SEXTETTE (1978) – The reputation of Mae West goes south


Forgive my sacrilege, but as much as I enjoy 1930’s movies, Mae West has never done anything for me. IMHO, she’s the Madonna of the Depression era: Her act is so much about sex that I don’t find it the least bit sexy.

However, there were obviously millions of moviegoers who did. Unfortunately, almost none of those fans followed her into the late 1970’s when, at 84 years of age and two-and-a-half years before her death, she tried to reprise all of her old shtick in a jaw-dropping movie titled Sextette.

West (who wrote a play on which the screenplay is based) plays Marlo Manners, a famous movie sex symbol who is in London to get married for the sixth time, to Sir Michael Barrington (Timothy Dalton). However, we find out that Manners has also been called upon in the past to use her sex appeal undercover (ho-ho) in matters of international diplomacy, and her manager (Dom DeLuise) keeps pulling Manners away from her honeymoon so that she can again help to negotiate, er, world peace.

There is certainly some brilliant acting in this movie — and it’s all done by the thousands of extras who flood city streets and huge lobbies to convince us that they can’t wait to see Marlo in the flesh and hang on her every word. Every time West utters one of her tired double-entendres (some of which are actually reprised from her classic ’30s movies), the crowd roars as though they’ve just heard a priceless bon mot, much like similar movie extras were hired to laugh at Jerry Lewis’ tired antics in Hardly Working three years later.

The movie’s production value is almost zilch. The entire movie is brightly and flatly lit and ends up looking and playing like an extended episode of “The Love Boat.” And the movie’s half-hearted attempt to pass itself off as a musical is pitiable, from a blah performance of “Hooray for Hollywood” (performed in the lobby of a London hotel) to West and Dalton doing a what-were-they-thinking cover of The Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” (Throughout the song, West mutters the “Whatever” in the song’s chorus as though she’s giving us her critique of the movie.)

Based on the movie’s premise alone, there’s no way that any of the performers can come off credibly. It would be hard enough for Timothy Dalton (then a half-century-and-change younger than West) to convince us that he’s madly in love with her, but it doesn’t help that the couple never exchange a single kiss in the movie.

After that, all you can do is rate the other actors on how much they give up on the movie’s hopeless plot and just go for big yoks. Probably the worst is Tony Curtis, whose entire characterization is a fake Russian accent. As, respectively, Marlo’s costume designer and one of her ex-husbands, rockers Keith Moon and Ringo Starr garner a few good chuckles. But the movie’s saving grace is Dom DeLuise as Marlo’s alternately harried and pushy manager. DeLuise imbues the movie with so much comic energy, it makes West look even more aged and arthritic. (It must be said, though, that the movie’s absolute nadir is DeLuise tap-dancing atop a piano and singing the Beatles song “Honey Pie.”)

Based on the above debits, one can only conclude that Mae West thought she was still so charismatic that she alone could carry the movie and make the audience overlook the film’s many defaults. Obviously, no one on the set had the heart or nerve to tell her that it wasn’t 1934 anymore.