Monday, June 26, 2017

Myra Breckinridge

Train Wreck Cinema

By Jonathon Saia

Myra 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, 94 minutes.

"OK...well, fasten your seat belts because you are in shall I say...something really special." – Raquel Welch on the commentary track of Myra Breckinridge.

In 1968, Gore Vidal published a fascinating, irreverent piece of iconoclastic literature called Myra Breckinridge. 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 both sexes.

The 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.

The film, on the other hand, is an incomprehensible mess.

The 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.

The 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.

While 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 both mediums.

Buck 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.

She 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.

This 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 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.

The 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).

Perhaps Sarne was inept. Perhaps the studio did intervene too often. But I'm putting the blame on Mae West.

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).

She 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.

Mae, 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.

The 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).

Sarne 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).

And 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.

West, 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.”

But 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.

The 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.

But 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.

In 1974, Vidal wrote a sequel, aptly named Myron. It picks up a few years after Myra Breckinridge ends. Myron and Mary-Ann are happily married, living in the Valley, and running a Chinese catering company. One night, he falls asleep watching Siren 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 upon Myra Breckinridge's themes of fluid sexuality and gender (mis)identity with Myra pledging to turn the men of the world into trannies.

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