Long before Lady Gaga and Madonna, Bette, Cher and Liza, and even Gina, Judy and Jayne, gays worshipped Mae.
The life of the original buxom bombshell, the curvy and controversial actress Mae West is the subject of “Dirty Blonde,” the Claudia Shear play opening at Plaza Theater in Manalapan.
“It’s actually quite a treat,” said Margot Moreland, who first starred as West in a production at Gablestage in 2003. “I love her beyond love her. She gave me such confidence growing up because I was a chunky girl….’curvy and swervy.’ She was a pioneer.”
Known for her bawdy double entendres, West first achieved fame on the vaudeville stage in New York City before moving to Hollywood to become an actress and writer. Censors constantly threatened to pull her films, perhaps driving ticket sales and contributing to her iconic fame.
Long after her last film, she continued stage appearances in Las Vegas and was quoted as saying, “I believe in censorship, I made a fortune out of it.”
“Dirty Blonde” tells the story of Jo, an office temp and aspiring actress, and Charlie, who works in the New York Public Library's film archives. Both are lonely and obsessive West fans who meet at her grave and form a unique relationship while swapping stories about the career of the woman they worship.
To prepare for the dual roles of West and Jo, Moreland read West’s autobiography and watched as many of the film star’s movies as she could. The challenge was to capture the mannerisms and subtle sexuality without becoming a caricature, a trap West herself fell into during the twilight of her career.
But just because she played the role once, it’s not quite as easy as riding a bike, Moreland said. In between, she’s starred in “umpteen thousand” productions and been on the road. But revisiting the role does put her back in touch with a “kindred spirit.”
Unlike many actresses of her generation, West did have the opportunity to shape her empowered onscreen persona, pointed out director Beverly Blanchette.
“The Mae West we saw was a creation, not much different from Lady Gaga or even Miley Cyrus. You can’t tell me that performance (with Robin Thicke at the Video Music Awards) wasn’t well thought out,” Blanchette said.
Blanchette added, “We think of the past as being really prudish, but it wasn’t. What really makes the play and Mae West relevant was that she (West) wrote her own movies. Her friends were gay and black at a time when the rest of Hollywood wasn’t as accepting.”
One scene in “Dirty Blonde” pays homage to West’s gay friends and the drag queens of the day who impersonated her outsize mannerisms and figure.
Decades after West’s death, the play forces audiences to reflect on the lasting influence the actress’ life has left on popular culture.
“She was tough, wisecrackin’ broad….a strong woman, who was not a mealy mouthed weak girl,” Blanchette said. “In her films she portrayed strong women and never the damsel in distress. Why has it taken us so long to realize this?”
If You Go
“Dirty Blonde” by Claudia Shear
March 27 – April 13
Plaza Theatre, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan
Tickets $45 at ThePlazaTheatre.net