Way Before It’s Time
We should not forget that “Myra Breckinridge was released in 1970 which makes it some thirty years before its time. The movie could never be made today which is interesting because the country is so much more liberal that it was back then. As a book, Gore Vidal’s “Myra Breckenridge” was a tremendous hit and perhaps because of that, it was to be a wonderful move but that it did not happen. Here is the synopsis as it appears on IMDB:
“Myron Breckinridge is waiting for her sex-change operation while a stoned surgeon stumbles into the operating room. Before the drugged doctor begins Myron’s operation, he counsels her. Myron persists and the doctor goes through with it. An enthusiastic audience observing the operation applauds the medical achievement and rises in a standing ovation. After the operation, Myron arrives in Hollywood as Myra while in the rest of the film Myron pops up from time to time as Myra’s alter ego. Myra goes to an acting academy owned by her uncle, Buck Loner, a former cowboy star. The real reason for Myra’s arrival is to claim her half of Uncle Buck’s estate, which she says she’s entitled to. Buck Loner stalls by giving her a job teaching the history of motion pictures. Buck Loner has several friends. One of them is Letitia Van Allen, an ancient Hollywood talent scout. The sex-starved septuagenarian runs an acting agency “for leading men only.”
Many felt that there was no way Vidal’s book could become a movie. It was almost if that was an omen—the film was made and the critics went wild condemning the film. They wrote about the movie’s rampant vulgarity and an incompetence on all levels and the film became infamous and the biggest bomb of the 70s. When viewed by contemporary standards (or the lack thereof), “Myra Breckinridge” is quite tame but it was also three decades ahead of its time. Looking back at it now, we see and remember that the unapologetic on-screen depiction of anything involving the gay-lesbian-transgender community was unprecedented and the homophobia of that time was evident in the film’s reception. There was something else to upset people—the film’s dark and satiric message that Hollywood is a land of kitsch rather than culture. Director Michael Sarne showed did this to us by liberally sprinkling snippets of old-time movies throughout “Myra Breckinridge”. The humor in “Myra Breckinridge” is way over-the-top especially when Myra asserts her domination over a muscular stud by tying him down to a table and sodomizing him with a dildo. We had never seen anything like that on the screen before. Then there was Mae West who made her first movie in 27 years. She played Leticia Van Allen, a Hollywood talent agent who “auditions” hunky actors (including a bit player named Tom Selleck in his film debut). I was stunned to see West as a sexually active septuagenarian calling the erotic shots and dropping heavy double-entendres. The movie was camp all the way through and several of the performances were way over the top. “Myra Breckinridge” was clearly the forerunner of popular bad taste culture.
What was shocking in the 70s is quite mild today and aside from smutty talk and the sex scenes, the film probably would get an “R” rating. There is nudity but the sex is seen as comedic. The cast was ready to make a movie about the sexual revolution. John Huston is a bit entertaining, Raquel Welch as Myra was unable to understand the character of Myra. Mae West is scary to look, almost as if she was brought back from the dead. She has several one-liners that I understand she wrote herself. In the film she exists in her own fantasy and if she were not referred to by others and receives several phone calls, we would think that she really has nothing to do with this movie. Rex Reed plays Myron Breckinridge, Myra’s alter ego. He is no actor and you want to groan when he speaks.
The film starts with Myra and Myron dancing to an old Shirley Temple song across the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Myron drops some meaningless references to older movies but out of context they are meaningless. The relation between Myra and Myron is vague and they are neither funny or interesting.
We get the impression that the film really wants to be “cool” so Sarne threw in every kind of sexual taboo. He also has several actors in cameo roles. John Carradine is great as a mad doctor. Jim Backus, Andy Devine and Grady Sutton show up briefly. Favorite Kathleen Freeman does a ten-second imitation of Rita Hayworth.
The film became a mess that could not be salvaged. It is widely considered to be one of the worse films of all times. However, this appears to be due primarily to bad publicity combined with conservative standards at the time regarding human sexuality, as the final product is more of mess than a disaster. I cannot defend the movie but it is not nearly as bad as everyone thinks.
One reviewer mentioned that “the one thing that makes Myra Breckinridge enjoyable or at least watchable, was the frequent use of clips from old movies, inserted at appropriate moments, often to provide an exclamation point to the humor. This sort of creativity is something I would like to see a lot more of in films.” The performances of Raquel Welsh and Mae West are worth seeing and John Huston is quite funny.
The press and the conservative standard of America at that time caused the film to bomb. The movie failed on its own as well. Yes, this is a satire but it misses the wit that was so evident in Vidal’s book. The film today has become a fascination because of its cast and its audacity.
Here is some interesting trivia about the film:
According to the 1978 book “Flesh and Fantasy”, Mae West had stipulated in her contract that only she would be allowed to dress in black and white in the film. Costar Raquel Welch showed up to shoot their first scene together in a black dress with an enormous white ruffle, and West threw a fit. When the film’s producers sided with West, Welch had the ruffle on the dress dyed a very, very pale blue… which ultimately photographed as white.
Upon its release, the film was met not merely with atrocious reviews, but critical condemnation that crossed the line into moral indignation. The review in the July 6, 1970 edition of “Time Magazine” was entitled “Some Sort of Nadir” (referring to the scene where Myra anally rapes Rusty with a strap-on dildo). The review became famous for its opening line: “Myra Breckinridge is about as funny as a child molester.”
After the film’s first previews, the White House insisted that the footage inserted in the film from Heidi (1937) be immediately withdrawn. The star of Heidi (1937) was Shirley Temple who at the time was a United States ambassador.
Mae West would never work until after 5pm. She also had full approval on all the wardrobe decisions for not just her but for Raquel Welch too. For their one scene together, Welch was supposed to have been wearing a black dress with white trim to counterpoint West’s own white dress. On the day of filming, Welch arrived on set, eager to wear her sumptuous ‘Theodora van Runkle’ creation, only to be informed that West had insisted that it be confiscated. Welch was so outraged, she stormed off set and would only return when the dress had been given back.
In the 1970s, Gore Vidal wrote in Esquire Magazine that when he found out Myra Breckinridge’s director Michael Sarne was now working as a waiter in a pizza restaurant, he said it “proves that God exists and there is such a thing as Divine Symmetry.”
Gore Vidal disowned this screen version of his novel.
Every day while shooting, Mae West would come in to work surrounded by young, muscular men. She would tell the studio security, “They’re with me!”
In a book about the making of the film, producer David Giler said that he came to the set one day to find out why filming was so far behind schedule and discovered that the entire cast and crew had been kept sitting around most of the day (on full salary) while director Michael Sarne photographed a cake… for eight hours. He was also told by cast and crewmembers that Sarne would go off in a corner and “think” for six to seven hours at a stretch, during which time shooting would come to a standstill. According to Giler, such antics were one of the reasons the film went so far over budget, and he and the other producers demanded that the studio fire him, but it was in Sarne’s contract that he could not be fired until he turned in the first cut.
Rex Reed originally refused to say the line, “Where are my tits? Where are my tits?”. However, the producers informed him that if he didn’t say the line, they would use an establishing shot with a voice impressionist yelling “WHERE ARE MY TITS? WHERE ARE MY TITS?”. He reluctantly agreed to say the line.
The statue of the twirling Las Vegas showgirl outside of Chateau Marmont hotel where Myra Breckinridge stayed (and was the model for Raquel Welch‘s publicity shots) was pulled out of storage for the movie; the actual statue during its heyday can be seen in the early Sixties films The Stripper (1963) and The Savage Eye (1960).
At the time of the film’s release, Gore Vidal called the film version of his novel the second worst film he’d ever seen.
Rex Reed was a well-known film critic at the time.
It was not so much the box office failure as the complete and utter critical failure of the movie – a reception that could only be termed as “disastrous” – that wrecked the careers of director Michael Sarne and actor Roger Herren. The critical and financial flop also seriously hurt Raquel Welch, who never achieved the true star status that had been predicted for her.
Shortly after the film’s release, Loretta Young threatened to sue the studio if a clip from one of her old movies (The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)) was not excised because she objected to its use in a new sexual context. The clip was promptly removed from all prints in circulation.
Film critic Leonard Maltin said that the film was “As bad as any movie ever made.”
Perhaps because he was passed over in favor of John Huston for role of Buck Loner, Mickey Rooney repeatedly lambasted the film in interviews upon its release, claiming it was a disgrace to the motion picture industry.
Mae West insisted that her character’s name (Leticia) be spelled differently than it was in the book (Letitia) citing “the obvious reasons”.
This film originally included at least one fast-cut montage, using archival footage from past 20th Century-Fox films and featuring such recognizable Fox stars as Shirley Temple, Betty Grable and Loretta Young. The montage was intended to depict images going through a character’s head while being raped. Young and some of the other stars, whose faces were used without their permission, successfully sued the studio to have footage of themselves cut from release prints of this film.
Trailers include many alternate takes, and one additional snippet of dialogue; In the hospital at the end, Myron asks the doctor if he’s a boy or a girl, and the doctor says that he can’t tell from where he’s standing.
The director intended the final scene in the hospital to be shot in black & white. This version is shown on the Director’s Cut.