Best Actress: Mae West (She Done Him Wrong)
Other Notable Performances: Barbara Stanwyck (The Bitter Tea of General Yen), Jean Harlow (Dinner at Eight), Greta Garbo (Queen Christina), Joan Blondell (Footlight Parade), Joan Blondell (Gold Diggers of 1933), Miriam Hopkins (Design for Living), May Robson (Lady for a Day).
To many, Mae West may seem to be a perverse choice in a year when Greta Garbo gave one of her best performances in Queen Christina. But Garbo was always a little too mannered for my taste and if I didn’t choose West I would have probably picked Barbara Stanwyck or Jean Harlow ahead of Garbo. As it is I think Mae West delivered not just the best female performance of 1933, but one of the best comedic performances of all time. Too many critics dismiss West’s acting ability, confusing her later descent into camp irrelevance with her groundbreaking pre-Code work. She spent much of the 1920s scandalizing New York with Broadway plays such as Sex, The Drag, and The Constant Sinner. She brought explicit conversations about prostitution, drug use, homosexuality, and interracial relationships to the stage eventually landing the actress in jail for obscenity. We could just shower praise on West for her revolutionary pushing of the sexual boundaries in an era with slightly fluctuating but still well-defined sexual boundaries (especially for women).
West came to Paramount in 1932 (causing much hand wringing from rival studio heads). After she breathed life in a small part, Paramount agreed to make her Broadway hit Diamond Lil. It emerged after months of negotiating and rewrites as She Done Him Wrong and audiences were treated with a fun picture where Mae West lampooned traditional Victorian sexual morals with her trademark wriggle and biting double entendres. (Cary Grant: “Haven’t you ever met a man who could make you happy?” West: “Sure, lots of times.”)
She didn’t just create Lady Lou, but she created a whole persona. She wasn’t beautiful, didn’t have a great body, and sang fairly atrociously (though not as bad as Marlene Dietrich), but she dominated every scene from every one of her costars (with the possible exception of W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee). She oozed sex through sheer force of will in She Done Him Wrong. We can accept her hypersexuality or choose to interpret it as a parody of an attractive woman and sexuality, but the ambiguity of her performance is part of its strength. She was a master of giving audiences of different sensibilities what they wanted; they could interpret what they were seeing and hearing in multiple ways and she did it no better than in She Done Him Wrong. She balances Lou’s toughness with what is essentially a good heart. Sure, she seduces men, takes their gifts, etc, but what harm is she doing? When faced with real exploitation of an innocent girl, she does not look the other way. Mae West shows respect doesn’t necessarily come from toeing the moral line of society, but from how we treat those who aren’t considered respectable. Her Lady Lou shows it’s easy to be respectable when you never associate with disreputable people; but it’s impossible to be truly respectable if, when you do, you dismiss them or treat them badly. Her heart goes out for the man on the bottom; the man at the top doesn’t need her help.
Mae West channeled her own frustration with society and its hypocritical morals into her performances creating a goddess of sexuality – possibly tongue in cheek, possibly not – on the screen. She committed herself fully, sculpting her persona to take shape through every aspect of her life. She never took off the “Mae West” mask, thus causing many critics to dismiss her talents. She was unable and unwilling to develop anything beyond her character (with the exception of a semi-serious portrayal of Catherine the Great on the stage in the 1940s, by all accounts a major artistic flop). But if we disregard everything after 1933 – her meteoric decline, her artistic intransigence, her Las Vegas shows, and shockingly awful decision to revive her career in her 80s with Sextette still playing the 20-something temptress – and look at She Done Him Wrong fresh, we will see an amazingly accomplished performance by an underrated actress.