Appellate Judge Tom Becker's the guy who works at DVD Verdict all day, and...well, never mind what he does all night.
The Sin-Sational Mae West!
Sextette is bad-movie Nagasaki, an aching and bewildering thing that would be good for a mean-spirited laugh if it wasn't so painful to see.
Mae West, well into her 80s and unwilling to go gentle into that good night, dusted off a play she'd written some decades prior for her second post-retirement role in the '70s; the first was in the legendarily atrocious Myra Breckinridge, and what better way to follow up appearing in one of the top 10 worst films of all time than by appearing in what would be one of the top five?
In a bizarre actualization of what Norma Desmond's "Salome" might have looked like if it were a PG-rated porn film, West hobbles up to play Marlo Manners, screen siren, sex goddess, and the most desirable woman in the world.
To show that she still had it, West did herself up in what amounted to Mae West drag: ridiculously elaborate wigs, flowing—yet cleavage baring—gowns, and something or other done to her face that gives it an unnerving, plastic-like texture. To help with the illusion, the camera goes into extreme soft-focus mode every time our lovely winter fowl appears on-screen.
Sextette kicks off with the opulent wedding of Marlo to a British nobleman, Sir Michael Barrington (Timothy Dalton, The Living Daylights). This is Marlo's sixth trip down the aisle—hence, sextette—a feat that I'm guessing was astounding when the play was written, though by 1978 it would have lost its luster, what with Elizabeth Taylor and the Gabors having cut their own record-nearing conjugal swaths. In any event, Marlo and Sir Michael end up in a swanky London hotel that has tap dancing bellboys and a cadre of Marlo-worshipping reporters. But Michael and his corpse bride have no interest in the fol-di-rol; all they want is a hay roll, a rollicking consummation in the privacy of their suite.
Unfortunately, She Who Waits must wait a bit longer, as all manner of nonmedical complications ensue. For one thing, there's some kind of global peace meeting taking place at the same hotel attended by heads of state of all the "big" countries (like, the U.S.S.R.—remember them?). As luck would have it, Marlo, um, "entertained" these various international roosters some years ago, and in the name of national security, it looks like she's going to have to re-up with one of them, the wicked Soviet Alexei (Tony Curtis, The Manitou).
On top of that, Marlo is preparing for a new film—hopefully, a better one than Sextette—and has wardrobe fittings (an excuse for a cringe-inducing sequence in which West models a variety of overdone outfits, each accompanied by a randy remark), leading man auditions (the less said, the better), and all manner of other nonsense that's driving her long-time manager Dan (Dom DeLuise, Blazing Saddles) to distraction.
To pass the time between bawdy encounters, everybody sings. The bellboys sing "Hooray for Hollywood." An unseen chorus sings a song extolling the virtues (and vices) of Marlo that rhymes her name with the god Apollo, who was evidently almost as sexy as Mae West. I thought they might have used the more harmoniously rhyming "Harlow" as a comparison classic sex symbol, until I realized that actress Jean Harlow was actually almost 20 years younger than Mae West. Dan sings Lennon and McCartney's "Honey Pie" and dances with a cardboard cut out of Marlo, which is not unlike dancing with Marlo herself. Sir Michael serenades Marlo with a cover of the 1970s elevator classic "Love Will Keep Us Together," and in a supreme act of kindness, changes the line "Your looks will someday be gone" to "Your looks will NEVER be gone."
Marlo herself warbles a number of tunes, including "After I'm Gone," "Baby Face," and "Happy Birthday 21" to a newly legal lad in a room full of half-naked, leering bodybuilders, though whether they're leering at Marlo or the birthday boy is never established. West's voice here is all kinds of sweetened, sounding like they pulled tracks from her old films. It's disconcerting to hear her go from her ninth-decade growl to a high-pitched trill, but no less disconcerting than everything else that happens here.
In addition to the musical and venereal shenanigans, it seems that all of Marlo's ex-husbands are in London, and they descend on the bridal suite hoping to reclaim her. Creepiest, but most plot-significant, is gangster Vance (George Hamilton, Love at First Bite).
It seems that Marlo isn't sure if she divorced Vance before he faked his own death, but fortunately, she's been dictating her memoirs into a pink cassette tape, and she mentioned it on there. Unfortunately, she's had Dan dispose of the pink tape to avoid embarrassing Sir Michael. Fortunately—or not—the tape keeps turning up in wacky places like a cake or a trampoline in the gym. As it also contains the key to world peace, it turns out to be a good thing that Dom DeLuise can't carry out a simple directive and toss a pink cassette tape into an incinerator.
Even if it didn't feature an oversexed 80-something being pawed by men whose parents weren't even born when she was of child-bearing age, Sextette would be a grisly and wretched experience. A bizarre mix of safe '70s smut served up on a heaping tray of delusion, it's like the bastard child of Linda Lovelace for President and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. West's shtick, so daring in the '30s, just didn't age well, and as she spits out classic bon mot after classic bon mot, you start wondering why these quips were funny to begin with. In a nod to the times, she lets loose with some material that would never have passed the Hays office, and her closing line is of such stunning vulgarity that they would have horsewhipped her if she'd uttered it during the Depression.
West surrounds herself with an uncomfortably eclectic supporting cast. Besides movie stars Curtis and Hamilton, rock stars Keith Moon, Alice Cooper, and Ringo Starr turn up in painful cameos; George Raft puts in an uncomfortable appearance and gets to say "Dude"; Walter Pidgeon has a few lines as one of the world peace delegates; and Regis Philbin and gossip columnist Rona Barrett play themselves. Dalton keeps his stiff upper in place while making jokes about his stiff lower, and DeLuise summons his years of experience from The Hollywood Squares and Dean Martin Roasts to deliver stale jokes while still maintaining a bit of dignity—until his "Honey Pie" number, anyway. Everyone else just lampoons gratingly.
Mostly, the film is just embarrassing—badly paced, unfunny, and hollow. Mae West claimed she was doing this film for her fans, but that's kind of like the nanny in The Omen proclaiming, "I'm doing this for you, Damian" before she hung herself at the kid's birthday party. Sextette has camp value, but even that wears thin under the avalanche of needless overplotting, hoary jokes, and too-broad-to-be-funny performances. When West totters out, stares at the camera, and quips, "I'm the girl who works at Paramount all day…and Fox all night," you know it's time to grab a hot water bottle and get under the covers.
Scorpion's disc is not exactly a technical dream come true, but it's anamorphic and correctly aspect-ratioed and features a clean audio track. The print has some damage, and the picture is soft, but I think it was likely shot that way on behalf of its leading lady.
Rather than just dumping this as bare bones, Scorpion offers up a couple of satisfying supplements. A highly entertaining on-screen essay by writer Dennis Dermody of PAPER offers up some background on the film along with some funny commentary. There's also an interview with Ian Whitcomb who worked with West on her music performances in the '60s and was also around for the making of Sextette. What I wish they'd included—and I'm sure this information is out there somewhere—is who in the world greenlit this project in the first place and why. The set also includes the trailer for the film as well as trailers for other Scorpion releases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In fairness, Sextette is a horrible movie, and it probably would have been horrible whenever it had been made and with whatever actress in the lead role. The fact that West was 80-and-change, of course, gives it that unforgettably ghoulish appeal.
But terrible as it is, it's still been subject to a certain amount of critical overstatement. Reading most reviews, you might get the idea that West was not only aged, but infirmed. A number of writers—including Dermody—have suggested that she could barely walk, and in scenes where she was standing, she's propped up or leaning against something. In point of fact, West seems to be getting around pretty well. She actually does walk around just fine, and she stands on her own. Her slow, sometimes awkward movements seem due more to a latter-days version of "the shimmy" than any physical defect. There might have a been a Herculean behind-the-scenes effort to give West the appearance of mobility and stability, but it's really not that bad on screen. Other rumors—such as West being "out of it" during filming or having lines fed to her through earphones concealed in her wigs—have been repudiated.
Gross and stupid as the whole thing is, it's also good-natured in a freakshow way, and…well, you have to give West credit for trying, anyway.
I'm sure Mae West didn't set out to make a terrible movie. I'm sure she just figured everyone would have a good time watching her climb up on her six-inch heels one more time and repeat classic punch lines the way she'd been doing on talk shows, variety shows, in personal appearances, and whatever she'd been up to since VJ Day. I don't know if she miscalculated her enduring allure or expected the hailstorm of huzzahs that greeted Sextette.
Like a train wreck with sequins, Sextette is a shiny, appalling mess that you can barely take your eyes off. Scorpion's release does this all right by this turgid gem, and bad movie aficionados should get ready to uncork some muscatel. But be warned: goodness has nothing to do with this one.
Films don't get much guiltier.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Scorpion Releasing
Review content copyright © 2011 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.