Myra Breckinridge (1970)
“Everything you heard about Myra Breckinridge is true.”
Myra Breckinridge (1970)
Director: Mike Sarne
Cast: Mae West, John Huston, Raquel Welch
Synopsis: Myron Breckinridge is transformed by a sex-change operation into the beautiful Myra (Raquel Welch). She travels to Hollywood, meets up with her rich Uncle Buck and, claiming to be Myron’s widow, demands money.
27 years after her previous movie appearance, the 77-year-old screen idol Mae West (She Done Him Wrong, I’m no Angel) still had enough of a reputation to demand – and receive – $350,000 for being coaxed out of retirement to co-star in Myra Breckinridge, a movie that promised to be one of the most controversial ever made. Her brassy screen persona, which earned the wrath of the Production Code during her heyday back in the ’30s, must have seemed highly appropriate for a satirical movie which would not only explore the phenomenon of a clinical sex-change, but also feature the anal rape of a man by a woman who was once a man. Audiences were guaranteed – at least, before the word of mouth spread – but quality was not, and Myra Breckinridge has since taken its place in cinematic history as one of the worst mainstream studio movies ever to emerge from Hollywood. It was, in fact, so bad that the review in Time Out famously referred to it as “about as funny as a child molester.”
West was even permitted to write all of her own lines, which, to be honest, is something of a blessing as they are by far the best thing about Myra Breckinridge (“Never mind the six feet,” she tells a cowboy stud after learning he is 6’7″ tall, “Let’s talk about the seven inches”). Sadly, although her lines are full of that familiar West zip and vigour, the actress was by then an ageing, unrecognisable caricature of her younger self, and the musical number she insisted upon as a condition of her signing on is embarrassing to watch. The only consolation about seeing the once inimitable actress trying to relive her glory days in Myra Breckinridge is the fact that she doesn’t look nearly as grotesque as she would in the woeful Sextette eight years later.
The movie was based on the novel by Gore Vidal – who disowned the film without even seeing it, apparently – which sought to shatter conventional notions of gender and sexuality. 1960s sex symbol Raquel Welch, whose own bikini-clad iconic credentials are referenced in a clip of her 1966 movie One Million Years B. C., presumably won the part of Myra Breckinridge on account of her aggressive sexuality. Welch was that rarity – a sexual creature to be desired and feared in equal measure: the All-American girl next door, ten years after she left home and life had knocked her around hard enough for its lessons to be learnt without yet harming those clean good looks. Given the nature of the role she plays, she really is an inspired piece of casting – even if she isn’t a particularly accomplished actress. Her name is Myra Breckinridge, but it was once Myron (played by film critic Rex Reed, for whom the experience of being savaged by his peers must have been both ironic and enlightening), and she seems to be unable or unwilling to completely relinquish her past identity as a man. Myron not only provides a sounding board for Myra’s thoughts, but is also the recipient of her intimate attentions. Myra knows what men like, she knows what they think, and, with arch self-satisfaction, she plots “the destruction of the American male in all its particulars.”
She sets her plan in motion by passing herself off as her old self’s widow to Buck Loner (John Huston – The Kremlin Letter, Chinatown), the swaggering, overblown proprietor of a Hollywood Drama Academy. Myron had shares in Buck’s business, which Myra now claims as her inheritance and, while Buck struggles to figure out a way to defeat her claim, she installs herself as the Academy’s tutor of Posture and Empathy. Amongst her pupils, she singles out handsome young Rusty Godowski (Roger Herren) to be the first unlucky subject of her mission to emasculate the American male.
Myra Breckinridge’s troubled shoot has long since passed into legend, and would be worthy of a film of its own. Director Mike Sarne, who had previously directed only one other feature, was employed to tap into the youth market, but proved wholly incapable of helming such a high profile production. Members of the cast and crew complained about how poorly he treated them, about how he would keep them sitting around while he spent up to seven hours at a time ‘thinking’ in his trailer, or eight hours photographing a cake. The budget spiralled. Egos clashed. Sarne’s career never recovered from the critical mauling the film received, and leading man Herren promptly returned to the obscurity from which he had been plucked, never to be seen on the big screen again.
Myra Breckinridge is a staggeringly poor film to come from a major studio, but it isn’t quite the complete disaster such career implosions would suggest. To be honest, the infamous rape scene, which seems neither funny, shocking or scandalous when viewed today, proves to be a brief diversion in a film that is surprisingly dull considering it lacks any kind of subtlety and feels far too conscious of the expectations that awaited it. The film lacks any kind of shape, and is nothing more than a jumble of scenes thrown at the screen in the hope that a coherent plot will somehow emerge. Not once do we sense the high level of belief and commitment called for on the part of the creators of a film with such intense and highly personal themes.
(Reviewed 27th March 2016)