Dirty Blonde, playing Mae West
By Fred Dodsworth
[This interview was originally published in 2001 and is being posted here with permission by its Bay Area-based author]
Fred Dodsworth: We live in a world in which women are expected to behave in certain ways and…
Claudia Shear: Do you think that’s true? It’s certainly less true then when Mae West was alive. There’s no question with things like divorce and child custody and salaries and discrimination that it isn’t a little better now. As far as the way women behave… (pause) it’s not like women aren’t able to do what they want. Women are able to be shocking now in a way Mae West couldn’t have done. It’s just that Mae West was more shocking because there were stronger rules, it was a more Puritanical time.
You know William Randolph Hearst helped destroy her career. His papers refused to take advertisements for her pictures. One of his editorials asked, “When will Congress do something about Mae West?” He was very influential in creating a backlash against her and of course he was part of the whole thing with the Hayes Commission and the decency code. They cut her scripts to shreds. They weren’t letting her be funny anymore.
Dodsworth: What do you mean by funny?
Shear: Dirty! Funny! Raunchy! Bawdy! Suggestive!
By the time she got to “Belle of the 90s,” she had a line like “I wouldn’t touch him with a 10-foot pole” and they made her cut it. They were so afraid of what people were going to say. This is a woman who was arrested and sent to jail, who did a play called “Sex,” did a play with gay men. Her films were wildly successful but there were a lot of people who were very shocked.
Dodsworth: Shocked by what?
Shear: She has sex all the time. She is clearly a prostitute. She ends up with a guy. The Hayes Censorship Act says a life of crime must always be punished but she kills somebody in “She Done Him Wrong.” In “I’m No Angel,” she’s hustling guys but she ends up as a rich socialite. Married, happy ever after? This is not the message they wanted to send.
And she’s clearly a woman who’s not a virgin, who’s having sex all the time, who likes it a lot, who is aggressive about it, assertive about it. You can understand why this was upsetting people.
|Melinda Gilb stars in "Dirty Blonde" at Cygnet Theatre. Photo by Daren Scott.|
Shear: It was Mae West movies and the Fatty Arbuckle case that shocked people and they cracked down.
Dodsworth: The Fatty Arbuckle case happened here in San Francisco.
Shear: One of the greatest travesties of justice in the history and who did it? William Randolph Hearst. Fatty Arbuckle was acquitted after three trials and the jury gave him an apology! But by then he was destroyed. Nobody would hire him. There was no question he never killed the girl. It was a salacious news item. Hearst saying look at these disgusting people, look at their disgusting orgies. Hearst was one of the greatest hypocrites that ever walked this planet.
Dodsworth: I don’t actually think that our times are that different.
Shear: I agree with you actually. “A plus ca change, plus ca meme chose.”
Dodsworth: But to me the more interesting issue is how women are demonized.
Shear: Mae West was definitely demonized by Hearst but the thing is that she liked being shocking. She knew that she was shocking. She liked that.
There's the whole other question, which is homosexuality and how people deal with that. Mae West showed gay men actually talking to each other, that they existed. It wasn’t like there was a gay subculture. You know what I mean? There was the eternal bachelor. The whole thing of homosexual culture was totally different. So she was really in the forefront of that.
There were men who had acts where they would come out in gowns and be female impersonators but it was considered family entertainment. You would take mom and the kids to see this. But it wasn’t really attached to having sex with other men. Then she did “The Drag” and things like that and suddenly people were like “Do you mean these guys in dresses actually want to be girls? They want to have sex with men? Whoa, wait a minute!”
These guys were wiped out. There was this really famous drag performer. Julian Eltinge was his name. He was reduced to bringing out a rack of dresses, pointing to them and trying to do his act! He died in penury.
Dodsworth: Today that would be performance art.
Shear: They wanted to see him dressed up as a girl doing his campy thing!
|Steve Gunderson and Melinda Gilb in "Dirty Blonde" at Cygnet Theatre. Photo by Daren Scott.|
Shear: I think that there’s a flavor of that sometimes. It’s such a fine line. It’s not that I would accuse anyone of misogyny but Marlene Dietrich, when she dresses as a man, is not the object of ridicule. It’s the sexiest thing in the world.
You know the world is a big place, lots of things are allowed. But a woman dressed as a man is taking on power. Look at Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry,” there’s something really powerful about her because she has suppressed her secondary sex characteristics as a woman and therefore she is a man in the world. You take on a certain power if you dress as a man.
If you dress as a woman on some level you’re also taking on a power. A man who comes on stage dressed as Joan Crawford or Lipsinka! Lipsinka comes out on stage and this is a person of power.
Dodsworth: What is the root of that power?
Shear: The root of the power is when people transform themselves into what they feel they are, into what they feel they should be.
Dodsworth: So it’s transformation into true self?
Shear: Into what you imagine yourself to be. It’s why brides are always beautiful. The dumpiest girl in the whole world, bless her, the day of her wedding she will be beautiful. Because for most people it’s the one time in their lives where they wear a custom-made gown, where someone does their hair and their make-up, where everybody looks at them. They glow as a result of it and that runs through to everything.
I’m a big dresser-upper and how that transforms you. A lot of the time I’m in my sneakers, I’m in my T-shirt, I’m going to work out and yet when I transform and I’m in Manolo Blahniks and the Florentine cocktail dress, it’s a whole different persona that comes out. You know what I mean? When I go to Paris, for example, where I spend most of the time in a cocktail dress or out of the cocktail dress (half-laughs), it’s like I’m a different person.
But you know the thing was that Mae is really actually complex which is a thing that many people flatter themselves thinking they are...
Dodsworth: Everybody’s complex!
Shear: Everybody’s complex, but it’s not manifested in quite the same way. They’re just not simply as interesting. I don’t think Sandra Dee is as interesting as Mae West. It’s not the same conflict. Which is one of the things about drag that makes it so powerful is that underneath there’s this profound conflict (pause) between what we’re seeing and what we know to be true.
|Melinda Gilb, David McBean, and Steve Gunderson in Cygnet Theatre's "Dirty Blonde." Photo by Daren Scott.|
"Dirty Blonde" plays at Cygnet Theatre through June 17. For more information, visit: http://www.cygnettheatre.com/