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.