Pretty Hate Machine: 'Sextette'
It's the kind of jaw droppingly bad experiment in misguided moviemaking that makes you run to the comforting cover of the Village People's Can't Stop the Music or Menaham Golan's sci-fi musical religious allegory The Apple.
Director: Ken Hughes
Cast: Mae West, Timothy Dalton, Keith Moon, Ringo Starr, Alice Cooper, Dom DeLuise, George Hamilton
Studio: Scorpion Releasing
US date: 2011-04-19 (General release)
Mae West definitely deserved better. A camp fixture for most of the '60s and '70s, she had taken her career as controversial early talky "bad" girl and transformed it into a combination of gay icon, culture curio, feminist fixture, and in her mind, still sizzling sex kitten. Never mind the fact that she was starring in vaudeville in 1907, and that the majority of her fame was achieved in the early '30s (when she was nearly 40). West was an institution, an example of a boundary pushing beauty that wasn't afraid to flaunt what proper society (and its so-called moral watchdogs ) thought was perverse.
West was more than just her measurements and her ferocious frankness. She was a keen marketer, creating projects for herself when none were available or even being offered. She took her talents to Broadway, to regional theater, she toured the country with her revue, and kept her soon to be celebrated vulgarity as a topic of publicity rag reality. By the time the '40s rolled around, she was mostly forgotten, and during the '50s, her mantle was moved over to figures more formidable, such as Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield. Yet via radio or Las Vegas revival, West still kept her star. It may have dimmed a bit, but it certainly still held some show business sway.
But by 1978, West was an 84 year old plastic surgery disaster who had trouble memorizing lines and walking without assistance. Her days as a rock and roll novelty act were long gone (she recorded a couple of "hit" albums during the '60s) and she hoped to jumpstart a late in life renaissance with the help of a new film. Through backroom deals, or black magic (at least one of the two) she got Crown International Pictures to back an update of her last stage play, 1961's Sextet. Relabeled Sextette for the silver screen, it was a throwback farce which saw West playing a newlywed (?) Hollywood honeypot (?) dodging reporters and the prying eyes of gossip columnists while trying to save the world (?) and prepare for her next big starring role (?). You read that right.
Now available on DVD for the first time in full blown anamorphic widescreen, Sextette suggests that, by the middle of the Me Decade, someone had it in for West. It couldn't possibly be that the star's struggling ego was so big and her demands so irrefutable that no one could say "HELL NO!" to her, could it? The movie, which tries to hide the fact that the romantic female lead is a stumbling octogenarian deals with horrifically cliched comedic ideals, the lamest of double entendres, the most bizarre and surreal supporting cast in the history of hack Hollywood, and on top of all that, a selection of musical numbers that make the rejects from the American Idol auditions look like members of the Metropolitan Opera Company.
West is Marlo Manners, recently wed to British playboy nobleman Sir Michael Barrington (Timothy Dalton... YES, THAT Timothy Dalton). While her personal assistant (Dom DeLuise) tries to work out the arrangements for her next film with her costume designer (Keith Moon... YES...oh, forget it) and her director (Ringo Starr), her new husband learns several salacious fact. First, he is not Marlo's first husband but her sixth (thus, the title). She has previously been with, among others, a noted gangster (George Hamilton) and a high ranking Russian official (Tony Curtis). In fact, Moscow's main man is so smitten with Marlo that he will not agree to an international peace treaty unless his former fling agrees to have one last night of romance with him. For duty and her country, our heroine says "Yes," all while Sir Michael defends himself against charges that he is gay.
Are you laughing yet? Should this review wait until you catch your breath and massage the pain away from your doubled over sides? Perhaps if we add in the boy toy United States Athletic Team, a cassette tape filled with Marlo's sauciest secrets, and a last minute appearance by Alice Cooper as a disco singing waiter, that will win you over? No? Well, no matter. Sextette still exists, sullying a reputation that didn't necessarily need such slanderous denigration. It's the kind of jaw droppingly bad experiment in misguided moviemaking that makes you run to the comforting cover of the Village People's Can't Stop the Music or Menaham Golan's sci-fi musical religious allegory The Apple. To call it an affront gives it an implied power it definitely lacks. To somehow spin the experience over into something akin to likeable questions your very sanity.
As a starlet, as the lead in what is otherwise a fairly high budget affair, West is worthless. Her face is a frozen mask of bad doctor decisions, her once curvaceous figure forced into what resembles the evening gown version of barrel covers. Her inability to walk (she will take a few short steps before the camera cuts away) is only matched by her lack of comedic timing and basic dialogue skills. It's as if someone is feeding her the lines and she goes along with whatever is being whispered. What's most disturbing, however, is her continued reliance on the obvious come-on and sledgehammer sexual innuendo to define most if not all of her character. Every conversation has Marlo saying something about getting satisfied, and when it comes out of the aging mouth of a so restricted it's sad ex-star, the experience is all the more depressing. At her age, she should know and acknowledge better.
Not that the supporting cast helps matter much. DeLuise is the only actor who seems to know that Sextette can and will never work. So he does his best to play it from both sides of the situation - serious and solidly tongue in tushy. As for the rest? Dalton is a dull straight man, Moon is all rock ham, Starr barely makes an impression, and Curtis is so creepy and over the top that you'd swear he was actually 'living' the experience of seducing West. And then Cooper shows up to scare us right back into our stunned sense of disbelief. For his part, director Ken Hughes clearly pissed someone off during his journeymen tenure behind the lens. Maybe it was his work on the original Casino Royale, or oddball kiddie film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that doomed him to such a situation. Toss in the terrible songs (mostly standards from the '30s and '40s, with a couple of Van "The Hustle" McCoy originals thrown in to really mess with your mind) and you've got a career killer.
Luckily, there wasn't much left of West's profession to protect. She lived to see Sextette released and tank, and then spent her remaining few years in quasi-isolation. Along with her musclemen companions and personal aids, she played queen to a kingdom of one - herself. Even with all the smart business moves she made during her life, the clamor for continuing recognition resulted in one of her biggest bombs ever. Mae West could have easily left the limelight in the early '40s and faded away as a memorable mark on Hollywood hypocritical Puritanism. Instead, she made Sextette, and the rest as they say is WTF? history.