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Mae West: Dirty Blonde

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First Major Documentary on Notorious Entertainment Icon Mae West World Premieres June 16 at 8/7c on PBS and pbs.org/maewest

Executive Produced by Bette Midler, American Masters — Mae West: Dirty Blonde features new interviews with Candice Bergen, Lady Bunny, Margaret Cho, Natasha Lyonne, Ringo Starr, Dita Von Teese and more

American Masters — Mae West: Dirty Blonde is the first major documentary film to explore Mae West’s life and career as she “climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong” to become a writer, performer and subversive agitator for social change. West achieved great acclaim in every entertainment medium that existed during her lifetime, spanning eight decades of the 20th century. A full-time actress at seven, a vaudevillian at 14, a dancing sensation at 25, a Broadway playwright at 33, a silver screen ingénue at 40, a Vegas nightclub act at 62, a recording artist at 73, a camp icon at 85 – West left no format unconquered. She possessed creative and economic powers unheard of for a female entertainer in the 1930s and still rare today. Though she was a comedian, West grappled with some of the more complex social issues of the 20th century, including race and class tensions, and imbued even her most salacious plotlines with commentary about gender conformity, societal restrictions and what she perceived as moral hypocrisy.

“I’ve loved Mae West since the moment I saw her sashay across the screen in Night After Night, a movie in which she stole everything but the cameras. She created a persona she completely believed in, and never wavered from publicly or privately. One of the funniest women who ever lived, she made fun of sex at a time when the word was never uttered in polite society, and wrote plays that were so scandalous, she was arrested and sent to jail.  A breath of fresh air on the Broadway stage, she singlehandedly saved Paramount Studios from bankruptcy, had legions of fans, and still does.  A woman who believed she was the equal of any man, if not their superior, she continues to inspire with her humor, her glamour, and her brassy, sassy ways,”  said executive producer Bette Midler.

Read on for more about these projects, and PBS’ summer-long celebration of female trailblazers here.

Photo: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Production Credits Print

American Masters – Mae West: Dirty Blonde is a production of THIRTEEN Productions LLC’s American Masters for WNET. Directed and produced by Sally Rosenthal and Julia Marchesi. Bette Midler and Michael Kantor are executive producers.

Underwriters Print

Major funding for American Masters – Mae West: Dirty Blonde is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Better Angels Society, Brice Brown, The Carson Family Charitable Trust, Leslie and Roslyn Goldstein Foundation, The Sandpiper Group, and Susan Lacy.

Major support for American Masters is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Rosalind P. Walter, Judith and Burton Resnick, Cheryl & Philip Milstein Family Foundation, The Vital Projects Fund, Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Seton J. Melvin, Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Ellen and James S. Marcus, and The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation.

Transcript Print

- Well, when I'm good, I've very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better.

(dramatic music) - I see a man in your life.

- What, only one?

- Mae West crafted this image.

She was a sexual gangster.

- You are a dangerous woman.

- Thanks.

- She had that walk in.

'I'm here, lads, take me or take me.'

- Are you in town for good?

- I expect to be here, but not for good.

(men laugh) - Mae West was a pioneer for all those wonderful women who dare to be sexy: Cher, Madonna, Rihanna, Beyonce.

- Haven't you ever met a man that could make you happy?

- Sure, lots of times.

- [Woman] She's a parody of unbridled male sexuality.

- Good night.

- [Woman] She's standing sexism on its head.

- To play the game, I have to be smart enough to play it their way.

- [Woman] She was 40 years old before she ever appeared in a movie.

- Goodness, what beautiful diamonds.

- Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.

- She waltzed in and said, 'I wrote it, 'and we're gonna shoot it like this, kid.'

- Surely, you don't mind my holding your hand.

- It ain't heavy, I can hold it myself.

- [Woman] She goes from being sent to jail for what she wants to say in 1926, to being the toast of Broadway in 1928, to being the highest-paid actress in America by the mid '30s.

- Young lady, are you trying to show contempt for this court?

- No, I'm doing my best to hide it.

- Nothing could intimidate her.

She was just not afraid to go out and poke a bear with a stick.

- Come up, I'll tell your fortune.

Ah, you can be had.

- Somebody like her becomes very dangerous to the status quo.

- I don't suppose you believe in marriage, do you?

- Only as last resort.

(dramatic music) - Any time you got nothing to do, lots of time to do it, come up.

(dramatic music)