Monday, December 19, 2011

Sextette (1978)

          If there’s one scene that epitomizes the spellbinding strangeness of Sextette, a big-budget musical comedy that’s both tone-deaf and completely unfunny, it’s an extended romantic duet between the heroine and the younger man she just married. The leading lady is none other than Mae West, the notorious actress/writer who first achieved fame in the 1920s for scandalous stage shows. The bridegroom is played by Englishman Timothy Dalton, a decade before his brief run as 007. At the time, West was 84 and Dalton was 32, yet the scene features the actors sharing vocal chores (and they are chores, since neither can sing) on a lifeless, quasi-disco version of the Captain and Tennille hit “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
          Dalton’s a slim young man wearing an elegant tux, and West is an overweight senior hidden behind gallons of makeup, acres of Edith Head-designed sequined costuming, and a haze filter thick enough to trigger a smog alert. At the most ludicrous moment of this sequence, Dalton sings the laughably re-written lyric, “Young and beautiful, your looks will never be gone.” The camera then cuts to a close-up (shot from about 20 feet away) of West writhing seductively, her looks very much gone.
          And that’s pretty much the tone of this whole excruciating picture, which features an old-fashioned lark of a plot about legions of men lusting after West’s character, Marlo Manners. Marlo is a Hollywood movie star who just married her sixth husband, Great Britain’s Lord Barrington (Dalton). Their honeymoon is being celebrated by the public and documented by the media as a major event, but before the duo can (shudder) consummate their union, Marlo’s agent (Dom DeLuise) says the U.S. government wants Marlo to seduce a foreign leader (Tony Curtis) into cooperating with an international peace initiative. Meanwhile, Marlo’s fifth husband, gangster Vance Norton (George Hamilton), has resurfaced despite everyone believing him dead, and he’s intent on reclaiming Marlo’s hand.
          Also thrown into the mix are a fey fashion designer (played by The Who drummer Keith Moon), an imperious Russian film director (played by Beatles drummer Ringo Starr), real-life broadcasters Rona Barrett and Regis Philbin (as themselves), and cameo players Walter Pidgeon and George Raft. Oh, and shock-rocker Alice Cooper shows up at the end, without his trademark ghoul make-up, to (quite effectively) croon a number as a singing waiter.
          This whole mess is based upon the last play West wrote, also called Sextette, and because the play opened in 1961, questions of “why” are unavoidable. Why was a film adaptation deemed necessary almost 20 years after the play opened? Why was a West comeback deemed necessary, more than 30 years after her last starring role in a movie? And why the hell didn’t anyone realize how wrong all of this was? Answers to these puzzlers are lost to the ages, so we’re merely left with a cinematic curio. Sextette is filled with images that would be innocuous in other circumstances but are mind-warpingly bizarre given West’s advanced age: a roomful of bodybuilders flexing their muscles to curry West’s favor; a roomful of diplomats (including a stand-in for then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter) singing and dancing as West holds them in her thrall; West cooing sexual puns as she lounges in bed and drives men like Curtis, Dalton, and Hamilton to erotic distraction.
          West’s performance is abysmal, since she tries to mimic the sass of bygone days without acknowledging the passage of time; the poor woman looks close to toppling when she tries to shimmy in tight dresses. About the only good thing one can say about Sextette is that even though much of the dialogue recycles past favorites (“Why don’t you come up and see me sometime,” and so on), West had not completely lost her flair for penning ribald one-liners, like this zinger: “I’m the girl who works for Paramount all day, and Fox all night.”

Sextette: FREAKY

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