The Mae in Madonna

Anthony, a historian, is the author of the two-volume, "First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents' Wives & Their Power, 1789-1990" (Morrow, 1991). He is preparing a documentary tribute to Mae West

More petite than she seems, the thirtysomething, blue-eyed, bottle-blonde actress/singer/dancer quite intentionally scandalizes the public with one word. Sex.

The rather astounding similarities between Madonna, whose film “Body of Evidence” opens Friday, on the heels of her best-selling book “Sex” and less successful album, “Erotica,” and Mae West, whose first undertaking as a writer was the 1926 play “Sex,” go beyond mere genius for self-publicity.

In “Body of Evidence,” Madonna does everything from playing out masturbatory acts to doing Willem Dafoe on the hood of a car. While there are few parts of Madonna’s body that the universe has not seen, the closest Mae West came to simulating sex was orgasmic moaning as she rubbed her thighs together--always hidden beneath her hourglass dress. But that was in the early 1930s, when West was censored for even suggesting that genitalia existed. The times forced West’s sexual explicitness to assume a subtler guise, but it is her insistent message of sexual equality that is the timeless blueprint, and one which Madonna unfurls time and again.

In “Body of Evidence,” as in “Dick Tracy,” “Desperately Seeking Susan,” even “A League of Their Own,” in writing “Sex,” in her videos and television interviews, as singer, actress, writer and dancer, Madonna plays different characters in the same characterization--a woman who gets what she wants. West built her life around the very same technique. If neither woman won an Oscar, neither did they ever relinquish their point.

Both women’s statements on sex are complex, but even in the most seemingly superficial way, the parallel is apparent. Madonna, for example, has often defended her explicitness about sex as being far healthier for society than the repression of it, particularly in the frank era of AIDS. In a letter to Alfred Kinsey, the author of landmark reports on human sexuality in the late 1940s and early 1950s, West went on like the great liberator--with a wise word about safe sex thrown in: “The more we are prepared to accept sex in our lives without a distorting sense of guilt and fear, the less tragic will be any of its consequences. (But) I would be the last one to encourage uncontrolled sexual activity. . . .”


The two’s techniques for promoting their notions--and themselves--is no more apparent than in “Sex,” both of theirs.

Madonna, under the guise of “good-time girl” character “Dita Parlo,” wrote of her sexual fantasies. West, under the guise of “Jane Mast,” wrote of (and of course, starred as) “Margie LaMonte,” a waterfront-working, gold-hearted floozy. In Madonna’s “Sex,” there is a cast of characters photographed in various sexual encounters. In West’s, “A world of ruthless, evil-minded, foul-mouthed crooks, harlots, procurers, and other degenerate members of that particular zone of society” romp in “an exhibition of complete frankness.”

Reviewers have called Madonna’s “Sex” “flip,” “hard-core,” “pornographic,” “disturbing,” “libertine sexuality.” West’s “Sex” was deemed “depraved,” “disgusting” and “vulgar,” relying “on its sensationalism to cash in.” The New York Times said West “has broken the fetters and does as she pleases here,” and the Herald Tribune noted: “All the barriers of conventional word and act . . . were swept away and we were shown not sex but lust--stark, naked lust.”

Madonna’s “Sex” was perhaps the first over-the-counter book sold under-the-counter, swathed in unrippable Mylar with warning label, some stores feeding the curiosity about it with small yellow pre-order forms. West said her “Sex” was a hit because of “mouth-to-mouth advertising,” but she doggedly made certain that all of New York was aware of her play, even having ads placed on city taxicabs with the slogan, “HEATED--MAE WEST IN SEX--Daly’s 63rd Street Theater.” She had her “snipers” (go-fers) paste up posters throughout the five boroughs on every available flat surface. West would long boast proudly that newspapers, including the New York Times, would only advertise it as “Mae West in that certain play.”

The more the play was condemned, the more difficult it became to get a ticket.

“When the newspapers refused my advertisin’, they gave me headlines about my havin’ my nerve producin’ such a play,” West said in a March, 1934, interview with Movie Classic magazine. “I couldn’t’ve bought that space for any amount of money. That sent my prices up and packed ‘em in. When you tell people a play is naughty, they rush to see it. I can’t help that, can I?”

West’s legendary characterizations developed during “Sex.” To add dramatic height to her small stature, she had begun wearing elevator shoes, sauntering haltingly to avoid falling, and keeping one hand at her nape, the other on her grinding hip to balance her vast picture hats. But it was her calculated use of the shock caused by “Sex” that thrust her into national headlines. She knew that “Sex” would “bring down the howl of the too pious,” and provoke “publicity-seeking blue-noses.” With New York City’s playboy Mayor Jimmy Walker on a Cuban vacation, Acting Mayor Joseph V. (Holy Joe) McKee led a crusade on “sex plays.” Anticipating her arrest, on Feb. 9, 1927, during the play’s 42nd week, West was escorted from the stage to the paddy wagon.

More striking, however, than their mutual marketing skills, or the fact that the two astrology adherents were born a day apart--Madonna on Aug.16, Mae West on Aug. 17--is their goal of sexual equality for women by blurring the gender line. West once explained, “I freely chose the kind of life I led because I was convinced that a woman has as much right as a man to live the way she does . . . I saw that men could do everything they wanted sexually . . . If a woman took one false step, she was ruined forever. I decided this was nonsense . . . I would not conform to the limits ‘they’ had set on a woman’s freedom of action, or the myth of a woman’s need for male wisdom and protection. . . .”

Or as Madonna has said in an interview, “I think for the most part men have always been the aggressors sexually. Through time immemorial they’ve always been in control. So I think sex is equated with power . . . it’s scary for men that women should have that power and be sexy at the same time . . . I was in control of everything I was doing, and I think when people realized that, it confused them.”

Research shows just how close the two really are: a rigid Catholic upbringing, their mothers’ deaths as the single greatest trauma, the battles with their fathers about the nature of their work, the one failed marriage early in life to a fellow actor, single-minded determination to become famous, popularizing dances they first saw in nightclubs (West did the “Shimmy,” Madonna “Vogue”), use of half-naked men in stage performances, keen business savvy making them extraordinarily wealthy, setting fashion trends in costumes by leading designers (West had Schiaparelli, Madonna has Gaultier, among others), the obsessions with health food and exercise, decorating in white, and being surrounded by usually gay, often Latin musclemen.

There is even a curious Puritanism about others being confrontational. West pronounced the script and actors in “The Captive"--a Broadway play about lesbianism raided the same night as “Sex"--as “foul” and “repulsive.” Madonna admonished Sinead O’Connor for publicly tearing up a picture of the Pope.

Liberated from sexual dogma, they pioneer sexual themes. After “Sex,” West birthed a string of 1920s plays about homosexuality, white slavery, interracial sexual relations, commercial exploitation of women as sex objects, rape and her response to it, castration. It was all very intense, but always leavened with West’s wit. Ultimately, both women’s work sexually confronts audiences, and their drive to achieve the same public reaction to that message often results in censorship or threats of it. Madonna’s video “Erotica” was pared down by four minutes on its BBC broadcast. MTV placed it off prime-time. As her post-Broadway Hollywood career boomed, West found her scripts sanitized by the studio. Her sexual-comedic take on Eve in the Bible story during a Sunday radio show not only had her banned from radio, but eroded her star. Rediscovered as a icon during the sexual revolution of the late ‘60s, she sniffed, “I distinctly loathe suppression.”

No doubt much of the MTV generation’s discovery of Marilyn Monroe, who died in 1962, stems from Madonna’s interest in her, but their resemblance ends with hair color. Monroe--whom West accused of “copying me"--was a victim, and Madonna’s incarnation of her is more Mae West slipped into a Marilyn Monroe veneer. Madonna, again like West, uses double-entendres, a flippant humor edged with often angry irony. Her quip that the difference between her and Monroe (“I’m alive and she’s dead,”) has less to do with the latter being deceased, and more to do with the former rejecting the idea of woman as victim. “Brains,” said West, “are an asset to the girl who’s smart enough to hide them.”

It may be easier and more amusing to think of West and Madonna as celebrities than as sociological figures, but it is a glib assumption neither has been flattered by. As West put it, “In my long and colorful career, one thing stands out. I have been misunderstood.” Or, as Madonna told Vanity Fair last autumn, “I think I’ve been terribly misunderstood because sex is the subject matter I so often deal with.”