TBT: Mae West (1982)


Just where WON’T my recent biopic obsession take me? Well, maybe to quality, recent movies! Because here I am, still in the (early) 1980s with the TV movie Mae West starring Ann Jillian as the famous bombshell blonde actress. Mae West got her start in New York vaudeville in the 1910s and 1920s, then moved to Hollywood in 1932 to work in movies. This TV movie follows her from her childhood (briefly), then through her stage and screen career, until her Broadway revival of Diamond Lil in 1949.

Mae West - Go West Young Man

The real Mae West in Go West Young Man (1936).

Mae West

The real Mae West.

Unfortunately, despite Amazon having a “4k restored film”!! version, the film is fuzzy and dark. It’s also relatively predictable and semi-maudlin, with one of Mae’s minor lovers (manager Jim Timony, played by James Brolin) bumped up to be the Love of Her Life(TM). Roddy McDowall is cute in a minor part as a drag performer who befriends Mae (and helps her develop her signature style).

But most of the film rests on Ann Jillian’s shoulders. Jillian was breaking out at the time, having been playing a vampy character on a TV sitcom called It’s a Living. I’d say she’s decent in the role, not terrible, but certainly not take-your-breath-away TALENTED.

Most of the press from the time focuses on whether or not Jillian could fulfill the physical aspects of the role — namely, Mae’s famous curves. According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch:

“Ann is Mae’s equal in the bosom and hip departments, both of which Mae liked to encase in skin-tight gowns. Ann labored mightily to overcome the physical dissimilarities by sacrificing her own figure. ‘I had lost 17 pounds for “Living It Up” at the suggestion of our producer … When we began shooting “Mae West,” some of the wardrobe was too big for me and everyone encouraged me to gain weight… After I gained six pounds they told me I still looked too svelte, so the crew brought donuts to the set and Danish and French fries… I would up gaining 22 pounds and was popping out of the costumes…” (May 2, 1982).

This, of course, affected the costuming, which was designed by Jean-Pierre Dorléac — who, if he’s not a household name for you, should be, because his work spans shlock like The Bastard and The Rebels (parts 1 and 2 of The Kent Family Chronicles), Battlestar GalacticaThe Blue Lagoon — and the fabulously beautiful and accurate Somewhere in Time (no really). According to an interview Dorléac did with the Los Angeles Times, “Ann had to gain over 20 pounds to play Mae and she didn’t have a chance to start putting on the weight until after the production began and we had all the dresses all finished. I was worried that the bias area would stretch and look terrible. But luckily, Ann gained mainly in the face and the bosom…” (April 23, 1982).

Dorléac clearly put a lot of work into the film — partially because there were just so many costumes to make/assemble:

“‘Mae West’ was a great challenge for a designer because Ann had to be costumed over a four-decade span — from 1900 to 1943. There were many changes in styles through those years, so a great deal of research was necessary to ensure historical accuracy. A lot of the period gowns were quite lavish, especially the gowns I did for Ann (who alone has 51 costume changes). Just shopping for the hats and gloves and jewelry took a lot of time…” (LA Times).

But also partially because according to Dorléac, they worked really hard to “come as close as possible to what Mae wore in her actual films” (LA Times). Sadly, very little of this work is seen on screen, even in the restored version — it felt like I was watching a YouTube copy.

The film is told partially in flashback, starting with her arrest in 1927 while performing in Sex on Broadway:

1982 Mae West

Ann Jillian as Mae West performing in Sex.

1927 Mae West in Sex

Here’s the real Mae promoting Sex in 1927. Looks like she hadn’t actually gone blonde yet.

1982 Mae West

Jillian as West at the courthouse.

Mae West on trial, Getty Images, 1927

The real Mae posing during her trial, 1927, via Getty Images. Original caption: Mae West, seated, famous Broadway actress now on trial charged with producing an obscene play, being cheered up by Texas Guinan, notorious night club queen, when the latter visited the court during the trial and offered her sympathies to her sister Broadway-farer.

We flash to toddler Mae, demanding her spotlight:

1982 Mae West

And wearing a lot of poly baroque satin.

Her mother thinks West is the most talented ever, while her father is abusive.

1982 Mae West

Jillian/Mae wears some dowdy wigs early on.

1982 Mae West

The white lace on this looked chintzy — this kind of thing always reads as “doily” to me.

1982 Mae West

Adding fur doesn’t help.

There’s a lot of Mae performing in vaudeville. According to Dorléac:

“There are in, fact, few pictures at all of Mae prior to her arrival in Hollywood in 1932. For the early period — 1917 through 1925 — we took what she wore in later years and transposed backwards, imagining what she would have chosen from the styles of the day” (LA Times).

Mae West, In Vaudeville, Ca. Late 1910s

The real Mae during her vaudeville years, c. late 1910s.

Mae West in "Whirl on the Town," c. 1921.

The real West in “Whirl on the Town,” c. 1921.

On screen, it’s a mixed bag:

1982 Mae West

Part of a partner act, wearing sparkly white and feathers, still with dark hair.

1982 Mae West

As a “cave girl,” wearing a bodysuit with some strategically placed fur.

1982 Mae West

Off stage in stripes and shitty hair.

1982 Mae West

In a maybe-decent-if-we-could-see-it late 1910s suit.

1982 Mae West

A promo image showing what I think is the same suit.

1982 Mae West

And closeup.

1982 Mae West

Getting slinky while hanging with manager/lover Timony. I like the beads! Just wish I could see them!

As West learns to get her smolder on (helpfully coached by McDowall), she undergoes a transition. According to Dorléac:

“The biggest challenge was the dress Mae wore in the ‘C.C. Rider’ production number. It’s the first time the theater audience sees her in an onstage performance as a blonde so it was essential that she look great. I also had limitations, because in reading Mae’s autobiography… she said she did the number in a silver gown that was slit to the thigh — very provocative for the time. I wanted something special so it became the last costume I designed for the film… It’s all silver — old antique, gun-metal-colored silver lame… Both the dress and the white beaded one cost well over $3,000 each” (LA Times).

1982 Mae West
1982 Mae West

The best (sorry) I can do to show you McDowall as the drag performer “Rene Valentine.”

As West’s career takes off, so does her relationship with Timony (James Brolin).

1982 Mae West

That suit again, which confused me — which decade are we in now?

Mae’s play Diamond Lil, set in the 1890s, is a huge hit:

1982 Mae West

Perfect blonde pincurls, off-the-shoulder black dress.

1982 Mae West

Backstage with Brolin as Timony. Apparently Brolin fought to keep his mustache.

1982 Mae West
1928 Diamond Lil

The real Mae West in the 1928 version of Diamond Lil.

Mae and Timony go to Hollywood in 1932:

1982 Mae West

Dorléac again tried hard to copy West’s real wardrobe:

“As for Mae’s film gowns, we copied their original beading designs and fabrics exactly. At least the fronts of them. We had to work from photos, and none showed Mae’s back … The only instance we didn’t succeed was when we couldn’t locate the same kind of oblong-shaped diamond pendant that she wears in ‘Night After Night.’ We had to go with a pear-shaped one” (LA Times).

1982 Mae West

Dorléac describes the dress copied from Night After Night as “white, crepe-backed satin, beaded on the bias” (LA Times).

1982 Mae West
1932 Night after Night

The real deal on screen…

1932 Night after Night

… and in a promo shot.

According to the LA Times, Dorléac worked hard to duplicate an Elsa Schiaparelli “velvet-and-rhinestone sheath” from Every Day’s a Holiday (1937). Sadly, there was really no point, because it just looks like a black dress with some sparkles on it maybe.

1982 Mae West

The Schiaparelli recreation.

1982 Mae West

The hat looks great, you just can’t see any of this detail on screen!

1982 Mae West

A promo image comparing the original (left) with the recreation (right).

1937 Every Day's a Holiday

And the real deal.

West becomes increasingly disillusioned with Hollywood:

1982 Mae West

Doing a radio show in the 1940s.

She and Timony have a big falling out, they finally reconcile, and he gets sick.

1982 Mae West

The 1940s don’t work well on Jillian as West.

But West goes back to Broadway to revive Diamond Lil in 1949, and it’s a huge hit!

1982 Mae West

Great hair, lots o’ feathers.

I’ll leave you with two random stills of Jillian as West:

1982 Mae West 1982 Mae West


Schmaltzy TV movie biopics FTW!


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

11 Responses

  1. Trystan L. Bass

    I totally remember this biopic! And I was weirdly fascinated with Ann Jillian & ‘It’s a Living’ (yes, I watched A LOT of TV growing up).

  2. Andrew Schroeder

    The Costume Designer’s Guild posted an interview with Dorléac recently on their Youtube channel where he mentioned that this film was his best work. It does look pretty good for 1982!

    If you wanna dive deeper into the biopic hole, I would recommend the two Lucille Ball stories: “Lucy and Desi: Before the Laughter” (1991) and “Lucy” (2003). Also, “Grace Kelly” (1983) with Cheryl Ladd, and “The Audrey Hepburn Story” and “Life with Judy Garland: Me and my Shadows.”

    And there are like 50 more I could think of off the top of my head lol.

  3. SarahV

    Nothing much to say of any importance, but man did Mae West know how to take a picture. She poses like a fucking statue of a goddess. Also, that white suit and big hat are gorgeous, and once again, I restate my appreciation of the 20’s styles. They are so feminine and glamorous and chic. The suit and fur combo she wore to her trial (!) is faaaaaaaaaaaaaaabulous.

    • MoHub

      She also maintained control of her photos and had them doctored to slim her waist and enhance her best features. She was PhotoShopping before the technology existed.

  4. Roxana

    Just look at that first picture, Mae might as well be naked in that dress!

  5. ladylavinia1932

    Actually, one of my favorite Ann Jillian roles is that of a music hall singer in turn-of-the-century New York, who becomes a Broadway star. She had portrayed this role in the 1984 miniseries, “Ellis Island” and she was pretty damn good, even if her character became somewhat unlikable.

  6. R. Mark Desjardins

    I am currently working on my manuscript entitled “In Search of Mae West.” I recall seeing this film on television when it was originally broadcast, and over the decades, have come to realize many liberties were taken. Speaking to one of West’s former secretaries, I discovered he was involved to a degree as a “consultant” and despite his information that her Ravenswood Apartment suite was decorated in hues of white and cream, the film version featured a set dressed in dark reds! Miss West took great care in her outrageous stage costumes and in fact many of the newspaper ads promoting her Vaudeville appearances mentioned her stunning gowns. This Jean Pierre Dorléac got right, and deserved an Emmy Award nomination. A newspaper account reported that the Mae West costumes cost $100,000 in 1982 dollars to create. Ann Jillian received an Emmy nomination as well, but did not win. Evidently, the big winner was the ABC Network who rated the highest weekly tv viewing rating of all the networks that week, with Dynasty pulling in the second most viewers and the Mae West TV Movie placing at number three as the most watched program. Come on over to my Mae West Facebook page sometime! https://www.facebook.com/Mae-West-290194628412441