Color, 1978, 90m.
Directed by Ken Hughes
Starring Mae West, Timothy Dalton, Tony Curtis, Dom DeLuise, Ringo Starr, George Hamilton, Alice Cooper, Keith Moon, Walter Pidgeon
Scorpion Releasing (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Rhino (US R1 NTSC)
A pop culture pile-up so insane most people thought it was a joke when they saw write-ups on it in film reference books, Sextette is the infamous final film for legendary comedienne Mae West, a larger-than-life figure whose racy one-liners sent the censors into fits back in the '30s. She essentially retired from the screen in 1943, but Fox had the idea of bringing her back to the lot for a surprisingly snappy and funny (not to mention extremely soft-focus) turn as a predatory spoof of her former self in 1970's infamous Myra Breckinridge. Apparently the critical drubbing for that admittedly compelling film wasn't enough, since she made another comeback
vehicle eight years later with an eye-popping cast that smashes together enough faded leading men and completely unexpected "hip" guest stars to make a movie fan;s head explode in disbelief.
The mayhem starts when legendary movie star Marlo Manners (West) arrives at a glitzy London hotel to celebrate her wedding to her sixth husband, Sir Michael Barrington (a pre-007 Dalton). However, their attempts at privacy are constantly thwarted by hangers-on, Marlo's previous husbands, rambunctious hotel staff, a visiting batch of delegates, and plans by Marlo's scheming manager (DeLuise) to swipe her potentially incendiary memoir audiotapes. Can Marlo sing and shimmy her way to happiness with her new beau before he throws up his hands in defeat?
Completely silly, ramshackle, and often flat-out bizarre, Sextette trots out a lot
of West's saucy one-liners to fill out a plot lifted from her similarly-titled play. The gaudy treatment is definitely out of step for 1978 (especially given the PG rating), especially when you consider audiences were flocking to fare like National Lampoon's Animal House at the time. Sextette was greeted with incredibly acidic reviews that focused mainly on West's advanced age (admittedly a hard factor to overlook, especially when the lyrics refer to her as "young" on more than one occasion), while rumors swirled about malfunctioning microphones planted in her wigs to feed her lines that turned into police reports due to signal interference. True or not, it's indicative of the odd vendetta journalists felt against the film, which seems so upbeat and eager to please in retrospect that one can only wonder why they spent so much energy tearing it down. There have certainly been crueller, more painful projects built around Hollywood legends past their prime (exhibit A: Mame), and besides, look at that cast! You've got Keith Moon (the same year as his death) as the world's least convincing gay fashion designer, Tony Curtis as a suave Russian ex-husband named "Sexy Lexi," a very tan George Hamilton as a gangster, and Ringo Starr as a movie director. Oh, and throw in cameos by George Raft, Regis Philbin, and Rona Barrett as themselves, and you've got a weird, fluffy concoction that could only have been dreamed up during the disco era.
Oh, and by the way, it's also a musical. Yep, you get a splashy opening rendition of "Hooray
for Hollywood," a disco version of "Baby Face," a lyrically-altered version of "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen" (changed to "Happy Birthday Twenty One") to a bunch of beefcakey Americans in training for the Olympics, a cover of The Beatle's "Honey Pie" by DeLuise, a surprisingly fun piano dance number by Alice Cooper(!) out of make-up, and perhaps the most brain-melting musical number ever committed to film, a duet of "Love Will Keep Us Together" by Dalton and West that rivals anything dreamed up in The Apple.
After a decidedly non-blockbuster theatrical release by Crown International, Sextette languished in video obscurity with only a fleeting VHS release from Media gliding under the radar until its eventual first DVD release from Rhino in 2000. Unfortunately both looked wretched from start to finish, taken from battered, dull-looking, extremely faded prints with ridiculously soft resolution. (Yes, the film uses soft focus a lot, but not that much.) Therefore the film's fans (whoever may be) will be delighted to see it get a watchable transfer at last courtesy of Scorpion/s DVD,
which looks as crisp as this powdery-looking film possibly coudl; the restoration of the original framing (which shears away a bit from the open matte previous version) also makes this feel a bit more like a real movie, albeit on that still feels like a brutal collision between a Liberace TV special and Pink Lady and Jeff. Oddly, the end credits are extremely windowboxed. The original mono sounds fine; no fancy 5.1 remixes here, but given the very thin nature of the original song recordings, there isn't really much that could be done. Extras include the original trailer, some fiesty liner notes by Paper's Dennis Dermody, and a long new video interview with musician Ian Whitcomb, the music supervisor on the film who also rewrote "Happy Birthday." He recalls a great deal about working with West and reiterates that story about the microphone in the wig, which has been refuted by most of the cast members. He also talks about working with West on her insane Way Out West LP, which made her more amenable to doing modern pop songs on film, and reads through many notes he wrote down during the making of the film (for which he claims to be uncredited for a great deal of his work). If you know what you're getting into, this disc provides an awful lot of guilty entertainment value for your buck.