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The Mae in Madonna

January 10, 1993|CARL ANTHONY | Anthony, a historian, is the author of the two-volume, "First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives & Their Power, 1789-1990" (Morrow, 1991). He is preparing a documentary tribute to Mae West

More petite than she seems, the thirtysomething, blue-eyed, bottle-blonde actress/singer/dancer quite intentionally scandalizes the public with one word. Sex.

The rather astounding similarities between Madonna, whose film "Body of Evidence" opens Friday, on the heels of her best-selling book "Sex" and less successful album, "Erotica," and Mae West, whose first undertaking as a writer was the 1926 play "Sex," go beyond mere genius for self-publicity.

In "Body of Evidence," Madonna does everything from playing out masturbatory acts to doing Willem Dafoe on the hood of a car. While there are few parts of Madonna's body that the universe has not seen, the closest Mae West came to simulating sex was orgasmic moaning as she rubbed her thighs together--always hidden beneath her hourglass dress. But that was in the early 1930s, when West was censored for even suggesting that genitalia existed. The times forced West's sexual explicitness to assume a subtler guise, but it is her insistent message of sexual equality that is the timeless blueprint, and one which Madonna unfurls time and again.

In "Body of Evidence," as in "Dick Tracy," "Desperately Seeking Susan," even "A League of Their Own," in writing "Sex," in her videos and television interviews, as singer, actress, writer and dancer, Madonna plays different characters in the same characterization--a woman who gets what she wants. West built her life around the very same technique. If neither woman won an Oscar, neither did they ever relinquish their point.

Both women's statements on sex are complex, but even in the most seemingly superficial way, the parallel is apparent. Madonna, for example, has often defended her explicitness about sex as being far healthier for society than the repression of it, particularly in the frank era of AIDS. In a letter to Alfred Kinsey, the author of landmark reports on human sexuality in the late 1940s and early 1950s, West went on like the great liberator--with a wise word about safe sex thrown in: "The more we are prepared to accept sex in our lives without a distorting sense of guilt and fear, the less tragic will be any of its consequences. (But) I would be the last one to encourage uncontrolled sexual activity. . . ."

The two's techniques for promoting their notions--and themselves--is no more apparent than in "Sex," both of theirs.

Madonna, under the guise of "good-time girl" character "Dita Parlo," wrote of her sexual fantasies. West, under the guise of "Jane Mast," wrote of (and of course, starred as) "Margie LaMonte," a waterfront-working, gold-hearted floozy. In Madonna's "Sex," there is a cast of characters photographed in various sexual encounters. In West's, "A world of ruthless, evil-minded, foul-mouthed crooks, harlots, procurers, and other degenerate members of that particular zone of society" romp in "an exhibition of complete frankness."

Reviewers have called Madonna's "Sex" "flip," "hard-core," "pornographic," "disturbing," "libertine sexuality." West's "Sex" was deemed "depraved," "disgusting" and "vulgar," relying "on its sensationalism to cash in." The New York Times said West "has broken the fetters and does as she pleases here," and the Herald Tribune noted: "All the barriers of conventional word and act . . . were swept away and we were shown not sex but lust--stark, naked lust."

Madonna's "Sex" was perhaps the first over-the-counter book sold under-the-counter, swathed in unrippable Mylar with warning label, some stores feeding the curiosity about it with small yellow pre-order forms. West said her "Sex" was a hit because of "mouth-to-mouth advertising," but she doggedly made certain that all of New York was aware of her play, even having ads placed on city taxicabs with the slogan, "HEATED--MAE WEST IN SEX--Daly's 63rd Street Theater." She had her "snipers" (go-fers) paste up posters throughout the five boroughs on every available flat surface. West would long boast proudly that newspapers, including the New York Times, would only advertise it as "Mae West in that certain play."

The more the play was condemned, the more difficult it became to get a ticket.

"When the newspapers refused my advertisin', they gave me headlines about my havin' my nerve producin' such a play," West said in a March, 1934, interview with Movie Classic magazine. "I couldn't've bought that space for any amount of money. That sent my prices up and packed 'em in. When you tell people a play is naughty, they rush to see it. I can't help that, can I?"

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