Only in the 70s: Myra Breckinridge (1970)
TRUAN needed a bit of extra time for the venom to build up for September’s instalment. It’s well worth the wait, because it’s Myra fucking Breckinridge.
It’s taken me a pretty long time to get round to this article, partly because I’ve been busy with various academic and livelihood related shenanigans, but mostly because… well, quite honestly… Myra Breckinridge can go fuck itself with a big rusty spoon.
The 70s gave us many filmic treats and all-time greats. Though often pushing the boundaries of taste and reason precariously far, above all it stands out as a decade full of transcending and pioneering visions. Myra Breckinridge, on the other hand, represents a palpable nadir for the early 70s. Its overbearing, guff-swillingly pretentious airs are matched only by its incomprehensible shoddiness, nonsensical direction and general vein of discomfort. I’m completely in earnest when I say that making myself rewatch Myra Breckinridge for this review caused me actual, physical pain.
I’ve seen many, quite possibly too many, terrible films: both the entertaining variety, and many more that were just really dull and/or irritating; mass-produced box office trash like Pearl Harbor and Transformers 2, and b-movie travesties like Garbage Pail Kids and literally anything written and/or produced by Uwe Boll. But, as individually and uniquely awful as each and every one of those was, Myra Breckinridge might actually be one of, if not the, most offensively bad films I’ve ever had the misfortune of watching. Naturally, I thought I’d share it with you.
If the film’s context wasn’t such a big part of making it the fetid fleabag it is, I would have definitely opted for a regular old Torment. The year was 1970, and following the release of Gore Vidal’s controversial satirical novel Myra Breckinridge (1968), which achieved a mixed-degree of praise, 20th Century Fox producers David Giler and Robert Fryer hit on the idea of adapting it into a feature length film.
The film was not initially a popular choice amongst other board members, but what enthused them even less was their somewhat bizarre choice of director in Michael Sarne, a young British director with only one tiny budget art-film feature to his name Joanna (68). Sarne was best known on the other side of the pond as a singer for his (truly terrible) early 60s ditties which somehow ended up as chart hits including: ‘Come Outside’ (62), ‘Just for Kicks’ (63) and ‘Code of Love’ (63).
If there’s one thing that can be said in Sarne’s defence for the torpid tripe which resulted, it’s that he was just as bewildered as anyone to be given front seat in a big new Hollywood picture and was easily tempted in by his own very-real need for cash. As soon as work began it was immediately obvious to the actors and crew that Sarne was way out of his depth: e.g., delaying shoots for hours to “take time out to think” and lavishly spending on sets such as Myron’s dream buffet which hardly appears in the film (and has no apparent significance to anyone other than Sarne himself).
Nevertheless, despite the growing concerns of everyone working on the picture, Giler and Fryer remained stoically assured of the significance of Sarne’s work, believing it would inject new energy and style into a film centred on transgression. What they got was a mess.
The film is ostensibly a comedy, intended – I can only suppose – to mirror Vidal’s own dark sense of humour. The only real joke here is how shit the film is on virtually every level (unless you’re a massive fan of big hats and silly dresses I guess) and even that gets pretty stale. The state of the film’s wry humour is perhaps best summarised by Time’s review: “Myra Breckinridge is about as funny as a child molester.” It makes Freddy Got Fingered seem witty by comparison.
Soo… on to the plot. Well, there really isn’t one. I mean, there’s the semblance of one forming, but it never really gets anywhere beyond this: Myron Breckinridge (Rex Reed) is a Hollywood studio heir who dreams about what his life would be like after having a sex change, acting out his sort-of transgender fantasies, but then he wakes up and doesn’t have said sex change because… reasons?
It gets off to a less than auspicious start with Myron in an operating theatre, which looks more like a greenhouse, while his would-be surgeon makes discouraging remarks about the operation, suggesting he try circumcision instead. One of the attendants won’t stop winking at Myron, or I guess she might just have some dirt in it. Like everything else, it’s never referenced again.
Cue pointless street-flaunting sequence set to the music of Shirley Temple’s ‘You’ve Got to S.m.i.l.e’ followed up with some pretentious exposition from the apparently transformed Myra (Raquel Welch), wherein she reveals her plan to bring down patriarchal Hollywood’s misogynist norms from the inside, whilst she brims with non-sequiturs: “Who is Myra Breckinridge? What is she? Myra Breckinridge is a dish; and don’t you ever forget it you motherfuckers, as the children say nowadays.”
Myron appears with Myra interchangeably throughout, both alongside her and in her place as the alter ego of Myra. The effect is predictably as confusing as it is bizarre, but is made all the more jarring by the terrible editing and scene-splicing. There is no consistency; I imagine that, today, someone could staple on a queer/gender-fluid interpretation, but it really just comes across as yet another symptom of the film’s total lack of insight and direction.
It doesn’t help that the two characters have seemingly nothing in common besides artistic snobbery. There’s even a scene where Myra and Myron argue over nothing much at all and promises to deliver whatever actors and actresses to him before she (a manifestation?) fellates him (a manifestation?) while he apparently fantasises about a girl (Farrah Fawcett) stuffing food in his face from the aforementioned buffet and Myra disappears through the magic of cross cutting. I mean, really? What is anybody supposed to take from that? Apart from Sarne’s unhealthy sarnie fixation.
Perhaps the film’s most bizarre and pointless aspect is the routine splicing of old cinema footage from the likes of Laurel & Hardy and The Third Man, which seldom have any discernible bearing on, or indeed relation to, the actual film, except in reminding viewers that they could be watching something that wasn’t Myra Breckinridge. The use of these reels would really come back to haunt the studio after several of the surviving actors and actresses appearing in them sued Fox for the unlicensed use of footage after release, losing the studio millions. The White House even placed the producers under an injunction to have footage from some of Temple’s films removed from the film, as Temple was then serving as a US ambassador.
Mae West returned from a 30-year retirement to appear as Leticia van Allen, a bigtime-agent and ex starlet who now spends her days, not so much swanning as slithering around hallways, passing wince-worthy double-entendres like bowel movements and sleeping with all her desperate clients like some sort of nympho Jabba the Hut.
West’s late career is just uncanny. She’s like a real-life embodiment of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, just 30 years older… and less (but somehow more) tragic… and irrepressibly lewd and bawdy. It would take a greater vision than I to see how a clearly arthritic, 77-year-old West could possibly have played the role of Leticia in a way that wasn’t completely laughable; it’s one of the very few aspects of the film that are entertainingly terrible, rather than merely insultingly so.
There’s a particularly awful scene where West, draped up so that she looks like a smug old pineapple, is hauled on stage in a palanquin by tux-clad muscle men. Borne aloft in front of extras who must’ve been holding their laughs in with their fists, she wobbles out and graces us with a warbling, raucously seedy number: ‘You’ve Gotta Taste All the Fruit’.
It’s a bit like Ann Widecombe giving her best Carmen Miranda impression. West, a deluded prima donna to the end, apparently went out of her way to make filming as difficult as possible, particularly for Welch, insisting that she, Mae West, be centre-focus in every one of her scenes and at one point refusing to appear unless she was the only actress to appear in black and/or white dresses.
Throughout, Raquel Welch fights a losing battle to imbue an unwritten, by turns confusing and repugnant titular character with a sense of glamour and charisma. Smouldering through one peacockish dress after another and with razor-sharp delivery, Welch almost manages to elevate the film beyond the terrible. Yet Sarne is always there, clipboard in-hand, to ensure that the action seldom rests on his supposed star for more than a minute before cutting to bad-taste comic relief and/or his utterly bewildering array of inserted pieces from other films.
You do have to feel a little bad for an actress, in her first lead role, who seems to have been making a concerted effort to sell herself to Hollywood as something more than just a model and sex-symbol. It’s a shame her prize role would come in the shape of Myra, who, as she is written, either comes across as irritating, incredibly vaguely motivated, or just an absolute bitch.
Did I mention there’s a scene where she rapes one of her outspokenly loutish students Rusty (Roger Harren), which is actually played for laughs? The fuck? In fact, it’s not just played for laughs, but the film tries to wring a twisted kind of climactic catharsis from it, inter-splicing with shots from The Dambusters and nuclear tests. It’s really horrible. After that, she sends the “broken in” Rusty to “service” Leticia. Yeah. It still makes me cringe a bit.
Whatever Sarne’s unreadable intentions in the film, the critical judgement was as resoundingly negative as it has ever been in the history of cinema. Critics and audiences alike loathed Myra Breckinridge, but perhaps its most dire critic was Vidal himself: “It’s a bad joke, one of the worst movies ever made.” Sarne, quickly became a byword for incompetence in cinema and would never be given the chance to work on a major film again; in any capacity.
It’s not a crime to desperately take on a film you really have no idea how to make and lose a studio lots of money, but what really stinks about Sarne (besides his shit songs) is that he tried to drag his actors in to the dirt with him. Here’s his line on Welch: “She’s really only useful as a joke.” That just sums up how awful both his attitude and direction were.
Myra Breckinridge doesn’t just exploit, and fail at exploiting transgressive cinema; it exploits cinema in general. It truly is one of the most irredeemable filmic experiences you can ever choose to inflict on yourself, and all in just over 90 minutes.