Review: Why Be Good? Sexuality & Censorship in Early Cinema

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Mae West is the poster child for all us good girls aching to let our bad sides out. She of the platinum ringlets and seductively whiny voice was all about breakin’ the rules and getting away with it. What tips might one learn from West’s experience? I watched Why Be Good? Sexuality & Censorship in Early Cinema, to find out.

Executive produced by Hugh Hefner, this 2008 documentary follows the explosive peeks of West’s life, along with those of Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, Louise Brooks and other starlet icons at the inception of American film and the revolution of sound in movies.

It’s not the tightest documentary ever made — I kept wishing for a Ken Burns touch here, namely one that nixes former Playmate girlfriend Holly Madison in segment breaks — but the story of early 20th-century censorship and its remarkable relationship with our views of beauty and the stereotype of the wild celebrity are far more linked than I thought.

The impression I got is — surprise, surprise — it sucked to be an actress in those days. The pressure to conform to the wills of the studio and the censors stifled most creative efforts, but the consequences were too heavy to bear. Why be good? Because if you piss off the studio, you’re out.

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