NEW YORK — Before there was Cher or Madonna, Beyoncé or Rihanna, there was another savvy media star who unapologetically embraced her sex appeal and femininity.
That would be Mae West, the bawdy, witty, sex symbol of the 1930s who pioneered a path for modern women with guts and a nod and a wink.
“ Mae West: Dirty Blonde,” the first major documentary film on this cultural figure, makes its world premiere Tuesday on PBS, and attempts to look beyond West's famous gowns, curves and jewels.
“She really does belong in the pantheon of great, strong American women. She’s just been forgotten. So we wanted to shine a bit of a light on what she achieved,” said Sally Rosenthal, who co-directed and co-produced the film with Julia Marchesi.
The film, executive produced by Bette Midler, traces West's origins in vaudeville, her leap to Broadway as performer and playwright, her Hollywood debut as a sex symbol at age 40, and her last acts as Vegas nightclub star in her 60s and camp icon in her 80s.
It's a remarkable life: Despite having only a third grade education, West wrote her own plays and screenplays and rarely delegated any detail. She launched Cary Grant's career, was sentenced to prison and became the second highest paid person in the entire country, behind only William Randolph Hearst.
Many of her witticisms have been embraced, including ’When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better” and “Between two evils, I always choose the one I’ve never tried before.”
“She was this incredibly smart woman who had a message about power and sexuality and gender. And she found a way to get people to listen to her, and that was to make them laugh,” Marchesi said.
As the filmmakers peeled back layers to West, they discovered more than just a sex siren who was playing almost a parody of a sex siren. They found a woman embodying female empowerment who was giving subtle nods to lift up African Americans and the gay community.
West wrote the 1927 play “The Drag,” which dealt with homosexuality and cross-dressing, and later penned the movie “I’m No Angel,” in which her character sings, dances and gossips about men with several black maids, unheard of in 1933. She also insisted, over objections from the movie studio, that Duke Ellington and his band be hired for "It Ain’t No Sin.”
"She was no civil rights activist. She was not marching in the streets. This was the 1930s," Marchesi said. “But we do know that she was around a lot of black entertainers and musicians. And she does seem to have had a lot of respect for them and want to sort of prop them up in the industry.”
The documentary tries to get to the heart of West with observations from biographers, historians, friends, directors, her former manager and journalists. Stars like Candice Bergen, Lady Bunny, Margaret Cho, Natasha Lyonne, Ringo Starr, Dita Von Teese, Kathy Najimy and Mario Cantone add their insights, too
What emerges is a portrait of a woman who was incredibly savvy about marketing herself. When West was charged with obscenity in 1927 for her play “Sex,” she was sentenced to 10 days in prison but was offered the opportunity to pay a fine and be released immediately. Seeing the huge publicity value of the case, she demanded to be sent to prison.
“Mae’s example is about the sort of a woman who doesn’t experience shame or embarrassment, and she never, ever apologizes for who she is,” Marchesi said. “Women are always apologizing for everything all the time. She just didn’t care what anybody thought of her.”
The documentary is part of a summer slate by PBS' American Masters series to honor female trailblazers, which also includes a look at Toni Morrison and a one-hour special on pioneering female politicians from America’s past.
The Brooklyn-born West created her character — a blonde sex symbol who came from humble roots and earned success — and never really let that role go. Unlike contemporary stars, she played the same role until her death, even turning down parts — like “Sunset Boulevard” —because she didn’t think her audience would want to see her broken or weak.
In Vegas, she shared the stage with half-naked, oiled-up muscled men. They were the eye-candy — she had flipped the sexual script.
“She was pushing the envelope in so many different facets of society. But the one that still exists — the taboo that still exists — is that sexualized older woman that we’re still sort of all made uncomfortable by,” Marchesi said.
The filmmakers hope viewers will be spurred to enjoy a fresh look at West's films and really take a look at a woman being subversive in plain sight.
“One of the things that was just so astounding for us to discover was how much strategy and messaging there was underneath all of that,” Marchesi said. "I hope this will inspire people to go back and look at her movies because there’s a lot more there than just wisecracks."
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits