Friday Editor’s Pick: Myra Breckinridge (1970)

by on February 4, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Fri Feb 10 at 6:15* and Mon Feb 13 at 4:00 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
*Q&A with Raquel Welch

 

FSLC hosts cinema siren Raquel Welch in the flesh all weekend for “Cinematic Goddess: American Sex Symbol, the Films of Raquel Welch.”
 
TIME magazine famously proclaimed her notorious bomb Myra Breckinridge “about as funny as a child molester.” Gore Vidal, who wrote the controversial but best-selling source novel, declared the film “an awful joke” and cited the fact that director Michael Sarne had not worked in films again as “proof that there is a God and, in nature, perfect symmetry.”

 

Film 4 spints things more optimistically, “The Citizen Kane of chaotic trash, this is car crash cinema at its most compelling.”

 

Lauren Wissot decries em’ all, for The House Next Door:

If Myra Breckinridge the film had been a Broadway musical first, I’ve no doubt it would have gone down in midnight movie history right alongside The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Raquel Welch’s Miss Myra is the precursor to Tim Curry’s Frank-N-Furter, with both actors playing sexually (and gender) ambiguous characters seducing naïve young lovers with equal panache. Myra Breckinridge works on so many levels it’s hard to keep track, from the film critic Rex Reed playing film critic Myron Breckinridge to “Miss” Mae West—the ultimate gay man in a woman’s body, perhaps the first transgender superstar—as a stud-collecting Hollywood agent. That Rex and Raquel, playing opposite sides of the same protagonist, flow easily, interchangeably, from one setup to the next—sometimes even playing the same scene together—is a lovely symbolic nod to the desire to become one, be it with another person or with oneself. The classic movie clips commenting on the action like a Tinseltown Greek chorus and the classic Miss West belting out numbers like “You Gotta Taste All The Fruit” are pure winking delight. The many critics who panned Myra Breckinridge decades ago when it was first released were as clueless as John Huston’s Buck Loner, for the film is nothing less than a brilliantly, thoughtfully, stupendously conceived work of art.

 

 

Megan Weireter loves Welch’s performance, but can you handle it? For Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

I had never seen it, and my curiosity was overwhelming; was everything I’d heard true? As Raquel Welch might ask, what is Myra Breckinridge? Is it interested in exploring gender dynamics, the culture’s discomfort with second-wave feminism, and its fear that powerful women will one day overthrow men completely? Is its chief goal to satirize the excesses of Hollywood and its downfall since its so-called golden age? Is the film just trying to stick it to the squares of the older generation with wanton sexual provocation? Does any of it actually make any sense?

 
I’ve seen this film cited as the one that killed Raquel Welch’s career, but I’m of the opinion that her performance is the film’s best asset. She prowls through her scenes with all the intelligence, confidence, and menace that the role deserves, completely over-the-top but never hammy. You can see that she’s acting, but Myra is something barely human anyway, really a walking performance, and it just works. Welch rallies gamely, courageously even, as the film falls apart all around her. And her costumes, designed by Theadora Van Runkle, are supurb—outfits that reveal the aggressiveness of Myra’s unique brand of femininity. Raquel Welch stalking around the school cafeteria in huge ruffled collars and tall veiled hats is one of the most terrifying and exhilarating things I think I’ve ever seen on film.
 
Everything you’ve heard about this film is true. Can you handle it?

 
Larry Karaszewski on “one of the most bizarre major studio pictures ever,” for Trailers From Hell:

 

Aaron Hillis for The Village Voice:

It’s one of the most notorious commercial, critical, and production debacles in history: Michael Sarne’s high-camp, originally X-rated 1970 adaptation of Gore Vidal’s omnisexual showbiz lampoon. One might appreciate its epic sets and costumes, slumming icons, and unfocused meta-ambitions—as the queer precursor to Southland Tales. Myron Breckinridge (film critic Rex Reed) gets the chop from stoned surgeon John Carradine and becomes untamable bisexual vixen Myra (Raquel Welch, in her finest performance, for whatever that’s worth). Interrupted by punchline clips of Laurel and Hardy, Shirley Temple, and Fellini’s Toby Dammit (Sarne’s biggest influence), Myra ventures to her movie-cowboy uncle John Huston’s acting school to claim her share of the estate, crossing paths with talent agent and off-screen rival Mae West (she and Welch refused to appear on-camera together). West’s comeback film after a 27-year hiatus features a female-on-male rape played for yuks—poor thing—but the screen legend still spouts innuendos like a septuagenarian trooper, and sings either the greatest or worst cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” ever heard.

 

 
Keith Uhlich lists it as one of his “Favorite Stinkers” for Time Out New York:

The toxic rep: This adaptation of Gore Vidal’s gender-defying 1968 novel, starring Raquel Welch as the rebellious transsexual “whom no man will ever possess,” was widely reviled for its aesthetic ineptitude. The image of Welch impaling a straitlaced cowboy with a strap-on dildo certainly didn’t help matters.

 
What people missed: Ignore the botched Hollywood satire and embrace the fun-loving camp: There are cheeseball musical numbers (one featuring an aged Mae West enticing her audience to “taste all the fruit”), cameos from future pinup celebs Farrah Fawcett and Tom Selleck, and a plethora of old film clips that enhance the numerous double entendres. Plus, any movie that has film critic Rex Reed maniacally asking, “Where are my tits?!?” qualifies as some kind of classic.

 

 

Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

Did Twentieth-Century Fox realize transgression was being advertised, and the studio itself was supplying the screens? Actually, Michael Sarne’s coruscating cleaning-house session in Hollywood is less a tool of the revolution than its purposely debauched burp, and it survives still the stupidity of reviewers left gagging. God knows what the studio expected, but Sarne presented a profoundly foul blast of “Hooray for Hollywood,” the very notions of stardom and glamour and normality left bleeding while the system upholding them supplied archives for dipping. Sarne’s aesthetic is Tashlin’s culminated, with Welch’s matchless cartooning, Huston’s galloping clowning and West’s geryatric undulation; Reed is the wag imported from the trades, but film criticism here falls to the director, inserting punctuating clips to set the ground for Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema. Thus, Dietrich in drag, Tyrone Power as Jesse James, Shirley Temple and Laurel and Hardy and all the ghosts of cinema past watch Sarne’s montage of star-spangled Welch perforating Herren’s ass, uncorking gay-rights and woman’s lib, porn and art and the ’70s, baby.

 

 

Alt Screen Contributing Editor Dan Callahan for Culture Cartel:

Yes, it’s bad, but you quickly get beyond its badness. It’s hypnotically awful. It’s audaciously dreadful. It consists of mismatched elements that you wouldn’t ever dream of throwing together, and, in an alternative universe sort of way, it almost works.
 
Welch’s DVD commentary is hilarious. “Why did I take this part?” she wonders. “I don’t know who I’m impersonating here. Gore Vidal? As a girl?” When she sees the immortal long shot of her ass lined up with Huston’s ass and a horse’s ass, she cries, “Oh! It’s a threesome!” Recalling the first time she met West, Welch says, “I thought she was some kind of dock worker in drag.” As she watches herself give head to Reed, she wonders, “I wonder how he boned up for the part?” But the funniest thing she says is her sarcastic appraisal of Fawcett’s performance. “They have Farrah acting like an airhead there. Of course, that’s not how she is in real life. Far from it!”
 
Presiding magisterially over this colorful mess, Mae West seems right at home. In some strange way, just the sight of West in action gives you the spirit of Vidal’s book. The fact that she’s close to eighty years old and still lapping up attention from every man in the room only emphasizes the fantasy aspects of her 1930’s movies. By all accounts, West took her sex symbol status seriously, right up to the end, and this only adds to the joke, to the legend. Beyond bad, yes, and what lies beyond bad? Sublimity.

 

 

Wissot writes another love poem, for The House Next Door:

Sarne’s casting seems ludicrous on its face, but within the context of Myra Breckinridge, which turns every assumption about gender and sexuality on its head, it seems quite sensible. Myron/Myra was a man who felt like a woman inside, so why shouldn’t the pre-op version of the character be played by a gay man, and the post-op version by a “real” (and straight) woman? West, whose character embodies stereotypes of the predatory male agent (straight or gay) was a “real” woman, though her soul didn’t quite buy it, preferring to camp it up drag queen-style, onstage and off. She was, in a sense, the first transgender superstar—a gay man in a woman’s body who “bitch-slapped” anyone who got in her way (including the young Welch, unfortunately, who was forced to wear her own dress after Miss West absconded with the one from wardrobe that would have clashed with what the diva herself would be wearing in the scene). The pretzel-logic casting aids the pretzel-logic script in which Myra seduces and Myron marries Rusty’s girlfriend, Mary Ann (an adorably innocent Farrah Fawcett) after an accident that leads Myra back to being male, but straight. Classic movie clips interspersed throughout function as a knowing Greek chorus. Is Myra Breckinridge messy and nonsensical at times? Sure. So is life.

 
When everything comes crashing down, as it always does in lives manufactured rather than lived, what are you left with, to whom do you turn? Throughout the film Myron and Myra often are seen together in the same frame, the male and female halves warring for control of the Breckinridge soul. It’s only in the end that the two sides turn towards each other to make peace, integrate and become one, tenderly visualized in the last scene of Raquel and Rex as Myra and Myron, dancing as seamlessly together as Astaire and Rogers. The answer to every critic’s (including Reed’s own) pan is if you can’t move beyond surface appearance, can’t dig any deeper into the gorgeous metaphor that is “Myra Breckinridge,” then you’ve no business commenting on the film. Or as the transgender heroine herself so eloquently puts it, “Myra Breckinridge is a dish, and never forget it, you motherfuckers, as the children say nowadays.”

 

 

Melissa Anderson interviews Welch for Time Out:

Why did you take the role of Myra Breckinridge?
I had read Gore’s book, and it was one of those laugh-out-loud experiences where I felt he was analyzing American society and where this screen-goddess thing was leading us. The film would give me a chance to do a role that was much more literate. I suppose it was a crazy choice, but I was under contract to Fox and that was one of the projects available.
 
What was it like working with Mae West?
I found her surreal. Here was this star from the ’30s who had this unbelievably different way of doing things. Now she’s doing this movie in 1969–70, and she’s never made a color movie before in her life.

 
I wouldn’t want to undertake that at 77. I thought, She’s got a lot of chutzpah and she’s completely bonkers. Mae was one of those people I always felt had a distinctly masculine vibration about her. I have often ventured the opinion that she was a man in drag. [Laughs]

 

Here she is on The Dick Cavett Show (Cavett, incidentally, will be interviewing Welch onstage on Saturday after a screening of Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers):

 

Kevyn Knox for his blog The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World:

Now though this film is truly atrocious, easily deserving many of those aforementioned “accolades”, and is, from a cinematic standpoint, a train wreck from beginning to end, there is indeed another side to the film version of Myra Breckinridge. A side that is a cheap and giddy delight for anyone with such cheap and giddy tendencies – which, admit it or not, we have at least a little bit of such inside us all. A film that seemingly emulates Robert Altman’s style, though in a much more amateurish manner this quite infamous work (on many a worst movies of all-time list) is filled with fun moments that if strung together would make for a fine film – only, for some reason it never does.
 
As far as these so-called moments go, I am not sure which is my favourite. Could it be the opening, pre-title sequence where Rex Reed is about to get his manhood severed by a mad-looking doctor played by John Carradine of all people? Could it be that same Rex Reed, later on in the film, pawing at his chest and screaming “Where are my tits!? Where are my tits!?” (a scene Reed had to be bullied into doing by being told they would cut away from Reed and a voice impersonator would just do the line for him in post production)? Could it be Raquel Welch strapping on her own manhood and raping the naive young buck she has tied to an examining table, while dressed as some sort of cross between Wonder Woman and a cowgirl stripper (even without the aforementioned Shirley Temple scene)? Could it be bellowing John Huston, strutting around in silly, jingle-jangling singing cowboy gear, complete with ridiculously over-sized twenty-five and a half gallon hat? Could it be the male-centric joy of seeing Raquel Welch in bed with a young Farrah Fawcett?

 

 

Walter Chaw for Film Freak Central:

Next up for Welch, forever claiming to want to shed her cheesecake image, was the titular role in Michael Sarne’s disastrous Gore Vidal adaptation Myra Breckinridge, a picture clearly the product of its time–with the time in question was that brief window where Hollywood decided to try to give the Flower Power generation exactly what the studio bosses, ensconced in their culverts, thought the hippies wanted. (Welch’s long reign at the top of the American sex symbol pantheon was due at least in part to her ability to choose projects that rode the crest of the zeitgeist–she was arguably her generation’s Madonna, finding the pulse of the moment and being canny enough to embrace it, making me question her devotion to “maturing” her craft.). Disjointed in the way of a bad acid trip, self-indulgent in any case, Myra Breckinridge finds itself in the company of camp schlock like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
 
The picture has a lot to say about homosexuality, none of it particularly flattering, and more pithily, it has a lot to say about the cult of image that dominates the Hollywood mindset. The casting couch politics of sex and stardom remain topical, if shrug-worthy, addressed in Myra Breckinridge in a way that also tackles the trickier existential issues of identity and reality or, as it relates to film, performance and behaviour. That Welch’s career is fertile ground for any discussion of monumentalism and celluloid, the real problem with the picture is that it doesn’t seem to have its head around the topics that it raises, succumbing more than once to maudlin ego-plays by an embalmed Mae West (76 at time of filming), still doing her man-eater schtick while engaging in a legendary behind-the-curtain battle with then-rising diva Welch. Throw in a young Farrah Fawcett in a key supporting role and the potential to look at the picture as a genealogy of the big screen bombshell surfaces as well. But at least the sins of Myra Breckinridge make sense in the context of the sacred cows it seems to want to explode; there’s a good movie in all this garbage, in other words–you just have to squint a little too hard to see it.

 

 

Phil Hall for Film Threat:

Fast-forward 32 years and check out the current culture scene: Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne are invited to the White House, millions of Americans wake up each morning to Howard Stern, and the most popular cartoon show on TV is South Park. When viewed by contemporary standards (or the lack thereof), “Myra Breckinridge” is not only quite tame but also a work which was clearly three decades ahead of its time.
 

In retrospect, it is easy to understand why “Myra Breckinridge” was viewed with such disgust. The film’s central character is the homosexual writer Myron who undergoes a sex-change operation, becoming Myra. In her new identity, Myra moves to Hollywood and runs amok with omnivorous bisexual tastes. For 1970, the unapologetic on-screen depiction of anything involving the gay-lesbian-transgendered community was unprecedented and the rampant homophobia of that era was evident in the film’s reception. Furthermore, the film’s dark satiric message that Hollywood is a land of kitsch rather than culture went far beyond any previous film that skewered Tinseltown’s failings. Director Michael Sarne punctuated this message by liberally sprinkling snippets of old-time flicks throughout “Myra Breckinridge”: a cutesy Shirley Temple, fluttering Loretta Young, jaw-clenching Tyrone Power and fumbling Laurel and Hardy are presented as objects of derision and unintentional humor. For anyone who views Golden Age Hollywood as a lost Olympus would clearly be angered by the film’s apostasy towards the celluloid deities of yesteryear. Welch’s self-parodistic performance skewers the concept of yesteryear’s Hollywood glamour girl, complete with an outlandish wardrobe (gigantic hats and mannishly-tailored suits) that looks like it was lifted from a Carol Burnett take-off of a Joan Crawford melodrama. Welch’s Myra babbles about the glamour and glory of old-time Hollywood, yet her wickedly insincere delivery is clearly a parroting of canned platitudes harvested by studio publicists and swallowed by a population which did not know any better.
 
Even at this late date, “Myra Breckinridge” continues to create embarrassment for its studio, 20th Century Fox. Yet “Myra Breckinridge” was clearly the forerunner for the rise of popular bad taste culture. In the years that followed its release, audiences slowly began to appreciate and accept the films of John Waters, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Eraserhead,” the MTV influences in music videos (think Madonna and nearly every rap performer) and pop culture (think Tom Green), and the Farrelly Brothers’ canon. “Myra Breckinridge” was hardly a bad film; indeed, the one thing it had going against it was being so far ahead of the curve.

 

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