THE GUILLOTINE: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last No 9: MAE WEST

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The Independent Culture
Mae West! Her very name became a byword for lewd, come-hither sexuality, as she brazenly flaunted, right up to her death at the age of 88, her taste for male bodies rather than men. Though "fresh" sounds like a ludicrously inappropriate adjective to describe a woman whose trademark was unambiguously unvirginal carnality, she did in fact bring a gamy whiff of fresh air (if such an oxymoron is possible) into the rigid conservatism of the Hollywood cinema of the interwar years.

Yet there, precisely, is the paradox. The epitome of preening sex appeal - Dali used her lips as the model for a crimson satin sofa - West never actually possessed too much of that indefinable quality, certainly by current standards. Her face was as waxily unreal as if she were wearing a papier mache Mae West mask, and her generously matronly figure was scarcely what anyone would call "hourglass" - "dayglass", rather. Like that of a transvestite (and she was of course a favourite transvestite icon), her allegedly irresistible allure was a pure simulacrum. If Madonna, let's say, were to look at herself in a distorting funfair mirror, Mae West is what she might see.

As for her movies, most of these have dated very badly, worth catching now, if at all, only for one of Mae's exquisitely timed mots. ("When a gal goes wrong, a guy goes right after her" or "I'm the woman who works at Paramount all day and Fox all night" - the latter makes better sense if you say it aloud, but not in front of the children.) What on paper must have appeared a pairing made in heaven - Mae West and W C Fields - turned out to be, in My Little Chickadee, a dispiriting mismatch, akin to teaming up Laurel and Costello or Romeo and Isolde. And when, in 1934, the ultra-conservative Hays Code was set up to root out every trace of immorality in the American cinema, her career was over.

The fashion in women's bodies, as in their clothes, is a cyclical process, and it may well be, hard as it is to imagine it now, that Rubensian opulence will be all the rage in 2050. It's inconceivable, nevertheless, that West will ever again be regarded as a potent sexual icon. Historically, she was important, even rather courageous. But, to our grandchildren, she's destined to seem as absurd as the genteel naked ladies of Victorian porn now seem to us.