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.
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 Galactica, The 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:
We flash to toddler Mae, demanding her spotlight:
Her mother thinks West is the most talented ever, while her father is abusive.
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).
On screen, it’s a mixed bag:
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).
As West’s career takes off, so does her relationship with Timony (James Brolin).
Mae’s play Diamond Lil, set in the 1890s, is a huge hit:
Mae and Timony go to Hollywood in 1932:
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).
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.
West becomes increasingly disillusioned with Hollywood:
She and Timony have a big falling out, they finally reconcile, and he gets sick.
But West goes back to Broadway to revive Diamond Lil in 1949, and it’s a huge hit!
I’ll leave you with two random stills of Jillian as West:
Schmaltzy TV movie biopics FTW!