HBO bucked the general biopic trend of focusing on a subject’s early struggles this year with Behind the Candelabra, which explored the last years of Liberace’s life. Now the studio will do the same with a Mae West film, with Bette Midler playing the 1930s star.
West was a brazen playwright and Broadway performer before she became a film actress and screenwriter. Her stage productions were risque for the time — a popular play called Sex that she wrote, directed, produced, and starred in ultimately led to a 10-day prison sentence for “corrupting the morals of youth.” (She served eight days, and boasted later that she wore silk underwear panties the whole time.)
Soon after her stint in jail, Hollywood came courting. Thus West became a movie star just short of her fortieth birthday. In films like She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel, she was a bewitching bombshell and the comic highlight of her scenes — the result of West’s rewriting of the roles she played. Her wits garnered her fans, but it was her combination of sexy, funny, and mischievous that made her a legend in just a few short years on the big screen.
A biopic of West, then, is long overdue. And Midler bears some physical resemblance to the black-and-white star, as well as a similar stage-to-screen-to-stage career trajectory, as Deadline notes. But Midler’s 68, which means that the film will mostly likely focus on West’s later years when she was seen as more of a “camp joke,” as media scholar Anne Helen Petersen put it, than as the classic Hollywood version of women like Sarah Silverman or Chelsea Handler — comedians who use their beauty and sexuality as part of their humor.
It’s not that older women can’t be sexy. It’s just that the film, by casting a person like Bette Midler whom most likely won’t be relegated to just the latter years, seems that it will perpetuate the industry’s insistence on putting women into discrete boxes — funny OR sexy — as if we couldn’t be both.