Comebacks are never easy. Usually, you need a perfect storm of situations - right project, right time, right talent, right reasons - to make your reintroduction to the public work. In fact, examples of the successful reinvention of one's media self are so few and far between that it's easier to discuss the disgraces than to pinpoint the wins - and no fall was bigger than Mae West's 1978 affront to film fans everywhere, Sextette. After spending the '30s and '40s as America's foremost middle aged sex kitten, and the '50s and '60s parlaying her camp value into a Las Vegas revue and a novelty record act, there was no room in the post-counterculture for this early Golden Era vamp. Now in her 80s, West was worn, unwelcome, and plastic surgeried beyond recognition. Still, someone thought she was capable of being a sexual icon again. So Crown International Pictures took the plunge and Sextette was (still)born. An affront to both entertainment and the legitimate legacy West carved out for herself, everything about this movie is awful. As camp, it's crap. As cautionary example, it's exasperating. And as a career jumpstart for a forgotten feminist icon, it's fatal.
Marlo Manners (think Marilyn Monroe had she lived to be 90 and buried her head in Botox) has just gotten married to her sixth husband (thus the title). He is Sir Michael Barrington (Timothy Dalton - yes, THAT Timothy Dalton) and he is a wealthy British nobleman with a penchant to putting his well educated foot directly in between his stiff upper lips. As they prepare to honeymoon in a fancy English hotel, Marlo is facing a career crisis. She is about to star in a new film and her personal assistant/manager (Dom DeLuise) needs her to meet with her costume designer (Keith Moon) and director (Ringo Starr) ASAP. In addition, hubby number five, a glorified gangster named Vance Norton (George Hamilton) claims to still be married to Marlo. And to make matters worse, the American Athletic Team is staying at the same hotel, offering our aging superstar some unnecessary muscled diversion. But the real kicker is that Marlo's Russian Ambassador ex (Tony Curtis) is also at the resort, and won't agree to a new world peace treaty without one last night with...you know who.
In a world she once ruled, Mae West deserved a helluva lot better. Instead of being swept aside as some antiquated casualty of the Hayes Code and Hollywood's protean Puritanism, she should have been celebrated as a brave ground breaker who pushed boundaries that shouldn't have existed in the first place. When she couldn't find work, she created it for herself. When she was ridiculed as a scandal and called out on controversy, she embraced the imbroglio and turned it back on those demanding reform. By the '50s, she had been surpassed by bubble headed versions of her curvaceous carnality and few were dismissing her outright. But for some reason, her refusal to go gentle into that good career night made enemies out of her once adoring public. By the time she was croaking through hackneyed versions of Beatles' tunes, she had gone from legitimate legend to laughing stock. Sextette just made matters 1000% worse. An adaptation of her own Broadway musical, it's a innuendo laced farce that doesn't work as comedy, come-on, or contemporary commentary. Instead, it's such a throwback, so lost in a Jokes from the John level of wit that the only ones giggling here will be eighty, or eight.
The biggest problem facing this fraud is West herself. Frankly, no one who looks this bad needs to be in a major motion picture. Her face is pulled back in a desperate death mask and her rasping, he-man voice makes Lucille Ball's post-Marlboro brogue sound like Minnie Riperton. Even worse, West looks and acts frail. He movements are extremely limited, she can barely walk, and it's clear that director Ken Hughes had to work around these obvious obstructions time and time again. During big production numbers, West stands center stage and does...nothing. Similarly, when she's trying to seduce a co-star (Dalton, Curtis, some random muscle man) the only thing moving is her mouth. During the sequence with Keith Moon, Marlo must show off several costume changes. The editing indicates that West's barrel body form was merely shoved into a series of unflattering evening gowns and then filmed for a quick glimpse of gangrenous glamour. If a star is supposed to be the center of a cinematic universe, hired to sell both the premise and the process with equal agility, West couldn't be a worse choice. She is not engaging or amusing. She's inert.
The rest of the movie doesn't help. Dalton tries his best, but the script keeps him busy with a pointless "is he or is he not gay" angle that's as old as dinosaur dung. Similarly, Moon and Starr are there for shock value, little else. Curtis seems to be channeling an insane and ADD-addled Rudolph Valentino while Hamilton is all tan and attitude. Only DeLuise recognizes the reek coming off this tainted turkey and walks a fine line between 'tongue in cheek' and 'head up ass'. He gets a solo dance number that makes his work in Blazing Saddles and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas look like the second coming of Gene Kelly - and it's the best thing in Sextette. Not even the last minute appearance of Alice Cooper, playing a button down waiter in a white outfit, singing a sloppy Van "The Hustle" McCoy original, can save things. The shock rock god is doing DISCO for God's sake!!! From the moment it was decided to revive West's film career with this worthless oddity, the heavens clearly conspired against it. Everything is off kilter (and in the case of the singing, off key). The performances are pathetic and the direction so journeymen that current Hollywood hacks use it as an instructional video. Sextette stinks. It sank, instead of saved, whatever was left of West's cinematic goodwill.
Offered for the first time on DVD in a widescreen anamorphic transfer, Sextette looks...well, it looks slightly above average. The colors have faded and there is so much soft focus on West that the amount of detail is severely diminished. Still, this looks better than a billion VHS knockoffs and the overall feel is one of a specifically framed and filmed vanity project for a definitely aging has-been. No amount of remastering could salvage the stupefyingly bad decisions made here.
Dolby Digital Stereo - probably nothing more than Mono double channeled - has never sounded so flat and tinny. Whenever the musical score jumps in, the mix feels compressed and lifeless. Add in the often atrocious singing, the frequently mumbled dialogue, and the lack of realistic spatial ambience and you've got a movie that sounds like it's been shuttled through a TV speaker circa 1968.
Aside from a nice featurette discussing the musical aspects of the release, there is only a trailer available. Too bad some 'Worst Film' historian couldn't have stepped in and given this movie the drubbing it deserved.
As a head scratcher, Sextette will cause a massive abyss at the back of your skull. As a jaw dropper, you'll be scouring the floor for days looking for that misplaced mandible. Nothing can quite compare to watching an 80 something make suggestive cow eyes to a group of actors who clearly don't want to return the favor. It's more disconcerting that a surgeon sewing people ass to mouth or a group of Jackass rejects wearing fright masks and fake fornicating with the local dumpster population. Earning an easy Skip It, this is a movie for cinematic sadists only. It is a creepy curio, something guaranteed to give your bad movie mojo the heebie jeebies. Mae West was once a mythic figure in fabled Tinseltown. By the time she made this mess, one thing is clear - the industry that once embraced her was more than happy to see her fail. With Sextette, she did so in less than spectacular fashion.