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A beguiling mixture of daring and dignity

A writer's memory of a bold performer who was yet a private person is at odds with a play's image of Mae West.

March 08, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Mae West would have hated "Dirty Blonde," even though it offers a loving, carefully researched overview of her life and career.

As conceived by actress-playwright Claudia Shear and director James Lapine, "Dirty Blonde" is two plays intercut with each other. One charts touchingly how two lonely, individuals are drawn together by their admiration for West, whose bold personality proves empowering to both.

The other traces West's evolution as a performer who discovered herself as the up-to-her-hips-in-quips Diamond Lil, a Gay '90s queen of the Bowery, a resplendent figure ablaze with jewels and clad in feather boas and sequin-encrusted gowns.

As talented an actor and writer as Shear is, however, she is simply too ample to play West, whose indelible image is based on the enduring hourglass figure she managed to preserve to the end of her long life even though the sands of time may have shifted things a bit. Always "pleasingly plump," West early on discovered how a corset could set off her opulent curves. In short, the physical profile is so crucial to the West image that it allows little room for artistic license.

Yet the problem of "Dirty Blonde's" conception of West goes beyond mere appearances, for it suggests that the actress carried on as outrageously offstage as she sometimes did onstage. West, whom I came to know well in the last decades of her life, was a truly daring performer -- a suggestive dancer and singer who discovered the shimmy in Chicago clubs and a playwright who dealt with prostitution and homosexuality. But at heart she was a lady, which is precisely why she could get away with so much when she combined a split-second timing and the famous quips that made her one of the most quoted performing artists of all time. Her innate dignity and ironclad self-confidence allowed her to be breathtakingly direct with a man who attracted her, but at the same time she valued privacy and took pains to preserve hers, which only added to her mystique.

West was a "tough girl" in her vaudeville acts and loved to push the envelope in her singing and dancing, but evidence suggests that offstage, she did not behave in a boisterous manner. She was even described by a neighbor as a young woman who liked to stay home with her mother. This is not to say that West wasn't always a strong, determined woman prepared to stand up for herself and wasn't always fast with a comeback.

"Dirty Blonde" presents West in her later years as game but feeble. In truth, West was alert and engaged until felled by the stroke that preceded her death at 87 in 1980; and despite the stroke, her personality remained feisty. Although the line had indeed blurred between Diamond Lil and Mae West, there was a remarkable and endearing woman behind the image. She was easygoing, kind and hospitable and went out of her way to avoid unpleasantness -- but when it struck, she displayed a healthy temper in response. She loved folksy, small gatherings and was always welcoming to newcomers. She was always a gracious, interested listener.

She wanted her friends to have a good time in her company and loved to entertain them with stories from her life. Quite frequently, she would sing favorite songs, and when she had made a new recording, she would sometimes get up and perform along with it. She could do a wickedly hilarious impression of Sarah Bernhardt. Although sometimes accused of living in the past, West always looked ahead and had a contagious gift for enjoying life in the moment. Time spent with her was always filled with good cheer.

West took great pride in her appearance and had an extraordinary peaches-and-cream complexion that nonetheless tanned deeply on the rare occasions she sunbathed. She actually used makeup sparingly but favored dagger-like eyelashes -- to set off her blue eyes -- and a rich red lipstick. In her private life, she had a preference for simple, figure-flattering pantsuits and long coats and left most of her fabled jewels in a safe deposit box, to be brought out only for special occasions.

In life and in her art, West was a paradox. As a comedian, she spoofed sex, encouraging audiences not to take it so seriously, and thus became a liberating social force. Yet, though she described herself as a sex personality rather than a sex symbol, she took herself seriously as an enduring sexual icon. One of her shrewdest moves was early on to own up to a vast ego, which she poked fun at frequently, and which drove her, rightly or wrongly, to play the eternal temptress at age 85 in the movie "Sextette." But West did not ultimately kid herself.

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