Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Myra Breckinridge (1970)

Myra Breckinridge is one of those legendary Hollywood bad movies, a movie that regularly appears on those silly “worst movie of all time” lists. It was savaged by critics at the time of its release in 1970 and was a commercial disaster.

The main problem really was that 20th Century Fox had convinced themselves (in much the same way as they had done in the case of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls which they also released in the same year) that they were going to have a box-office bonanza with a movie that really never had a chance of attracting more than a cult audience. It was an art-house/avant-garde movie made on a blockbuster budget, always a recipe for commercial catastrophe.

The movie opens with movie buff Myron Breckinridge (played by film critic Rex Reed) on an operating table, about to transformed from a man into a woman. He is reborn as Myra Breckinridge (played by Raquel Welch), and sets out to take over the acting academy run by Byron’s uncle, a one-time star of cowboy movies named Buck Loner (John Huston). Myra becomes fascinated by two of the students, the hunky and very macho ex-football player Rusty and his girlfriend Mary Ann (Farrah Fawcett). Eventually she rapes Rusty (in the movie’s most notorious scene) and then sets out to seduce Mary Ann. Her actual intention is to rape the very concept of American manhood. There’s also a sub-plot involving a lascivious talent agent played by Mae West.

While the movie is undoubtedly a bit of a mess, probably inevitable given its troubled production history, constant script changes and endless studio interference, I found myself loving it. The first thing that needs to be made clear is that this film has nothing whatever to do with transexuals. The Myron/Myra thing is simply a device to have some fun with gender and sexuality stereotypes. Myron and Myra represent two sides of the same personality. It’s not just a male/female split, but also a gay/straight split.

It’s also very much a movie about movies. Myron/Myra is obsessed with the golden age of Hollywood. On her commentary track Raquel Welch makes the interesting observation that the movie might have actually worked better as a musical, and she may well be right. Although that may have added yet another idea to a movie that is already somewhat overloaded with ideas. Not just ideas from Gore Vidal’s original novel, and ideas added by director Michael Sarne, but ideas about movies and then there’s the Fellini influence as well. Michael Sarne had seen Fellini’s Toby Dammit and wanted to achieve a similar feel. Sarne also told the story partly though the use of old film clips from the 30s and 40s. So there’s an awful lot going on.

By no stretch of the imagination can this be considered a realist film. It’s pure fantasy. This was the major change that Sarne made to the story, compared to Vidal’s novel, making the entire story the product of Myron’s imagination. This is very obvious right from the start, with both Myron and Myra appearing in scenes together although Myron is supposed to have ceased to exist when he became Myra. In a scene almost as notorious as the rape scene Myra even treats Myron to a spot of oral sex.

John Huston and Rex Reed also do extremely well in their respective roles, but the movie’s greatest strength is Raquel Welch. She is truly fabulous. It’s not only a bold, brassy bravura performance, it’s also a superbly judged performance. She knows just how far over-the-top to go. Welch has very mixed feelings about the movie today, which is understandable. It should have established her as a serious actor, but instead it did her career an enormous amount of harm. But she’s terrific.

The incoherence and the lack of any real structure might have been fatal flaws in another movie, but they really don’t matter in this one. The more spectacularly Myra Breckinridge fails, the more spectacularly it succeeds. It becomes an outrageous exercise in high camp, which was Sarne’s intention anyway. And it is extremely funny. The most spectacular failure of all was the failure of critics (yet again) to appreciate a movie that breaks the rules. I loved this movie!

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