Breckinridge (20th Century Fox, 1970) –
Director: Michael Sarne. Writers: Michael Sarne & David Giler
(s/p), Gore Vidal (novel). Stars: Mae West, John Huston, Raquel
Welch, Rex Reed, Farrah Fawcett, Roger C. Carmel, Roger Herren,
George Furth, Calvin Lockhart, Jim Backus, John Carradine, Andy
Devine, Grady Sutton, Robert P. Lieb & Skip Ward. Color, Rated R,
fasten your seat belts because you are in for...how shall I
say...something really special." – Raquel Welch on
the commentary track of Myra Breckinridge.
1968, Gore Vidal published a fascinating, irreverent piece of
iconoclastic literature called MyraBreckinridge.
It is the story of a man who becomes a woman only to be turned back
into a man when his silicone breasts explode after getting hit by a
car. When "Myron" awakens from his coma, reaching for his
tits, he is devastated, but comes to the realization that it is all
for the best. "Happiness, like the proverbial bluebird, is to be
found in your own backyard if you just know where to look" – a
counter-culture, women's lib Wizard of Oz, if you will.
Myra's (and Vidal's) vision was for a world where traditional sex
roles were completely eradicated; a new race of people where
pansexuality was embraced, breeding had ceased (cutting down on the
world's overpopulation), and women like Myra were allowed to dominate
novel pulses with an anarchic sense of dual homosexual pride and
shame. Myra wants to rape the men of the world, with a dildo no less,
to gain revenge on the men who "raped" Myron, the male side
of her that relished in sodomy. Through becoming Myra, Myron is able
to justify his lust for men without the social ramifications of being
deemed a sexual pervert; while Myron as Myra is able to live out his
fantasies as a top, seeking some sort of closure for the guilt he
feels in his sexual pleasure as a bottom. Vidal's Myra is a complex,
contradictory, modern day woman who wants to have it all without
realizing that she is a hypocrite. She wants to be treated like a
lady, but demands the power to treat men like dogs. We are constantly
asked to reassess what it means to be male, what it means to be
female, and where homosexual men fit within the traditional paradigm.
The novel is smart, witty, thought provoking, and as a gay man, hits
very, very close to home.
film, on the other hand, is an incomprehensible mess.
film and the novel follow the same basic structure: Myra Breckinridge
arrives in Hollywood in the late '60s to collect her dead "husband"
Myron's inheritance: half of the land that the Buck Loner Academy
stands on, which is owned and run by her late husband's Uncle Buck.
While Buck checks out that his "fag nephew" was ever
married, let alone to such a devastatingly beautiful woman, he hires
her on to teach Empathy and Posture.
school is a parody of the hippie movement and the Method. Teachers
talk about being one with trees and sex is had right in the classroom
to "authenticate" the scene. Myra and her classy, Old
Hollywood ways are not amused.
waiting for her money, Myra decides to begin her life's work of
realigning the sexes. She sets her sights on the dashing Rusty, a
man's man, complete with a Southern drawl. By emasculating him
(through rape and stealing his girl), she will emasculate all the men
of the world. The rape scene is infamous and is the best scene in
and his lawyers prove that Myron wasn't dead and that he was never
married to Myra. At which point, Myra climbs atop his desk and shows
him her vaginoplasty scar. His gay nephew became his niece two years
ago in Copenhagen. He cuts her a check.
has succeeded! Myra Breckinridge has conquered all! Except for one
thing. Mary-Ann cannot love her as she is. "Oh, Myra. If you
were only a man." The next day, Myra gets hit by a car and wakes
up from her coma as a man.
is where the novel and the film separate most. In the novel, we are
meant to believe that the initial sex change from Myron to Myra
actually happened – and that the switch back to Myron was caused by
a dangerous rupture in her silicon breasts. The film, however, begins
with the first sex change operation, highly stylized in a way that
alludes it may be a fantasy. The film also has Myra and Myron appear
on screen together and interchangeably to show that they are two
halves of the same person. The car accident is actually caused by
Myron running Myra down in cold blood (a visceral, yet confusing
piece of business) after Mary-Ann tells Myra that she wishes she were
a man. Myron awakens in the hospital room reaching for his breasts
only to discover that...it was all a dream. Maybe (?) The nurse looks
an awful lot like Mary-Ann. And Myra, who looks an awful lot like
Raquel Welch, is on the cover of his bedside magazine.
film adopts the tone and the style of the novel, particularly in the
fabulous performance by Raquel Welch as Myra, yet is truncated in a
way that only readers of the novel can accurately follow the film's
plot and purpose; the test of a horrible adaptation. Director Michael
Sarne claims that studio interruptions and an air of "too many
cooks" spoiled the stew (as well as his career – he never made
another film in Hollywood). He would love to reedit the film and do a
Director's Cut (although would this fix the elephantine pacing? I
need to get a copy of the original script before it was hacked to
pieces....Welch claims there were dozens of rewrites, some up to the
day of shooting).
Sarne was inept. Perhaps the studio did intervene too often. But I'm
putting the blame on Mae West.
is one of the most indelible film personalities of the 20th Century.
I call her a personality because she wasn't really an actress. Her
characters are all the same variation on a stock type that she
created: the brassy, sex-crazed, too-wise-for-her-own-good broad who
turned men into amoebas with a hip bob, a moan, and a double entendre
(Bette Midler and Madonna owe their careers to her audacity).
was also an insane megalomaniac, who like Norma Desmond, thought she
was still living in her glory days (without coincidence, Wilder
offered her the lead in Sunset Boulevard but she turned
it down because she refused to play a has-been). Her film She
Done Him Wrong (1933) saved Paramount from bankruptcy (as
did Gloria Swanson's films in the '20s, incidentally) and she never
forgot it (or, presumably, let anyone else forget it). Myra
Breckinridge, her first film in 27 years, was to be her comeback.
And she was leaving nothing to chance.
like she always had been, was given carte blanche to rewrite her
scenes. You would think the Mae West brand of campy schtick would fit
well into a world of trannies and sexual debauchery. But what results
are three distinct films: one inspired by Gore Vidal, one interpreted
by Michael Sarne, and one written from scratch by Mae West.
character of Myra is the most Vidal; naturally because the novel is a
first-person account from her – much of her dialogue is
lifted/heavily influence by the novel, as is Buck Loner's
(wonderfully played by John Huston).
introduced the idea of having Myron included and then hiring Rex Reed
(a brilliant piece of type casting) to play him, much to Raquel
Welch's chagrin (she took the part largely because she thought she
would be playing both roles).
then there was West's film where she turned Vidal's Leticia van
Allen, the Queen Agent of the Casting Couch, into...well, Mae West.
Leticia was already full of zing and verve and personality, yet West
felt the need to employ her shameless mugging to an already over the
top piece of camp. She even gave herself a song, which had no purpose
other than to show that Mae still had "it" – which,
honestly, as an interpreter of song, she never had.
It's really very embarrassing to watch. The 77-year-old West (playing
a character who was 40 in the book, by the way) writhing on stage
with a bevy of muscle men, touching herself in choppy gyrating
motions that are somehow supposed to turn us on(?). Is she laughing
at herself? Or does she really think she's still a sex symbol?!
Chances are it's the latter. Eight years later, at 85!, she made her
swan song Sextette, where, and I am not joking here,
men are actually clamoring for her.
somehow in her delusional state, was aware that Welch – Hollywood's
newest sex symbol thanks to her performance in One Million
Years B.C. – was who the boys were coming to see. So
instead of playing the gracious legend, knowing that her place in
history was secured, Mae came out fighting like a wild cat (or a
cougar, as it were; no wonder Madonna worships her). Mae refused to
appear in the same shots with Raquel, which when the characters in
the novel are best friends precipitates a serious rethinking of Act
3. When Mae learned that Raquel was going to appear in a black dress
while she was wearing a white dress (Mae was the only one who could
wear a "non-color"), the dress promptly "disappeared"
even though legendary designer Edith Head had been brought in just to
make Mae's dresses. At the film's premiere, Mae even demanded that
Raquel circle the block so they didn't arrive at the same time. And
for what? For a film that would be panned from here to Shanghai,
disowned by its cast and crew and Vidal, and referred to by Time "as
funny as a child molester.”
is it as awful as legend has it? Well, yes. And no. Discounting the
novel, which one must always do when attempting to appreciate an
adaptation, the film certainly has a distinct campy charm to it, an
unmistakably gay sensibility that still shocks 43 years later.
Sarne's stroke of genius was interpolating Myra's love of classic
movies ("between 1935 and 1945, not a single insignificant film
was made") through classic film clips of Laurel and Hardy,
Shirley Temple, and dozens of others to comment on the action and the
mood of the film. (Temple and the White House actually demanded her
footage be removed because she was a US Ambassador at the time and
thought it sullied her reputation, but they lost and the footage
from Heidi of Shirley getting sprayed in the face
with milk remains.) And the inspired casting, including Farrah
Fawcett as the dumb blond Mary-Ann who only wants to settle down and
worship her husband's dreams, is his ace in the hole; Welch should
have been nominated for something.
biggest problem with the film is pacing and focus. Too much time is
devoted to the ambiance of the school and the foolishness of Leticia
van Allen that Myra's mission becomes muddled. The film clips, while
fitting and funny, sometimes go on too long and take you out of the
action. It's almost as if they were occasionally being used to fill
run time when Sarne realized he had unusable footage.
the most egregious misstep is that we are kept at an arm's length
from Myra. We are actually distanced from everyone, but she is the
one that matters. Vidal's Myra is a conniving, yet lovable bitch. We
root for her in spite of ourselves. Sarne and Welch's Myra is mostly
surface. The buried humanity, of which Vidal's Myra surprises even
herself in the final third of the book, is almost lost in the
surrounding rubbish. Welch gets her moment of semi-catharsis after
the rape and pulls it off beautifully, but the context is not as
developed in the film. The book gives us Myra as a fully formed fake
woman; the film only gives us an imitation of her diabolical nature,
which can only yield a fraction of her downfall. Welch is working as
hard as she can and makes Vidal's most famous creation come to vivid
life, but the film can't support her. And so it crumbles.
1974, Vidal wrote a sequel, aptly named Myron.
It picks up a few years after Myra
Myron and Mary-Ann are happily married, living in the Valley, and
running a Chinese catering company. One night, he falls asleep
of Babylon on
TV and wakes up inside the movie in 1948! Once inside, "Myra"
begins to resurface, appalled to find that her beautiful vagina has
been replaced with a hideous (yet large – and testicle-free) penis.
Practically chapter by chapter, Vidal switches between "Myra"
and "Myron" as they battle for dominance within the body;
Myron as a Republican fag hater desperately trying to get out of the
film and back to Mary-Ann, Myra desperately trying to stay in the
film and the Golden Age of Hollywood and take over MGM – and regain
"her" body to its voluptuous state. Vidal elaborates
themes of fluid sexuality and gender (mis)identity with Myra pledging
to turn the men of the world into trannies.