Mae West: Dirty Blonde

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Mae West: Dirty Blonde is a feature-length historical documentary film developed by Peeled Grape Productions LLC for PBS’ American Masters. The film explores the extraordinary career and legacy of this complex cultural figure, who left an indelible imprint on American entertainment as a writer, performer, and agitator for social change.

When West arrived in Hollywood in 1932 to make her first motion picture, she was already a veteran performer and a lightning rod for controversy – a Broadway playwright and actress who had spent time in jail for “corrupting the morals of youth” with her groundbreaking play SEX.   Her movies set attendance records across the country and made West the highest-paid woman in America. But her libertine attitude also brought the wrath of the Production Code censors, who saw West as a threat to traditional middle-class values.

The film traces West’s 80-year career: a full-time actress at seven, a vaudevillian at 14, a dancing sensation at 25, a Broadway playwright at 33, a movie star at 40, a Vegas nightclub act at 62, a recording artist at 73, a camp icon at 85. Unique in American culture, West created and embodied a character – the unrepentant sinner, the bad girl made good, the “girl who lost her reputation and never missed it” – who upended traditional notions of gender roles, social conventions, and class hierarchy, and whose legacy still reverberates today. 

About the Filmmakers

Sally Rosenthal is an award-winning documentary television producer and director, focusing primarily on performing arts history. She produced the six-part PBS series Broadway: The American Musical (2004), for which she won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Series, as well as the Emmy-nominated six-part PBS series Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America (2009) and the acclaimed three-part PBS series Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle (2013), all with American Masters’ Executive Producer Michael Kantor. She was a producer on the eight-part PBS series Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music (2016), for which she was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Music Film. Most recently, she (along with Julia Marchesi) directed and produced the American Masters film Mae West: Dirty Blonde (2019 Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film runner-up), and produced the American Masters films N. Scott Momaday: Words From A Bear (2019 Sundance Film Festival), and Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me (2017 Toronto International Film Festival). She is currently producing an eight-part PBS series, Iconic America, which will air in 2023.

Julia Marchesi is a freelance nonfiction producer, director, showrunner, and podcast host. She was the show-runner on the eight-part CNN documentary series Soundtracks, as well as the latest installment of the CNN Decades series (The 2010s).She was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Music Film for the PBS series Soundbreaking. She was the show-runner on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS series Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, which won a DuPont-Columbia Award in 2020. She co-created and co-hosted Conviction: American Panic, a seven-part podcast for Gimlet/Spotify. She co-directed and co-produced the PBS American Masters film Mae West: Dirty Blonde, which was the runner-up for the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize in 2019. Most recently, she directed the feature documentary Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches which aired on HBO in February 2022 and was nominated for the Humanitas Prize and an Emmy Award.