usually followed by those who accomplish more. The frontrunner’s courageous example and more hospitable times and environments usually lead to at least some progress. Maybe we all should be examining West, to figure out what this extraordinary writer/actress got right, what she still has to teach us. And why not? Who doesn’t want a regular dose of West?
Since her host of brilliant one liners overpowers me, I’ll highlight just one each month to savor it properly, starting with this bit from My Little Chickadee, co-written by West and W.C. Fields (the following scene is obviously of her creation).
The town’s school teacher has fainted after dealing with a class of “unruly” boys. Newcomer Flower Belle (West) has taken over the class for the day, and is attracting all of the hormonal adolescents (in her late 40s, I might add). She checks out the teacher’s lessons on the chalkboard. “I am a good boy,” she reads slowly. “I am a good man. I am a good girl.” She turns to the students: “What is this?” she asks. “Propaganda?”