Sextette (1978) is based on Mae West’s 1961 play of the same name, which was also her last stage performance. At the time of the film’s release, Mae was eight five years old, although for her entire professional career Mae had claimed she was seven years younger than she actually was; so there have been reports that everyone on set had to pretend she was only seventy eight.
Despite her advanced age, Mae cast herself as the romantic female lead, admired by hordes of men, most notably Timothy Dalton, who was fifty three years younger than her. And although this shocked audiences at the time, and continues to do so today, it shows the glaring double standard of Hollywood. No one seemed to bat an eyelid that Rex Harrison was twenty one years older than Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady or that Gary Cooper was twenty eight years older than her in Love in the Afternoon. And if you think that those are exceptions, then may I draw your attention to the fact that fifteen year old Linda Darnell was eight years younger than twenty three year old Tyrone Power and twenty nine years younger than forty five year old Warren William in Daytime Wife.
In both of her hit films, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, made and released in 1933, Mae was already forty years old. An “advanced” age for a Hollywood leading lady, especially one who was supposed to be sexually desirable and permissive. Mae broke the mould from the moment she became famous, and Sextette shows how she continued to do so almost right up until her death.
Little Pink Tape
The film begins with Marlo Manners’ (played by Mae West) wedding to Sir Michael Barrington (played by Timothy Dalton). Marlo is supposedly the most famous women in the world, and her wedding to Sir Michael is portrayed as being like that of royalty, with a grand progress through the streets of London with cheering crowds.
At the hotel that Marlo is to spend her honeymoon, world leaders are having a conference to figure something out that is never really explained. They are all tremendously excited about her arrival, and peak out of the conference room windows as her car approaches like deprived school boys.
Preparation for the honeymoon suite is shown, which includes the readying of the gold swan bed (a prop from She Done Him Wrong) is broadcast live on television. Marlo’s trusty assistant, Dan (played by Dom DeLuis) is leading the preparations and ushers the TV cameras out after providing the presenter with some rather vague answers.
Marlo and Michael then arrive at the hotel and the staff and reporters are positively apoplectic with joy, and break into “Hooray for Hollywood”, which is interspersed with Marlo’s slow progress across the room on Michael’s arm and her witty one liners, compete with synchronised laughter at her double entendres.
After signing the hotel register and throwing the bouquet (not very far), Marlo and Michael go to the honeymoon suite. But Dan informs Michael that before there can be marital bliss Marlo has commitments such as a screen test and costume fittings for her new film to see to. Michael is non-plussed to say the least and makes a lot of comments about Marlo not needing clothes, which is both fascinating and discomfiting, but signature Mae West dialogue.
A mysterious man in the elevator then speaks cryptically to Dan about Marlo doing something very important one more time. Thankfully Dan knows what this important thing is, because at this point the audience does not. Dan is reluctant, but agrees to try and convince Marlo to go along with whatever the other man is asking. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions at this point.
Back in the honeymoon suite, Marlo is reclining in her luxurious bed whilst dressed in a feathered nightgown, and recording her memoirs on a voice recorder. She recounts her experiences with her many husbands, which included a stubborn Russian farmer turned politician and an American director.
In the lounge area of the suite, Michael becomes upset about a TV presenter’s discussion about Marlo’s marriages, and whether he is her sixth or seventh husband. Dan encourages Michael to set the record straight so that he can get rid of the other man and speak to Marlo. When Michael is gone, Dan tells Marlo that she is needed once again, and a montage (over an American flag, subtlety never was Mae’s strong suit) explains Marlo’s involvement with the U.S. government, and her relationships with and marriages to presidents, prime ministers and other world leaders in order to maintain good relations between America and foreign states and countries. Marlo has had enough of sexy globe trotting, but Dan says that they need Marlo to save world diplomacy one last time, and in order to do that she needs to have dinner with her ex husband, “Sexy Alexi” (played by Tony Curtis).
In the hotel lobby, Michael defends Marlo’s reputation to the previously mentioned TV reporter, but instead of clearing Marlo’s name, confusion arises and the TV reporter ends up thinking that Michael is a homosexual due to his school friendships with other boys and lexical confusion between Americans and the British. Har de har har.
Dan gets back into the elevator where the mysterious U.S. agent is still hanging around and tells him that Marlo has agreed to help with Alexi, before Dan tries to dispose of Marlo’s memoir tape which he feels contains to many potentially dangerous secrets.
Michael returns to the honeymoon suite and he and Marlo talk-sing “Love Will Keep Us Together”, with them also walking from one part of the room to the other, before being interrupted by wardrobe testing. The wardrobe test features a manic performance by Keith Moon who plays the costume designer, and more classic one liners from Marlo (Fox ends up sounding like another word in Mae’s accent).
Dan is still trying to dispose of the tape before being accosted by a crazed hotel cook in the kitchen. The tape ends up being baked into a cake whilst international chefs, who have taken over the kitchen, brawl with each other.
In the conference room, Alexi vetoes another vote before saying that he needs a break. He doesn’t actually speak Russian but rather some nonsense form riddled with phrases that an English speaking audience can recognise, but realise doesn’t actually make up a sentence.
Back in the honeymoon suite (scene changing may cause vertebrae damage) Michael expresses jealousy over Marlo’s marriage riddled past, before Dan barges in and tells Michael that EVERYONE thinks he’s gay (!) Dan says that Michael needs to straighten this out, thereby getting rid of Marlo’s new husband once again, so that Marlo can “seduce” Alexi.
Whilst Marlo changes yet again, Dan performs “Honey Pie” (which I had stuck in my head for about three days afterwards) which expresses his unrequited love for Marlo, and includes tap dancing on the piano and crooning to a cardboard cut out of his leading lady.
Marlo sees George Raft in the elevator and they have a brief chat before he exits the lift. Michael is then shown trying to deny the rumours about his sexuality, but he, unsurprisingly, makes things worse.
Marlo then goes to Alexi’s suite, where he reminisces about their past love affair. Whilst talking he cuts into the cake he ordered from room service (because cake and sexy times mix, am I right?) and it is revealed that this is the cake that the tape was baked into (!) Marlo convinces Alexi to dispose of the cake, and he throws it out the window. Michael then sees Alexi and Marlo on the balcony together, and is understandably upset (?) but is then distracted by yet another TV interview. Marlo then reedily and abruptly sings “I’m Gone” to Alexi, who watches admiringly as she leaves, but he doesn’t try to stop her…
Marlo then goes to meet the U.S. athletic team (I think someone asks her to, I’m not sure) before singing “Happy Birthday 21” to a fluffy haired infant man-boy, whilst surrounded by half naked men, which is kind of bizarre, but why not. After Marlo has made another exit, Michael is then ushered into the gymnasium by Dan, in order to show his masculinity and heterosexuality by working out with the athletic team. He is still dressed in his wedding attire, and the scene isn’t even vaguely unintentionally homoerotic.
In the honeymoon once again, Marlo does a screen test with her leading man-boy, but her ex husband (played by Ringo Starr, who is an American director with a Liverpudlian accent, constantly interrupts the scene before doing the screen-test himself. Michael arrives and is once again incensed, leading him to punch the man-boy before the crew leave, and Ringo Starr makes a winky winky nudgey nudgey comment about his marriage to Marlo. Michael then goes into the bedroom and promptly falls asleep due to the long day. Because that’s what everyone does after their wedding day is kind of ruined by screen tests and espionage.
Alexi finally votes in favour of whatever he was voting against, and everyone celebrates by throwing important documents into the air.
Marlo’s fifth husband, Vance (played by a very tanned George Hamilton)arrives at the hotel, and stabs the concierge in the hand with a pen so that he can find out which room Marlo is in. Marlo is unimpressed that Vance isn’t dead like she thought he was. Marlo then can’t recall if she divorced Vance or not when she thought he six feet under. Vance then tells her that he’ll kill Michael, who isn’t actually asleep and is in fact performing acrobatics to retrieve Marlow’s cassette memoir out of a lion’s mouth on the roof of the hotel. Vance then decides that he and Dan are going to retrieve the tape, and Dan almost ends up splattered whilst trying to look into the now empty lion’s mouth.
Michael is then revealed to be a spy when he passes the tape to another operative who is posing as a hotel chef but who might actually also be a chef…?
The world leaders then fight for seemingly no reason and Marlo must once again save the day/ world after Vance compounds the situation by trying to hold everyone up because the world leaders want to listen to the pink tape which ended up in yet another cake. But Vance is subdued by the godfather. He speaks Italian in much the same way Alexi spoke Russian, in a nonsense kind of way, even saying phrases like espresso, mozzarella and cappuccino. The memoir tape is then played at the behest of the godfather, and the world leaders underhand dealings are exposed, which they all think is hilarious (?) The tape also proves that Marlo did in fact divorce Vance. She then starts talking the lyrics of “Baby Face” which doesn’t really seem to have any connection to the scene, but hey, with background singing from the world leaders and a rather incongruous one liner, everyone seems to be having a good time.
Marlo returns to the honeymoon suite to discover that Michael has written her a letter saying that he feels that Marlo is better off without him. An afro haired Alice Cooper then sings “Next Next” with hotel staff doing a choreographed dance whilst packing and escorting Marlo out of the suite. Dan then tells her that she saved the world once again, and Michael is in fact a spy and bigger than 007 (sound the predictive klaxon).
Michael is shown dejectedly sing-talking “Love Will Keep Us Together” in his yacht. He is seemingly deaf to the fact that Marlo is recording another memoir tape in his bedroom before she joins him in his sing-talking. Michael is pleased that Marlo is in his bed, and the film ends with him comparing Marlo to Paul Revere for all that she’s done for America. Marlo replies that she can’t wait to say “The British are coming”, before sexual symbols like a firing canon and a flag rising are shown, as well as the yacht sailing off behind the closing credits.
One last hoorah
Sextette is undoubtedly a bonkers film, but that’s largely due to the fact that it’s a film that was made in 1978 that should actually have been made in the pre-code era. If it had been made forty five years earlier and starred Cary Grant as Mae’s leading man and had choreography by Busby Berkley, it would probably have been a smash hit and be considered a classic today. But it’s a film out of its time. It’s a film that shows that the leading lady wanted to relive the hey day of her career, most notably 1933, when a film like Sextette would have almost fit right in. Because Sextette is essentially Mae West doing her greatest hits. The film brings to mind She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel because it features a lot of similar plot points and scenarios.
Mae plays her signature role of the desired woman who society tries to suppress and punish, but who comes out on top (don’t be saucy now) because she just can not be repressed. She is pursued by countless men who are all dazzled by her sexual magnetism and permissive attitude towards sexual desire. The reason that people are discomfited by this set up is because instead of being forty years old, Mae was an octogenarian. She was deemed far too old to still be experiencing any feelings of desire or physical awareness. And I think that even if that wasn’t Mae’s intention, the film highlights society’s propensity for dismissing the continuing desires of people when they are deemed to be too old and dried up to feel anything anymore. Plus it shows the double bind of women. Many men have continued to act the part of the romantic leading man to much younger women, as I highlighted earlier, well into their fifties, sixties and even on a few occasions, their seventies. But if a woman dares to do the same thing, it’s deemed weird and uncomfortable.
I am not trying to say that Sextette isn’t strange. As I said, it’s a film that should have been made decades earlier, but I don’t think it’s entirely fair to savagely attack it for its subject matter. We can all agree that it’s pretty odd, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not entertaining. Sextette was the first Mae West film I watched, but I knew quite a bit about her persona before watching the film, and so instead of being weirded out by it, I was chuffed that Mae refused to become an old crone because that’s what society said she should have.
Sextette is also similar to Mae’s two best known pre-code gems because of its leading man. While Cary Grant wasn’t over fifty years younger than Mae in their films together, he was still twenty nine while she was forty. Showing that Mae liked her male co stars to be young and beautiful. Because Grant and Dalton are both beautiful in their films with Mae. And Grant and Dalton were/are tall, dark and refined. As with Lady Lou and Tira were with Captain Cummings and Jack Clayton, Marlo is below Michael in social status. She may be a world famous movie star, but he’s British aristocracy, where in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, she is a bowery singer and a circus performer and Grant is a federal agent and multi-multi-millionaire respectively. In all three of these films, Mae is Cinderella elevated by her social “superior”. But she doesn’t let these men dominate her. She is the one in control the entire time, even at the end when it looks like her man has taken her back, she’s just proven that she will never change and he has to love her for who she is. Where he annunciates, she drawls, but opposites attract and all that.
I’m not saying that Sextette is for everyone. There’s a reason it’s reached cult status, because it’s an acquired taste. But if you can just enjoy the film, and realise that Mae wasn’t actually only suffering from mobility issues as much as walking in the same trotting way she always did, you’ll see worthwhile things in the film. It would never have won any Oscars, and its unsurprising that the film bombed at the box office; but it’s essentially a pre-code film made in the 1970s, and there’s something kind of wonderful about the fact that Mae could make it so that for one, last picture, she could make it seem as if it was 1933 again, and that she was the most famous, and desirable woman in the world as she had been forty five years before.
Urban Legends Abound
According to the Wikipedia article about the film, Mae wore an earpiece, and that this was so that the director could feed her lines. Urban legends sprang up around this, and Tony Curtis fanned the flames by claiming that Mae could pick up radio signals on her earpiece and shouted out a police code during one scene instead of saying her lines.
Mae actually wore the earpiece so the film’s director could prompt her because of script rewrites that led to her not having the time to adequately memorise the scripts. Mae’s advanced age during filming did cause issues, however, such as it being difficult for her to take direction due to hearing loss.
This is my second and last post for The Unexpected Blogathon. Read my first post here, and please visit Taking Up Room’s blog for more information and to read everyone else’s contributions. All links are in my first blog post.