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Myra Breckinridge (1970).

April 13, 2010

The Scoop:
The tagline for this film read, “Who is Myra Breckinridge?” But a better question might be, what is “Myra Breckinridge”?

In short, this adaptation of the Gore Vidal novel is about an author (legendary film critic Rex Reed in a rare acting role) who becomes fed up with male dominance of American culture as perpetrated by Hollywood. So he undergoes gender reassignment surgery and becomes Myra Breckinridge (Raquel Welch), who sets out to bring down the male establishment wreaking havoc on the movie studio of his/her uncle (John Huston). She also gets to tangle with a horny talent agent/singer (Mae West, returning to the screen after a three decade absence) and an impressionable, up-and-coming starlet (Farrah Fawcett). To call it an odd product from a major Hollywood studio with front line talent is an understatement From its preachy philosophizing to its outre sexuality to its highly odd casting, “Myra Breckinridge” is an unmitigated disaster — but a highly entertaining one.

But to understand just what the hell is happening here, it’s important to understand the state Hollywood was in for a brief period at the end of the 1960s.

The old school studio moguls from Hollywood’s golden age were breathing their last dinosaur breaths at the same time that American society as a whole was undergoing unprecedented social change. The dismantling of the vertically integrated film business in the previous decade, plus the arrival of a new competitor in television, had left the older studio bosses trying to figure out to survive in an economic landscape they no longer quite understood. For a few years, the major studios had managed to completely ignore the social upheaval and counterculture movement sweeping the nation, until the runaway financial success of “Easy Rider” in 1969 meant they could no longer keep their heads in the sand.

Being completely clueless about how to reach a youth audience, the dinosaurs tackled the problem the only way they knew how — they threw money at it. So, for a stretch of about three or four short years, anyone with long hair, a little film school background and a big idea could walk into a studio executive’s office and walk out with a movie deal. This resulted in a few unconventional classics (like “Midnight Cowboy,” the only X-rated film to win a Best Picture Oscar, and titty flick auteur Russ Meyer’s only studio film, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”) but mostly a lot of oddball disasters (like Dennis Hopper’s drug-fueled money hole, “The Last Movie”).

Enter British wunderkind Michael Sarne, who had generated some buzz in Europe with his second film, 1968’s “Joanna.” Twentieth Century Fox decided that was resume enough and gave him the keys to the kingdom and turned him loose on the novel, which many critics considered unfilmable. Flush with studio money, an inflated sense of self-importance and a few pharmaceuticals, Sarne hacked and slashed his way through the source material, threw together a volatile mix of old Hollywood talent (West, Huston, John Carradine, Jim Backus) and free-thinking newcomers (Welch, Fawcett, Reed, Tom Selleck) to create an unintentional camp classic.

Sarne does bring in some nice visual touches and his use of old film clips as meta-commentary on the story is inspired and ahead of its time. And Welch is at her gung-ho best as Myra. But all that’s undercut by the chaotic storytelling and weird chemistry between the different generations of actors. (In fact, West and Welch hated each other so much that their scenes together had to be filmed separately and spliced together.)

But connoisseurs of trashy cinema will be rewarded with plenty here. Where else can you see aging plastic surgery disaster West tarnish her film legacy by lusting after 20-year-old hunks and warbling Otis Redding’s hit “Hard to Handle”? Or see Welch play a MTF transsexual who anally rapes a cowboy to the accompaniment of fireworks and patriotic music? Oh, and did I mention that Rex Reed sings?

Needless to say, after this brief free-for-all period, Hollywood finally came to its senses and began its evolution into the blockbuster driven juggernaut it is today. Fox managed to regain its footing enough to become the megasuccessful home of the “Star Wars” franchise, while Sarne never worked in Hollywood (and barely even worked in movies) again and Vidal spent the next 40 years of his life trashing them both. But together they left us a monument to a rare and fleeting moment in the history of the industry.

“Myra Breckinridge” is so far over the top that labels like “good” and “bad” no longer apply. All that matters is if it’s entertaining, and “Myra Breckinridge” is certainly sleazy, mind-blowing fun.

Best Bit:
The insanely ludicrous rape scene.

Side Note:
Several of the stars whose old film clips were used in the movie objected to the sexual nature of the story and some, including Loretta Young, Shirley Temple and Betty Grable, successfully sued to get their clips removed from the final print.

Companion Viewing:

The Agony Booth.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

Farah Fawcett makes her film debut:

In one of those special moments in movie history that are boon to people who like to play “six degrees” games, 77-year-old Mae West sexes up 25-year-old, un-mustachioed Tom Selleck:

And finally, there’s this. It starts off strange enough then enters the stratosphere at about 2:25:

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 13, 2010 1:32 pm

    Just wanted to say HI. I found your blog a few days ago on Technorati and have been reading it over the past few days.

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