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Calling the shots: Documentary explores the life of stage and screen icon Mae West

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Mae West liked to call the shots – no matter who it offended.

And she never apologized, all while blazing a trail for herself in film and TV.

It was an industry that she was familiar with and wanted to represent herself.

American Masters is behind the documentary, “Mae West: Dirty Blonde,” which is the first major documentary to explore West’s life and career.

Over the course of decades, she became a writer, performer and subversive agitator for social change.

Mae West at the premiere of her film “I’m No Angel,” 1933. (Courtesy of Everett Collection, Inc)

The documentary will air at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 16, on New Mexico PBS

Filmmakers Sally Rosenthal and Julia Marchesi are at the helm of the project.

Bette Midler and Michael Cantor are executive producers.

Rosenthal says West achieved great acclaim in every entertainment medium that existed during her lifetime, spanning eight decades of the 20th century.

A full-time actress at 7, a vaudevillian at 14, a dancing sensation at 25, a Broadway playwright at 33, a silver screen ingénue at 40, a Vegas nightclub act at 62, a recording artist at 73, a camp icon at 85 – West left no format unconquered. She possessed creative and economic powers unheard of for a female entertainer in the 1930s and still rare today.

“There’s so much more depth beyond the humor,” Rosenthal says. “She knew her own worth and insisted that she got it. It’s rare today. In 1932 that level of control that she had. She had her own production unit with Paramount and she approved everything.”

Though she was a comedian, West grappled with some of the more complex social issues of the 20th century, including race and class tensions, and imbued even her most salacious plot lines with commentary about gender conformity, societal restrictions and what she perceived as moral hypocrisy.

“People know the name or some of Mae’s quotes,” Marchesi says. “I actually didn’t know that much about Mae before the project came up. I was astounded at how funny and witty she was. I was sort of shocked that I didn’t know about her. She would have never called herself a feminist, but that’s what she was. She stood up for equality and demanded it.”

Midler fell in love with West when she saw her sashay across the screen in the 1932 film “Night After Night.”

Mae West as Tira does a “muscle dance” in the film “I’m No Angel,” 1933. (Courtesy of Alamy Stock Photo)

“She created a persona she completely believed in, and never wavered from publicly or privately. One of the funniest women who ever lived, she made fun of sex at a time when the word was never uttered in polite society, and wrote plays that were so scandalous, she was arrested and sent to jail,” Midler says in a statement. “A breath of fresh air on the Broadway stage, she single-handedly saved Paramount Studios from bankruptcy, had legions of fans, and still does. A woman who believed she was the equal of any man, if not their superior, she continues to inspire with her humor, her glamour, and her brassy, sassy ways.”

Rosenthal says West looked at different perspectives on aging and sexuality.

“She was always a sex symbol and it was tricky when someone is in their 70s and 80s. It’s something our society is not comfortable with. This gave her power. She also loved doing live theater and would spend intermission watching the audience. She noticed how her shows were empowering women. She maintained a fearless quality.”

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