Box Office Failures Week: Sextette (1978)

Sextette is exactly the type of movie that this site was created to talk about.

For years, I’d read about it in the Medveds’ Turkey Awards books and since then, I’ve pretty much decided that the Medved brothers have no idea what fun is all about. Surely, Sextette can’t be as bad as people say it is, right?

Well, it’s…I have no idea what it is. It’s the kind of movie that felt like it took me six years to watch, yet I finished it in a morning.

In a time when women were seen and rarely heard, Mae West was an outspoken sex icon, a brazen beauty who hid her sexual openness within comedy. Indeed, she was the woman who said, “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”

In 1926, West had her first starring role on Broadway in a play called Sex. It was also a play that she wrote, produced and directed. This would be rare today. Imagine how much rarer it was nearly a hundred years ago.

West became a movie star, but was always followed by controversy. However, her films contain no nudity, swearing or violence. But in a world where women were always in second place, she was a frightening aberration: a confident woman unafraid to use her sex appeal to get what she wanted.

Imagine this. When speaking to the ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy, she referred to him as “all wood and a yard long.” She was nearly banned from radio so thoroughly that even her name was not allowed to be spoken.

West went to Vegas, where she could be herself. Her show at the Sands was famous for its muscle men who carried her around. One of them was Mickey Hargitay, who married another dangerous blonde, Jayne Mansfield. She also had a recording career, which is absolutely astounding, as she recorded songs about Criswell and performed covers like The Doors’ “Light My Fire.”

The counterculture discovered her in the 70’s, perhaps because of her appearance in Myra Breckinridge, her early crusades against censorship and her books, like her autobiography Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It and Sex, Health, and ESP

West, while not a traditional women’s liberation believer, was an early believer in women’s rights. And she dated across the color line before that was even remotely accepted. One boyfriend, boxing champion William “Gorilla” Jones, was barred from her apartment complex because he was black. She bought the building and erased that ban.

West was also smart about her money, producing her own work and investing her money in Van Nuys before Los Angeles grew into the sprawl that it is today.

In 1978, she started working on this film, her final one, and despite hearing and vision loss, her spirit carried it through. She was also dealing with production woes and near-daily changes to the script, necessitating that director Ken Hughes (Night School) read her lines via an ear piece.

My devotion to Ms. West does not mean that this is a great movie. It is, however, an interesting one.

Screen legend Marlo Manners (West) is in England, where she’s just married the much younger Sir Michael Barrington (Timothy Dalton!), but before they can consummate their marriage, all manner of hijinks ensue, mostly because of her manager (Dom DeLuise).

To complicate matters, the leaders of the free world have gathered in the very same hotel to discuss the fate of the world. And soon, all of Marlo’s ex-husbands — diplomat Alexei Andreyev Karansky (Tony Curtis!), director Laslo Karolny (Ringo Starr!?!), gangster Vance Norton (George Hamilton, who I will opine has never been in a good movie, yet I love him), and the U.S. Olympic team — all show up to bed her again.

This movie is the 70’s all over — celebrities are the kings and queens of the world, even minor ones like Rona Barrett, Gil Stratton and Regis Philbin years before he’d work with Kathie Lee. And holy cow, George Raft shows up as himself and yes, he’s totally a gangster.

This movie is packed with people who should not be in a movie with Mae West, yet totally are. These folks include Alice Cooper, Keith Moon, Van McCoy (who wrote “The Hustle”), Juen Fairchilde (the jumper from The Monkees’ Head), Ric Drasin (who created the Gold’s Gym logo), weightlifter Denny Gable, Roger Callard (Conan the LIbrarian from UHF) and Walter Pidgeon.

For what it’s worth, Alice said that West propositioned him numerous times a day.

The soundtrack to this film has never been released, however, the song “Happy Birthday Twenty One,” which is in astonishingly bad taste today, was on West’s 1972 album “Great Balls of Fire.”

Go figure — the film’s producers couldn’t find a major studio to distribute the film. They did hold two sneak previews, including one on the Paramount Pictures lot and a second at the Fox Bruin Theater, where West received a standing ovation. Young folks flocked to its premiere at the Cinerama Dome, but the film was sadly a major flop, grossing just $50,000 on an $8 million dollar budget.

Critics were unkind, too. Rex Reed, who has his own sins to pay for his participation in Myra Breckenridge, said that the film was “a monument of ghoulish camp” and that West “looks like something they found in the basement of a pyramid.”

Whatever. Sextette is my dream film — a movie that by no means should ever have been made, yet there it is, living on streaming services, waiting for you to watch it, to be astounded by it, to be assaulted by it and finally, to proclaim that you survived it.

You can watch this on Amazon Prime and Tubi.

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