Posted March 20, 2013 by Phil Hall in Retro Cinema

Retro Cinema – Sextette

Sextette Poster
Sextette Poster

In recent years, societal attitudes towards aging have changed dramatically – due in large part to a shift in demographics that pushed the Baby Boomers into the realm to the senior citizens. As a result, elderly stars ranging from Clint Eastwood to Betty White are no longer viewed as candidates for the old folks home, but as vibrant and cutting-edge.

However, attitudes towards the golden age crowd were somewhat different back in the late 1970s, which certainly explains the backlash over 84-year-old Mae West vamping it up in her swan song flick, Sextette. Rather than viewing West as a funny and foxy, most critics worked overtime to find ways of cruelly describing her advanced years.

Granted, Sextette is a bad film. But it is a wonderfully bad film, played with such ferocious tongue-in-cheek camp that its inanity has a peculiar charm of its own. And at the center of its commotion is the octogenarian West, still creating the naughty mayhem that made her a movie superstar back in the 1930s.

Sextette finds West as Marlo Manners, the world’s most glamorous and desired Hollywood star. This is perhaps the film’s greatest joke, and its greatest weakness. West, admittedly, was far removed from her She Done Him Wrong prime. As Shock Cinema’s Steve Puchalski harshly observed, “She’s so heavily cosmetized that she looks like a Wax Museum reject; she sounds like someone Drano-ed her voice box; and she can barely move because her bones are so brittle.”

In an event, West’s character is on her honeymoon at a swanky hotel with her fifth husband, an English nobleman played by a pre-James Bond Timothy Dalton. His infatuation for her is so pronounced that they sing a duet of “Love Will Keep Us Together.” However, their honeymoon is interrupted by a U.S. government agent (Dom DeLuise), who recruits Marlo to infiltrate an international peace conference going on at the hotel.

If this isn’t enough, Marlo is also distracted by the demands of her latest film – her hot-tempered director (Ringo Starr) and flamboyant costume designer (Keith Moon) invade her suite. And the men of the U.S. Olympic Team are also in the hotel’s gym – a fact that Marlo exploits with an extended visit to a gym training sessions, where she admires the athletes’ muscles.

To its credit, Sextette tries to compensate for its lack of sophistication by serving up surplus amounts of zany comedy. Starr and Moon go overboard in their respective roles, and their overplaying is matched by Tony Curtis as a Soviet diplomat (complete with an absurd Moscow-on-the-Bronx-River accent) and George Hamilton as a Mafia gangster. The normally dapper Walter Pidgeon feigns vomiting in his role as a peace negotiator who is served a lunch plate of monkey brains, while a somewhat baffled George Raft wanders about. Disco star Van McCoy and television talk show fixtures Rona Barrett and Regis Philbin also turn up, while Alice Cooper (as a bellboy) serenades West with a zippy tune. (Cooper originally composed a sad romantic ballad, but West rejected the song because she felt no one would believe she would rue the loss of a lover.) And for sheer weirdness, nothing truly prepares the viewer for watching DeLuise sing the Beatles’ song “Honey Pie” while tap-dancing on a piano.

While the all-star cast tries to steal the show, West commands attention – if only for her value as an elusive commodity (outside of a small role in the 1970 flop Myra Breckinridge, she had not been in a film since 1943) and for the unlikely spectacle of watching an 84-year-old sex symbol purr out blatant innuendo. When Dalton enters their honeymoon suite by declaring, “I feel like the first man who landed on the Moon,” West wisecracks, “In a few minutes, you’re gonna be the first man to land on Venus!” Later, West brags about her star power by announcing, “I’m a girl who works at Paramount all day, and Fox at night!”

But there was a problem. Unlike the classic films in which West seemed to be ad-libbing her bawdy wisecracks, many of her line readings in Sextette seemed wobbly. Some of this could be attributed to age – her eyesight was weak and she was easily disoriented – but for the most part West was forced to recite her lines raw, with little or no rehearsal. Sextette was based on a 1961 play written by West, but director Ken Hughes scrapped most of the dialogue and required that a new script be created. Due to a rushed production, West was unable to learn the new script before shooting. As a result, she wore an earpiece (hidden in her blonde wig) in which Hughes fed her the dialogue.

West’s earpiece gave rise to a bizarre story from co-star Tony Curtis that the actress once accidentally picked up a police radio frequency through the earpiece and began repeating the dispatcher’s call while the camera rolled. However, Hughes vehemently denied that ever occurred.

The Sextette producers tried to gather support for their work through a series of publicized preview screenings in Los Angeles and San Francisco. West, who rarely made public appearances at this point in her life, gamely turned up and was ecstatic by the outpouring of love from devoted fans. Alas, it was not enough – no major distributor wanted the film, and Sextette had a scant release from the tiny Crown International Pictures before disappearing from view. The $7 million production was considered a major flop, though West decided to pursue another film project with a big screen adaptation of her 1944 Broadway play. However, she passed away in 1980, leaving Sextette as her unlikely final bow.

Phil Hall

Phil has written about cinema for the New York Times, New York Daily News, Hartford Courant, Wired Magazine, American Movie Classics Magazine, Tower Records Pulse! Magazine and the Organica Quarterly. He is the author of several books, including “Independent Film Distribution” and “The History of Independent Cinema.” Beyond film journalism, he is a former United Nations correspondent for Fairchild Broadcast News and a writer and editor for technology and financial publications.