Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Make Way for Myra

1970 was the first and only year that an X-rated film won the Academy Award for Best Picture. (No, not this one...that was Midnight Cowboy.) But America’s then-reigning sex symbol and the top box office blonde of yesteryear appeared together in an X-rated film in 1970 too.

Myra Breckinridge (1970) will go down in history as one of the weirdest films ever made. An ignominious flop when it was first released—and rightly so!—its lethal brand of camp and unforgettable imagery and performances have elevated it to cult status, where we hope it will remain in perpetuity. This outrageous tale of a transsexual anti-heroine is a product of its era, the height of the so-called sexual revolution, but its flamboyant bad taste and balls-out bravado are astonishing even today. 

Raquel Welch in the title role
Based upon the novel by the prolific and famously bisexual writer Gore Vidal (who also wrote those page-turners of historical fiction 1876, Lincoln and Burr), the film version of Myra plays upon the worst fears of every right-wing conspiracy regarding the sexual revolution and the so-called gay agenda. Everything that scares people about homosexuality (and any other sexuality, for that matter) is exaggerated and lampooned with perverse democracy.

If you’ve never read the book of Myra (or Myron, its equally entertaining sequel), it may be hard to discern in the film version that mild-mannered Myron, played by Rex Reed in his first and only acting role, undergoes a sex-change operation and becomes his alter-ego and evil twin, the gorgeous Myra, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Raquel Welch, then Hollywood’s top glamour girl. At the end of the film, it all makes sense though—spoiler alert—it was all a dream. Myron never had his you-know-what chopped off, after all…

Rex Reed as Myron: "Where are my t*ts?"

Helmed by hippie British director Michael Sarne (Joanna) who freely admitted to sneaking off the set to smoke the occasional joint between takes, the movie is a strange melange, episodic and tangential,  with a hard-to-follow storyline that makes very little sense, but does it really need to, with all that gratuitous nudity and debauchery? Here’s the theme in a nutshell, in the heroine’s own words: “I am Myra Breckinridge, who no man will ever possess...my goal is the destruction of the American male in all his particulars.” And how!

Punctuating the narrative for satiric effect, and probably further confusing the situation, are numerous clips from classic Fox films, as stars like Jack Benny, Dietrich (in drag, of course), Laurel & Hardy, Judy Garland and Alice Faye (singing “America, I Love You”) pop into the action for editorial effect. Republican Shirley Temple Black, then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was incensed by the film’s use of her classic numbers  “You’ve Got to S-M-I-L-E” and “On the Good Ship Lollypop.” Temple sued, as did Loretta Young. 

Huston, Welch, West and Reed
Myra marked the return to the screen of the legendary Mae West after a 26-year absence. In the supporting role of Tinseltown super-agent (and recording artist!) Leticia Van Allen, West nevertheless received top billing. Despite her mummified and waxen appearance, the legendary superstar still displays glimmers of her iconic wit in her few brief scenes, mostly as Leticia interviews much-younger would-be clients and potential bedmates. “Forget about the 6 feet...let’s talk about the 7 inches…” she purrs to a tall and strapping wannabe actor. Referring to a pair of handsome identical twins, she tosses her head and declares, “I’m the only one who knows the difference.” As Leticia, Mae has only one goal: to add to her “stable of studs” and create a “boy bank” since the “gay boys are taking over the business.” 

Mae West as Leticia Van Allen: "Male Clients Only"
“You Gotta Taste All the Fruit” is Mae’s obligatory musical number, performed by Leticia in salmon silk and sequins, carried onto the stage on a Cleopatra-like litter. Later, after another Edith Head costume change, Mae caterwauls her way to the big finish surrounded by a bevy of tuxedoed black men doing a frantic frug (with an assist from a clip of Carmen Miranda and her giant bananas and Tutti-Frutti hat!). It truly has to be seen to be believed.

Film critic Rex Reed is surprisingly photogenic and affable as Myron, especially when singing a song called “My Secret Place” by the Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips, and when grabbing his chest and exclaiming “Where are my tits?” in his inimitable southern drawl.

Myra and Mary Ann (Farrah Fawcett)
The film also jump-started the careers of two soon-to-be TV icons. A young Tom Selleck, sans moustache, makes a brief appearance as one of Leticia Van Allen’s victims--er, clients. Farrah Fawcett, six years before she became an Angel, is adorably virginal as one of acting teacher Myra’s star students. 

Myra and Rusty (Roger Herren)

Roger Herren is perfect as the dumb-as-a-post Rusty, the unfortunate Midnight Cowboy-type forced to submit to the will of unstoppable man-hating rapist Myra. John Huston, better known as director of classics including The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen, is amusing in one of his few onscreen turns as the former Western star who now runs an acting school.

But the film really belongs to its titular (sorry, I couldn’t resist) star. As the transsexual alter ego of Myron Breckinridge, Raquel Welch walks away with the film, displaying a brilliant flair for dark comedy. Myra's serious-as-a-heart-attack militant feminism is brought to hilarious life by the skilled Welch, who keeps her tongue planted firmly in her cheek in her quest of “preparing humanity for its next phase”... the emasculination of America, of course.

Whether teaching a class on 1940s film acting, boogy-woogying to “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” seducing both Fawcett and her alter-ego Reed, or riding poor Rusty hard and putting him away wet (while poured into that revealing red, white and blue swimsuit), a confident Welch dominates in every scene. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!

Myra prepares to spill her "t"

No wonder that Mae West refused to appear in a two-shot with the young and energetic Welch. In the finished film, the pair have only one scene together. The encounter precipitated the only hint of a feud between the two female stars, a black-and-white war of sorts, with Welch in a Theodora Van Runkle black suit, trimmed with white ruffles, vs. West in an all-white Edith Head ensemble pierced by a black veil. West thought she had vetoed Welch’s wardrobe, commandeering the non-colors for herself, but Welch pulled rank and refused to do the scene unless she wore black and white as well. They filmed the sequence without incident, but never appeared in the same frame. (A couple of years later, West was asked how it was to work with Welch. “She was nice,” purred Mae, but her famous eye roll gave her away and her audience exploded into knowing laughter.)

How anyone thought this mess of a film would be a commercial success is one of those unsolved Hollywood mysteries. It truly fell between the chairs in its appeal for 1970 audiences. The older generation who might have appreciated all the classic film references were shocked and appalled, and younger, hip moviegoers were totally uninterested.  It is, to be sure, an acquired taste…nostalgic gay camp with an edgy undercurrent, drug-fueled and a little cockeyed.


William said...

Two thoughts jump to mind. I loved this picture when I first saw it -- oh, I thought it was terrible, but I loved it. I had enjoyed the erotic edgy irreverence of the novel (and Vidals' zany sequel) so I wasted no time in getting to the theater when it came out.

My second thought is, as bad as "Myra" was, Mae's next film, "Sextette" was even worse. I don't think that was even entertaining.

I had no appreciation of classic film in those days -- for shame -- so I loved how those old movies were butchered in "Myra." As for West, "a vulgar mind is a joy forever." (I don't know if she ever said that, but she should have.)

Back in the day Mae West was a big gay icon, but aside from film buffs, she seems to be forgotten today. You occasionally hear someone invoke Garland, but I can't remember the last time someone mentioned West in conversation, but of course I'm not out on the town every night. West actually gives a rather spirited performance in this. I'm sure people didn't know if they should congratulate her or pity her.

The Roger Herren rape scene, as is any rape scene, is disturbing, and it did no good for the handsome fellow's career, either.

Welch really came into her own with her role on CPW (Central Park West), and she may have used Myra for inspiration.

Anyway, this is a great write-up as usual. I have a copy of "Myra" and I'll be looking again, thanks -- or no thanks -- to you, LOL!

angelman66 said...

Hi Bill - I agree completely...though elderly, Miss West still has a lot of flair and chutzpah in this movie, and is very entertaining (unlike the execrable and sad Sextette, as you note).

I too love the Vidal novels, I think it adds a lot to the film if you are familiar with them.

Poor Roger Herren - being the 'butt' of one movie joke really can be enough to kill a promising career. Especially back in those days.

I never saw Raquel in CPW, I will try to find and watch her in it (how did I miss that?)

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your love for this cult classic!

Quiggy said...

"balls out bravado"? Honestly, that appears to be a mild observation, based on what I've read about it. I think I'd like to see this, but not if I have to buy it. I read an entry about it just yesterday in a book I bought on Camp by Paul Roen. It sounds bizarre enough to appeal to me.

angelman66 said...

Hi Quiggy - it truly has to be seen to be believed. Once in a while you can catch it on a late-night TCM Underground showing...they have been very liberal lately about showing cult classics, uncut and unedited.
I do think you would appreciate the dark humor and satire!
Thanks as always for stopping by, my friend!

Ken Anderson said...

Hi Chris
Quite a bit late to the party here, but so pleased to see you covering one of my favorite good/bad films of the loony 70s. It really is a queer duck, so to speak, and you're right in noting that it is pretty shocking to imagine that a film/topic this bizarre was greenlit and given the big-budget treatment by a major studio.
I'm never really sure what young people make of it today (I've had student's say that it just moves too slowly for them), but it encapsulates so much of what I remember about the era.
Also, it's nice to hear you enjoy Welch's performance. She gives herself such a hard time on the DVD commentary, but I think she's more effective in this film than any. (Also, how cool was it that she even agreed to do a full-length commentary? If Only Dunaway would follow suit...).

As with all your posts, I enjoyed reading it a great deal, and always get a kick out of your observations of films for which we share a similar fondness. Thanks!

angelman66 said...

Ken, thanks so much as always for stopping by. You always inspire me to share my passion for film, especially the kooky ones for which we share similar sensibilities!

You are so right, though Raquel has a similar reputation to Faye's as a difficult and demanding diva on the set, and is never a favorite among her costars, she DOES have a sense of humor about herself and seems to be truly appreciative of and solicitous her fan base. I LOVE that she does the DVD commentary for Myra--that is as it should be!

Quiggy said...

Hey, Chris. It's time to fire up that damn keyboard of yours... Just to get you going, I nominated you for a Liebster Award. If you don't know what that is, I explain it all in my Liebster Award posting.


Hope you accept this award and give us a new post....or if you refuse the award, still give us a new post.

angelman66 said...

Hey Quiggy, thanks so much for your good words - I have been very very very busy lately and have had no time to do what I love, write about movies!

I do look forward to the Film Noir Blogathon, I have been working on the post about Gilda!

J.D. Lafrance said...

This is a really excellent at such batcrap crazy movie! I think that Raquel Welch is quite good as she completely deconstructs her sex symbol image by playing a curiously complex character in a layered, experimental film. It is truly surreal to see the likes of John Huston, a young Farrah Fawcett and Tom Selleck (?!) in such a mondo bizarro movie.

angelman66 said...

Hi J.D. I totally agree that this film is a mess, but Raquel gives an amazing performance - she's perfect as Myra, bringing Vidal's character to scary life with dark comic skill. Ironically, Welch's best performance is in her worst movie!
Thanks for stopping by!

Quiggy said...

Update: My library acquired a copy of this movie. (My personal opinion after finally viewing it is they don't know what they have, but I will delve into that later) I am going to pair this with "Midnight Cowboy" and tentatively review both when I have a free week, probably mid-May. Really rather outre flick.

angelman66 said...

Can't wait for you to review it along with the masterpiece Midnight Cowboy, Quiggy. Very interested to hear your opinion about Myra.
- Chris