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I remember fans that would see certain movies the first day they came out, not because they were good or popular but because the buzz about them around the college or studio was so bad. The idea was to see the movie right away, as it might play only for a day or two, after which the producers might throw the negative and all prints into a landfill. I know people who rushed out to see An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn on its first weekend, and almost missed it. I passed up an expedition with a group of friends to see Exorcist II: The Heretic -- we had heard that a reportedly awful first cut was going to be permanently replaced by a new version in just a few days. I think I had the last laugh on that one, because the original cut eventually surfaced (I still didn't want to see it).
1978's Sextette didn't vanish from screens or disappear, but it pretty much takes the cake for outlandish awfulness. Although not part of the disco craze of the late '70s, beyond perverse curiosity its major fan base will be gays on the prowl for camp humor, of which there is plenty. To put it mildly, the picture is grotesque in the extreme. It's a vanity production for the legendary Mae West, loosely based on one of her old stage plays. At least, it could be a vanity production, as it seems possible that the legendary star was maneuvered into the picture without realizing that the main joke on screen would be HER. Extremely old film stars attempting miracle comebacks aren't all that common. Gloria Swanson was barely 50 for Sunset Blvd., but Mae West in Sextette is 87, and by no means a well-preserved 87. The mostly stands or sits in one place and recites her dialogue -- usually to the camera, not the other actors. She doesn't seem to be all there, at least not all the time.
About every ten minutes or so we're confronted with a poorly arranged and staged musical number. They're excruciating, gawd-awful, add your own pejorative descriptor. Two or three of are accompanied by a dancing chorus doing lifeless routines. They look like the fake rehearsal numbers between the real numbers in old musicals, the dances that aren't supposed to look good. The song playlist would choke Liberace: Hooray for Hollywood, Sweet 16, Baby Face, Love Will Keep Us Together and a truly hideous turn with The Beatles' Honey Pie. Somebody paid for all those music rights! Mae's limp duet with her co-star Timothy Dalton is just appalling. Clearly nobody intended these interludes to actually be good, which sort of goes against the grain of true camp -- manufactured "bad" doesn't always hack it.
The episodic story is built around a "wild times in the Honeymoon Hotel" theme. Movie star Marlo Manners (West) and her new husband Sir Michael Barrington (Dalton) check into a ritzy London bridal suite. They can't consummate their passions because hotel manager / studio flack / C.I.A. connection Dan Turner (Dom DeLuise) interrupts the honeymoon with various tasks for Marlo to perform. Marlo tries on costumes for a swishy designer (Keith Moon of The Who, very good) and rehearses a love scene for director Laslo Karolny (Ringo Starr, college try). Dan explains that Marlo has a history of helping out the State Department. As a service to Uncle Sam, she takes time out to tear a pheasant with Russian lothario "Sexy Alexei" Karansky (Tony Curtis, medium rare), who is attending a summit meeting in the hotel. While Sir Michael is kept busy defending his heterosexual status with gossip columnist Rona Barrett (herself), sportscaster Gil Stratton (himself) and Regis Philbin (himself), Marlo must fend off a previous husband that she may still be married to, gangster Vance Norton (George Hamilton). Tepid subplots include a Deep Throat-like spy in the elevator and a cassette of Marlo's notorious memoirs that must be recovered. Marlo does an obligatory musical visit with a pack of oiled Olympic musclemen in the Gym (a fixture of her old Las Vegas stage show). Her taped memoirs help bring peace to a conference of world leaders being held in the hotel.
Sextette enlists the help of a lot of talented actors, some of whom actually do well under the circumstances. Dom DeLuise is the glue that holds everything together, and comes out looking good no matter what horrible jokes they give him. He gives his solo song Honey Pie his best shot, and thus survives the filmic disaster with a full skin. Everybody else must stretch their professional skills to keep from looking embarrassed. Timothy Dalton had a bad habit of choosing awful movies (see Brenda Starr sometime) and frequently looks uneasy. Tony Curtis, George Hamilton and Ringo Starr would apparently take any movie that came along, and semi-cameo celebs George Raft and Walter Pidgeon seem to be there for old times' sake. From left field come Alice Cooper (a piano-playing waiter) and Keith Moon, both of whom must have taken the movie for the fun of being in something so deliciously awful. Cooper just looks strange outside of his stage glam act, while nutzoid drummer Keith Moon is excellent as the gay costume designer who assures Marlo that all of her dresses are fine because he's personally tried them all on.
Mae is at the center of all this, but even though she can deliver her lines, she's clearly not all there. We've been told various stories about how disoriented / incapacitated she was on the set, everything from experiencing just a few vision difficulties to resembling the peroxided walking dead. Mae recites a number of her standard come-on punch lines (they fall flat) while doing a palsied version of her traditional hip-swinging walk. Some new material is wince inducing:
(entering bridal suite with Marlo):
"I feel like the first man who landed on the Moon".
"In a few minutes you're gonna be the first man to land on Venus!"
"Marlo Manners" is supposed to be the most attractive, sexiest woman alive. What does the 87 year-old Mae look like? To be honest, mummified. Or pickled. Not nearly so good as the two photos I found for this review. In most shots her features resemble Mr. Potato Head accessories pinned into a shapeless pink blob. I'm not exaggerating. What little figure her body retains seems enforced by some kind of neck-to-ankles corset thing. West can't sit or bend naturally. She does walk and sing during the songs, but everyone seems to be on their guard, as if their star might topple over at any moment. The camera keeps its distance, and uses some kind of gentle diffusion. Half of the time, Mae's role could have been played by a nearly motionless mannequin. She was a smart lady, and one capable of initiating a show like this. But we wonder how together she was by the time the actual filming rolled around ... she seems only semi-functional.
Rated PG, Sextette is the kind of spectacle that the word travesty was coined to describe. An absolutely worthless piece of Hollywood junk, it's also the sort of spectacle that might entertain the crowd that dotes on other kinds of train-wreck movies and celebrity shame-fests. Does being drunk or high help?
Scorpion Releasing's DVD of Sextette is a very good enhanced encoding of this nearly indescribable calamity of a motion picture. The audio is also clear for all those awful songs and dances. The generous Scorpion folk tack on a couple of useful extras. Musician Ian Whitcomb worked with West on stage and delivers a few minutes of memories, gossip and weird anecdotes. Writer Dennis Dermody's text essay about the awfulness of Sextette includes a quote from Vincent Canby's appallingly hurtful review, where he compares West in Sextette to a sheep that has been strapped up to stand on its hind legs. The disc finishes off with an original trailer, which cannot hide (or is perhaps proud to display?) the film's spectacular grotesqueness. Sextette is sure to nab viewers eager to witness with their own eyes, just how bad "bad" can get.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.