Mae West

Mae West : An Icon in Black and White

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"Why don't you come up and see me sometime?" Mae West invited and promptly captured the imagination of generations. Even today, years after her death, the actress and author is still regarded as the pop archetype of sexual wantonness and ribald humour. But who was this saucy starlet, a woman who was controversial enough to be jailed, pursued by film censors and banned from the airwaves for the revolutionary content of her work, and yet would ascend to the status of film legend? Sifting through previously untapped sources, this work unravels the enigmatic life of Mae West, tracing her early years spent in the Brooklyn subculture of boxers and underworld figures, and follows her journey through burlesque, vaudeville, Broadway and, finally, to Hollywood, where she quickly became one of the big screen's most popular and colourful stars. Exploring West's penchant for contradiction and her carefully perpetuated paradoxes, Watts convincingly argues that Mae West borrowed heavily from African American culture, music, dance and humour, creating a subversive voice for herself by which she artfully challenged society and its assumptions regarding race, class and more

Product details

  • Hardback | 416 pages
  • 166.9 x 242.3 x 35.6mm | 806.19g
  • Oxford University Press Inc
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • 28 halftones, bibliography
  • 0195105478
  • 9780195105476

Review quote

"This book is engagingly written. Watts's research is prodigious and she writes with acuity and verve."--The Times of London"An incisive and vivid portrait that focuses on the enormous influence African American music and culture had on West.... Watts' spirited and intelligent analysis chronicles West's battles with censorship, celebrates her compassionate artistic vision and discipline, and unveils the enigmas and dualisms that pervade the forever iconic West's work and life."--Booklistshow more

About Jill Watts

Jill Watts is Associate Professor of History and has served as the Director of the History Department and Co-Director of the Women's Studies Program at California State University, San Marcos. She is the author of God, Harlem, U.S.A.: The Father Divine more

Table of contents

Prologue; 1. The Biggest and the Best; 2. The Way She Does It; 3. Shimmadona; 4. Speaking of the Influences of the Jook; 5. You Can Be Had; 6. The Subject of the Dream; 7. Goodnight to the Dichotomies; 8. IF You Can't Go Straight, You've Got to Go Round; 9. Naturally, I Disagree; 10. Bring Me Rabelais; 11. Well, Why Ask?; 12. You're Never Too Old to Be Younger; Epilogue: All My Past is Really a Prologue; Notesshow more

Review Text

Did the sassy, hip-wiggling Hollywood goddess of the double-entendre base her image, her career, and her comedy on African-American culture? Since her death in 1981 at 87, Mae West's reputation has been rising. Once viewed as a tawdry, camp caricature who ceaselessly exploited her bad-girl burlesque, she's more recently been hailed as a proto-feminist who wrote her own plays, directed herself, and refused to be manipulated by the Hollywood studios. Watts (History/California State; "God, Harlem, U.S.A", 1992) adds another twist by portraying West as an archetypal African-American trickster heroine who may have had a black ancestor (on her father's side) and who certainly found her initial theatrical inspiration in the songs and comedy of Bert Williams and the earthy blues of Bessie Smith. (West always credited these artists, as well as drag queens, as key influences.) "The African-American practice of signifying, a subversive rhetorical device that uses multiple and conflicting messages to obscure rebellious meanings" was the primary element West adapted to her performing style, states Watts. The author goes on to speculate that because West's parents encouraged her to perform as a sexually precocious preteen, she must have been sexually abused; furthermore, Watts argues, West identified with the blacks and homosexuals as exploited individuals who had to resort to subterfuge to express themselves artistically. The author's urge to tie West to African-American culture becomes shrill when she consistently characterizes "She Done Him Wrong", "My Little Chickadee", and West's other movie comedies as calculated triumphs of cultural subversion aimed at the white establishment. It's possible that they were funny, too. She done her wrong. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

Rating details

32 ratings
3.34 out of 5 stars
5 9% (3)
4 38% (12)
3 38% (12)
2 9% (3)
1 6% (2)
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