I Watched It So You Don't Have To: Myra Breckinridge
Sometimes a movie is so notoriously panned that you feel compelled to seek it out. (Heck, Tommy Wiseau ended up building a full-time career on that impulse.) But then there are other movies that are so infamous that the opposite reaction takes place; you find yourself actively avoiding and dismissing all information related to said film. Enter Myra Breckinridge (1970), a film so universally hated that it was not only disowned by the book's author, but it also ended the career of its director in America. I won't lie to you, it's not a great movie. I can confirm, as all of its contemporary reviews echoed, that it's confusing, the tone is wrong and it doesn't live up to the book whatsoever. Yet I suspect the dripping vitriol towards this film is about something beyond just the admittedly poor direction; most likely it has more to do with the unconscious biases Vidal set out to skewer to begin with.
The plot is as follows: The film opens with Myron (human piece of shit, Rex Reed) surrounded by doctors, about to undergo a sex reassignment operation. When complete, Myra Breckinridge (Raquel Welch) is born anew and does a little dance with the Myron of yesteryear. She tell us she is the new woman whom no man will ever possess, and "my purpose in coming to Hollywood is the destruction of the American male in all its particulars." She moves to Los Angeles to cash in on the inheritance of Myron, whom she refers to as her late husband.
Her inheritance exists in the form of Myron's wealthy uncle, Buck Loner (John Huston), a washed-up western star who now runs an acting school. He's suspicious of Myra, but ends up giving her a teaching position as a gesture of good will, while he hires a private investigator to look into her backstory. Myra rubs elbows with some Hollywood types, including Leticia Van Allen (Mae West), a lecherous talent scout who works in an all white office-cum-boudoir, adorned with silk curtains and ostrich feathers. She also cozies up to her student Rusty (Roger Herren), who's all-American attractive and an all around mediocre talent, and his naive girlfriend Mary Ann (Farah Fawcett!). Myra becomes obsessed with Rusty, zeroing in on him as the last stronghold of all masculinity she must break down. She spends the rest of her time seducing and manipulating both him and his girlfriend, ruining their own lives for her pleasure.
This movie feels like two movies spliced together: a semi-straight forward cinematic adaptation of the book and a wacky comedy about how 'crazy' the concepts in the book are, thus missing the satire entirely. Both side are rabidly fighting each other throughout the film over who got it right, but it's clear neither side seems to have understood the point (or the tone) of the book to begin with. In that way, the movie itself is a better candidate for the schizophrenia its main character is falsely accused of having. The only consistent characteristic is its campiness, which works great for the snide tone of the narration, but turns into a real nightmare when it comes to the societal commentary.
A perfect example of this is the infamous rape scene of Rusty, where Myra locks him in a room and then sodomizes him with a strap on. It's a scene in the book that comes across as profoundly disturbing – Myra uses her position as both a teacher and an elder to manipulate Rusty into a situation he's vocally uncomfortable about. It's juxtaposed with Myra's narration, as she waxes poetically about how much she enjoys the feeling of breaking him down both psychologically and physically. The movie version, on the other hand, gives us the same play-by-play that happens in the book but the tone is that of a raucous and bouncy sex farce. Myra rides Rusty like a bull, interspliced with footage of dams bursting, rollercoasters, atomic bombs, and classic Hollywood scenes that seem to be laughingly mocking the rape, there's even a shot of Myron eating popcorn and laughing. It's a bizarre misreading of the scene, as if somebody had done a campy-fun Lolita where Humbert's joy at road tripping comes across so strong it clouds out the seriousness of the child molestation.
Another failure of this film is in its frenetic editing. It swaps back and forth to clips from classic films (that they didn't actually get the rights for) in a way that makes it seem like they're giving meta commentary, as well as invoking Myra's obsession with the Golden Age of Hollywood. In theory this could have been an intriguing comedic touch, but in practice it quickly gets confusing and tiresome, especially when it happens in the middle of sentences or is used inconsistently to keep the plot moving forward. In general the film feels confusing at best and like it was patched together off of the cutting room floor at worst. They barely set up the premise of the movie or introduce any characters, they just parade all of the characters in and out of the film and expect you to have read the book. Leticia only once shows up in the same room with any other characters, which makes her role in this whole story confusing in the context of the film, but even more so if you're familiar with her presence in the book. The movie also ends so suddenly I had to double check that I didn't fall asleep somewhere in those last five minutes and miss an entire scene. They apparently reedited the ending to be in black and white to let you know "it was all a dream" but I can assure you that definitely didn't help to clarify anything.
I do need to pause here for one moment to go back and talk about Mae West. She is all at once absolutely amazing to include in this movie, and also totally on her own planet. She floats along barely moving her mouth (not to sound mean but with all of those obvious collagen injections, maybe she couldn't) and shooting out one-liners with all of the force and muster of a slight spring breeze. It's almost like watching a robot version of Mae West being rolled in and out of scenes. Apparently she hated Raquel Welch and refused to work with her on set, leaving the script to scramble around her wake. She did give me the one laugh out loud moment as she pulls a potential casting couch hunk into her bedroom-office:
"How tall are you?"
"I'm six foot, seven inches!"
"Never mind the six foot, lets talk about the seven inches..."
All in all... eh. I wouldn't call this the "Worst Movie Ever," that seems disingenuous and coded. When Gore Vidal published Myra Breckinridge in 1968, the book was considered highly controversial but it also quickly became a best seller, if not one of his most famous publications. While I agree the film itself is a failure as an adaptation, and Gore himself publicly bashed Sarne as incompetent, that's hardly a unique or noteworthy in itself. Whether or not the themes of the book were always presented in the proper tone, they are still in the movie and most of them do get across, perhaps in spite of the direction. From its use of explicit language, to its unstigmatized portrayal of bisexuality, to its skewering of gender roles and the violence intertwined with masculinity, there's still some good to be found in here.
I suspect part of what really got under people's skin was the casting of Raquel Welch. Not because she's a bad actor – on the contrary, she's the best part of this entire movie – but because I believe the audience didn't take too kindly to seeing their bikini sex kitten suddenly flip the script as a predatory sexual deviant ready to stick her dick in men (for once). Raquel Welch is having an absolute ball in this movie, and I wish so badly that Sarne had trusted her more to carry the film instead of constantly editing out of fear and focusing on other characters. When reading the book it's easier to project whatever biases one might have onto the character of Myra, but when you're confronted with one of the top hotties of the 20th century saying she's here to destroy the American male – well maybe that was too much of an "an affront to sensibility and an abomination to the eye... an incoherent tale of sodomy, emasculation, autoeroticism and plain bad taste."
So despite the fact that I agree this film was largely a failure, there are still some intriguing aspects to it. I will warn you the original satire of the book is totally lost to the filmmakers thinking that a woman raping a man and the idea of sex reassignment surgery are "ha-ha" funny. That said, you can get some glimpses of what could have been, and boy do they leave you wanting more. Myra Breckinridge would be a great candidate for a refresh and a remake, especially now when it still presses so many hot-button 2018 issues.