Myra Breckinridge Review

This review contains some minor plot spoilers.

Myron Breckinridge (Rex Reed) has a sex change and becomes Myra (Raquel Welch), “the most extraordinary woman in the world”. She sets off to Hollywood, her goal being “the destruction of the American male in all its particulars”. First stop is the acting academy run by her uncle Buck Loner (John Huston) and her inheritance…

Myra Breckinridge was released in 1970 to stinking reviews and poor box office but over the years has developed a cult following as a camp classic. A decade later, it found a place in the Medved Brothers’ book The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time. (Well, the Medveds also included The Omen and Last Year at Marienbad, so you have to question their critical acumen.) Undoubtedly the real worst movies are truly unwatchable efforts untroubled by talent or even basic competence: I challenge anyone to sit through They Saved Hitler’s Brain awake throughout. (I’ve not seen Manos: The Hand of Fate but I’m reliably informed it’s worse.) Golden turkeys, as celebrated in largely witless books, that have some entertainment value are far from the worst ever made. Myra Breckinridge is certainly no neglected masterpiece, nor even a particularly good film, but the years have been kind to it as they have to Fox’s other MPAA X-rated bomb of around the same time, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Gore Vidal has not had much luck with the cinema, as his later experiences with writing Caligula would bear out. Published in 1968, his satirical and – at the time – scandalous novel was probably unfilmable in the first place. Nevertheless, it was optioned by Fox straight away. The turn of the 60s into the 70s was a confusing time in Hollywood. 1969 had been one of the worst years in its history, with supposed sure things flopping badly at the box office. At the same time, the rather elderly studio heads were flummoxed by the success of Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider. Clearly there was a huge young audience out there that the studios had no idea how to reach, so they basically threw money at anyone who seemed to be at all attuned to it.

Enter thirty-year-old, long-haired Brit Michael Sarne. Not many people have combined directing for a Hollywood major studio with a British Number One hit single, but Sarne achieved that. Back in 1962, he’d topped the charts with “Come Outside”, a duet with the then eighteen-year-old Wendy Richard (yes, the same Wendy Richard who later starred in Are You Being Served? and Eastenders). More pertinently to the job in hand, he’d directed a reasonably successful, now forgotten, Swinging London frolic called Joanna. (The star of that film, Genevieve Waite, makes a brief appearance in a dentist’s chair in Myra Breckinridge and gets to utter a potentially libellous line about John Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas, friend of Sarne’s and writer of some of the music in the film. So presumably it’s a joke.)

Sarne wrote a script (co-credited with David Giler), and assembled an astonishing cast. First-billed was Mae West, seventy-six years old and twenty-six out of retirement, making her first film in colour. She played man-hungry talent agent Leticia Van Allen, heavily plastered in make-up and swanning around in Edith Head gowns, top-billed despite being only tangentially involved in the film’s plot. She wrote much of her own dialogue. (She’s told by one prospective client that his height is six feet, seven inches. All together now: “Let’s forget the six feet. Let’s concentrate on the seven inches.”) She also had a musical number to herself. John Huston serves up a thick slice of ham as Buck Loner. Film critic Rex Reed played the pre-op Myron who turns up here and there in the film, often sharing scenes with Raquel Welch. John Carradine plays the surgeon at the beginning. There are also early roles for Tom Selleck (minus moustache, as one of Mae’s studs). Larger roles went to American footballer Roger Herren as Rusty (he never made another film, and probably had to live down the most notorious scene in this one) and Farrah Fawcett as Mary Ann, the twin objects of Myra’s intentions.

You can see why Raquel Welch took this film on. As a role more challenging than simply standing around in a bikini looking decorative, playing a transsexual was a brave move at the time. As gender reassignment surgery had become available only recently, sex changes were big news at the time, with the British and American cases (respectively) of April Ashley and Christine Jorgensen making headlines. Welch even considered playing Myron as well, but perhaps wisely only played the female half of the role. (Anne Heywood attempted playing before and after in the British film I Want What I Want, also released in 1970. That film came unstuck not just because Heywood was completely unconvincing as a man, but also because the film was so overheatedly earnest it becomes unintentionally hilarious, especially nowadays.) With its casual bisexuality, brief nudity, one token profanity, its taboo-breaking and cutting-edge sexual attitudes, Myra Breckinridge seemed ideal to attract a young, hip audience.

So what went wrong? There were two leading ladies who couldn’t stand each other, to the point where Mae refused to have Raquel in the same shots as her. A young director, inspired by Fellini, but clearly in over his head. (For his part, Sarne claims he was being sabotaged.) Pot smoke everywhere. Add to that Rex Reed gossiping about what was going on to any talk-show host who’d have him, and the expectation of disaster was omnipresent. Intending to give the film more coherence than it actually has, Sarne raided the Fox library and cut in extracts from old films and new. So you have Shirley Temple singing “You Gotta S-M-I-L-E” over both sets of credits, and plentiful clips commenting on the action. Laurel and Hardy crop up several times, and you even get to see Welch in One Million Years B.C. Loretta Young was one star who sued Fox for using her likeness without her permission in an X-rated movie, and so her clips were removed. A shot of Temple being sprayed by milk from a cow’s udder was removed by order of the President, as Temple was then US Ambassador to Ghana. Some of these extracts work quite well, others don’t, but Sarne’s use of A-bomb explosions and lightning flashes as exclamation marks is unfortunately reminiscent of Ed Wood.

That X rating… In 1970, the MPAA rating system was only two years old, and the previous year Midnight Cowboy gave the adults-only rating some respectability by becoming the first and only X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar. So hopes were high that you could release adult films with this rating. Hollywood at the time was pushing at plenty of boundaries, in some cases further than they would today. And unfortunately a backlash set in, for, their merits or otherwise aside, these X-rated films contained material that caused the moralists to scream. The onscreen depiction of bestiality (End of the Road), bisexuality and sadomasochism (Performance), heterosexual sodomy (Last Tango in Paris) and graphic rape (A Clockwork Orange) were some of the content which gave the rating its notoriety. And unfortunately the MPAA hadn’t copyrighted the X as they had their other ratings, so the booming porn industry appropriated it for themselves. Viewers of Myra Breckinridge were treated to the rape of a man by a woman wearing an unseen dildo, albeit played for laughs – a pioneering male rape, predating the far more serious one in Deliverance. So the studios largely backed away from the X, and the NC-17 which replaced it in 1989. If a film could be cut to make it an R (allowing accompanied children) it was, though changing standards often meant that the original X version could later be rerated R without cuts, which was the case with Myra Breckinridge.

In the mid 1990s, a number of gay and lesbian directors made many films where gay/bisexual/transgender themes were upfront and unapologetic. This movement was briefly known as New Queer Cinema. In that light, Myra Breckinridge is a very queer movie indeed. It begins well and is quite funny for a while, though that will of course depend on how bent your sense of humour is. It gets very dull in the middle third, but picks up again for the rape scene, which simply has to be seen to be believed. There are compensations in the high studio gloss, in Richard Moore’s colourful Scope camerawork, and the amazing costumes from Edith Head and Theodora Van Runkle.

The Disc

Fox’s Region 1 edition of Myra Breckinridge is available either singly or as part of a five-disc Raquel Welch box set. It’s a DVD-14 disc (two sides, one of them dual-layered). On the single-layered side is a special edition of the film. The theatrical cut and most of the extras are on the other side. The special edition runs a second longer than the theatrical version (94:05 and 94:04 respectively). The differences aren’t great: At 8:04, the film’s single strong profanity is “motherfuckers” in the special edition and “[bleep] fuckers” on the theatrical version, though the bleep is also in Sarne’s commentary on the special edition. At 32:59, Myron’s masturbation scene is followed by Oliver Hardy being sprayed with champagne from a bottle in the special edition, by war-movie footage in the theatrical version. (This presumably accounts for the extra second.) Finally, at 91:32, the hospital scene where Myron wakes up and utters the immortal line “Where are my tits? Where are my tits?” is in black and white on the special edition. It was Sarne’s intention to use black and white to convey Myron’s return to reality but he was overruled by the studio who thought this was too confusing. They can’t have seen The Wizard of Oz

Both versions have anamorphic transfers in the correct 2.35:1 and both are equally good, sharp and colourful (particularly some very bright reds) with strong blacks. There aren’t many dark scenes, but in those that there are, shadow detail is good. There’s some aliasing here and there, but nothing too distracting.

As with the other releases in the box set, there are two English-language soundtracks in Dolby Digital 2.0, one in stereo and one in mono. To be honest, I could barely tell the difference between them. The film was made in mono, and that’s the one track that should be on this disc. There’s a Spanish dub, but no French one this time. There are twenty-eight chapter stops.

This DVD has two audio commentaries. Michael Sarne talks about the special edition. It’s an interesting listen as Sarne defends his decisions and owns up to his mistakes in making this film. He was inspired by Fellini, especially Toby Dammit: the gum-chewing young woman at the beginning and end of the film is a direct quote. Sarne is occasionally luvvyish when talking about his cast, many of whom were friends. (He also mourns the passing of Calvin Lockhart, but this is a death that the IMDB seems to have overlooked. [This review was written in 2004. Since then, Lockhart has indeed passed away, in 2007.]) Occasionally he’s a little bit schoolboyish: “I hope you’re looking at Farrah Fawcett’s knickers,” he says at one point. Raquel Welch comments on the theatrical version and spends much of her time laughing at the film and wondering out loud how she ever got to be in such a bad movie. There is some interesting information to be had here, though.

Next up is an AMC Backstory documentary on the making of the film, which runs 22:07, complete with two commercial breaks. This is a fairly thorough run-through of the making of the movie, with every participant pretty frank. Presumably their contractual obligations not to slate their own film had long since expired.

Also on the DVD are a set of trailers: a teaser (0:48), two theatrical trailers (1:00 and 2:50) and a TV spot (0:11). The teaser and the TV spot are full-frame, the other two trailers anamorphic 2.35:1. Finally, there are the “Raquel Welch Theater” trailers, for the other films included in the box set plus one other. They are: Bandolero! (anamorphic 16:9, 2:51), Fantastic Voyage (full-frame, 3:20), Fathom (non-anamorphic 1.66:1, 2:24), Lady in Cement (anamorphic 1.85:1, 3:06), Mother, Jugs & Speed (anamorphic 16:9, 1:52), One Million Years B.C. (anamorphic 1.85:1, 3:07).

Myra Breckinridge has gone in thirty years from abject turkey to camp classic. The truth, as ever, is somewhere in between, but this is a film that is certainly worth seeing at least once. Fox have certainly made an effort with this DVD, so the film’s cult following won’t be disappointed.

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