Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mae West's Earpiece

[Tony Curtis and George Hamilton appeared in Sextette (1978), Mae West's last film. By some accounts, she was barely sentient at the time.]

Tony Curtis and Barry Paris, Tony Curtis: The Autobiography (NY: William Morrow and Company, 1993), p. 251.

She had a hearing aid that was connected to the booth where Ken Hughes sat and smoked. It looked like a telephone booth with glass windows, and it was wired up to her earphone. Waiting for the shot, Ken would smoke, and this booth would get fogged up until you could barely see him. In the middle of my line he would say her line so that she could say it when I finished. But it was a high-frequency radio connection, and it picked up a lot of other stuff. One day during a scene I heard her say "605 Fountain" -- the hearing aid was picking up police calls, and she blurted this out -- "605 Fountain, proceed with caution!" or whatever the fuck it was. Another time she picked up some helicopter signals and started to report traffic conditions on the Hollywood Freeway.

Tony Curtis with Peter Golenbock, American Prince (NY: Harmony Books, 2008), p. 291.

As I said, Mae didn't know her lines, so the director sat in a closed booth just outside the scene and read her lines into a microphone that transmitted his voice over a shortwave radio signal. Mae had an earpiece that would broadcast the director's voice into her ear, and she simply repeated the lines as she heard them. The director would smoke while he was in there reading her lines to her, until the booth would become so full of smoke you couldn't see him anymore. When he coughed, so did she. I would stand there, watching this, thinking, This is crazy.

One time I was doing a scene with Mae, and we had the setup with the booth and the microphone going. The director said, "Action," and I gave my line, and Mae replied, "Altercation on Melrose and Sunset. Approach with caution."

The director yelled, "Cut!" Everyone looked at each other; those words weren't in the script. The director asked her what she was talking about, and she said something like, "Units are en route." Then we realized that Mae's earpiece had been intercepting signals from a police shortwave radio.

George Hamilton and William Stadiem, Don't Mind If I Do (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2008), p. 255.

When I met Mae for our first scene, I thought in was in Madame Tussaud's on acid. She was all of four feet tall, with platform shoes a foot high and hair a foot and a half. Here was our dialogue.

Me: "Hi baby, long time no grab."

Mae: "Vance, Vance, I thought you were dead. I was in mourning for three weeks. When I played on the piano, I only played on the black keys...a little to the left...What?...Cut. Cut...a little to the left..."

It sounded somehow as if it was coming out of Mae's hair. I turned in shell shock to my dresser, who said, "She's wired up," and pointed to the director. Then I realized that it was coming out of her hair. Mae was wearing an earpiece wherein her lines were being fed to her, and she just repeated them -- and anything else the director said. We went back to work.