Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge
Review by Megan Weireter
Posted on 09 July 2007
Source Fox DVD
Everything you’ve heard about Myra Breckinridge is true.
With this tagline, 20th Century Fox attempted to capitalize on the film’s notoriety when it first opened in 1970. An incompetent and probably drug-addled director, a script that seemed to disintegrate deeper into nonsense with each rewrite, and egomaniacal stars who couldn’t get along—all the drama surrounding the production was heavily publicized before the film’s release, and the original audiences were no doubt prepared to some degree for what they’d be seeing. Today that’s even more true. Myra Breckinridge’s fascinating history has been well-documented, and the film is famous for the unanimous howls, jeers, rage, and disgust that greeted its initial release.
But I had never seen it, and my curiosity was overwhelming; was everything I’d heard true? As Raquel Welch might ask, what is Myra Breckinridge? Is it interested in exploring gender dynamics, the culture’s discomfort with second-wave feminism, and its fear that powerful women will one day overthrow men completely? Is its chief goal to satirize the excesses of Hollywood and its downfall since its so-called golden age? Is the film just trying to stick it to the squares of the older generation with wanton sexual provocation? Does any of it actually make any sense?
The film opens with the gratuitous weirdness that swiftly becomes the film’s hallmark: in an operating room that features pinkish walls, an audience of men who wouldn’t be out of place in an Elks club meeting, a strange winking overly made-up nurse, and a woman wandering around with a bullwhip. Just so we don’t miss how totally freaked out the scene is, it is framed within the warped mirrors on the ceiling. It is here that Myron Breckinridge is undergoing surgery to become a female, Myra. Once Myron becomes Myra, she sets off on her mission, which is “the destruction of the American male in all its particulars.” This goal leads her to the Buck Loner Academy, where the students, a bunch of young free-wheeling love children, are trained to become the next generation of Hollywood stars. Buck Loner is a washed-up star of westerns, and also her uncle (though she plays the part of Myron’s widow), and she has come to claim the half of the school that, legally, belongs to her. As a stalling tactic, Buck gives Myra a position teaching, and the zaniness begins.
Myra quickly fixates on two of her students, the entirely conventional and attractive young couple Rusty and Mary Anne, as subjects for her amoral gender theories. In a nutshell, Myra believes that men desire to be raped by women, and vice versa, and that when women rape men the men will become homosexual, resulting in a decline of overpopulation and greater happiness for all humans. (Don’t even bother to parse that.) Inevitably, of course, her conviction culminates in the infamous rape scene, with Myra in a cowboy hat and patriotic stripper outfit sticking it to Rusty with a strap-on. In a film that could otherwise be enjoyed purely as camp, this scene is the only one that actually overwhelms the viewer with any kind of feeling, and unfortunately it’s revulsion (rather like the rape scene in Showgirls, which almost sinks that otherwise flawless movie). It’s obviously supposed to be some kind of emotional pinnacle, perhaps even the peak of camp—it’s certainly treated as something hilarious. But nothing about it works, and the scene’s displacement from the rest of the film only makes it even more disturbing.
The entire film has cute or amusing clips from old movies spliced in; presumably this is how Myra, a total film geek, inwardly comments on what’s going on around her. These random clips accompany quick cuts, breakneck pacing, and scenes that seem to have no purpose at all (think Farrah Fawcett crooning “P is for peanut butter!” and letting Rex Reed lick some off her finger). Those middle-aged 20th Century Fox executives must have thought they had a real edgy hit on their hands, something that the crazy youth of America could get excited about. But it’s all gratuitous—it’s simply director Michael Sarne giggling at how clever he is and throwing nonsense up on screen. It just goes to show that true innovation means more than just MTV-esque editing and dream sequences, no matter how ahead of its time it might be.
Today gender reassignment is usually understood to be a process of making external reality mesh with what is already an inner reality—that is, a transgendered person’s identification as one gender or another regardless of anatomy, resulting in a troubled sense of self that gender reassignment can attempt to correct. But Myra Breckinridge’s take on the issue is unlike any contemporary view. Myra’s transgenderism is a form of personality disorder, in which Myra and Myron coexist. Myra is the version the outside world sees and the dominant personality, while Myron is still with her, normally keeping to the background, but taking over in a few scenes. He can often be found hanging out quietly observing whatever outrageous thing Myra is doing (sometimes he’s eating popcorn). When Myra and Myron are alone, they talk with each other, and as they do so it becomes clear that when gender reassignment created Myra it actually created an entirely different person. In other words, it is Myra who believes her theory about how rape can save the world. Myron thinks it’s bullshit, and tells Myra so. This is gender reassignment as Jekyll and Hyde scenario, with Myra the sociopathic Hyde intent on the destruction of sexual norms, and Myron looking on, with less horror than ambivalence, at what he’s unleashed. It doesn’t seem as though Myron ever wanted to be a woman—he just wanted to free the evil part of himself from his whole self (and, of course, the evil self happens to be female). This is true from the opening scene: as Myron is about to undergo surgery, he says to the surgeon, “Let’s get it over with—Myra’s waiting.” Even before his body becomes Myra’s body, she is within him, exercising her demonic control over his destiny. The scene in which Myra gives Myron a blowjob cements her dominance over him—or perhaps it’s merely more gratuitous weirdness and/or sexual content—during the course of the film, it’s often hard to tell.
I’ve seen this film cited as the one that killed Raquel Welch’s career, but I’m of the opinion that her performance is the film’s best asset. She prowls through her scenes with all the intelligence, confidence, and menace that the role deserves, completely over-the-top but never hammy. You can see that she’s acting, but Myra is something barely human anyway, really a walking performance, and it just works. Welch rallies gamely, courageously even, as the film falls apart all around her. And her costumes, designed by Theadora Van Runkle, are supurb—outfits that reveal the aggressiveness of Myra’s unique brand of femininity. Raquel Welch stalking around the school cafeteria in huge ruffled collars and tall veiled hats is one of the most terrifying and exhilarating things I think I’ve ever seen on film.
And then there’s Mae West. Here she plays Leticia Van Allen, a talent scout considerably less interested in her male clients’ assets than in their asses. West is 76 here, dolled up in a platinum blond wig and a series of delicious black and white Edith Head—designed outfits, several of them with furry hats, and she’s in full-on oversexed broad mode. I lost count of how many men she slept with and how many cute punny remarks she makes about doing so. Did she know how strange all this looks—was she somehow parodying herself? I’m not sure how in on the joke she was, actually. West was apparently loathe to share any spotlight with Welch, to the point of refusing to ever appear in the same shot with her. This makes for bizarre disconnect between their two storylines. There’s only one scene that has both women in it, and the camera is obliged to hop back and forth between the two of them, just to satisfy West’s ego. There’s nothing like a feud between divas to help make an awkward film even more awkward. No matter how much you enjoy Leticia’s scenes (and I did very much), they feel like they’re in a different movie. This goes double for the musical number that West apparently insisted on performing.
Myra Breckinridge might just end up being one of the most ambitious bad movies you ever see. I can’t help but compare it to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (also released by 20th Century Fox in 1970); I kept thinking about how that film, though just as ambitious in its own way, takes itself far less seriously and is so much more fun to watch. Sarne never did figure out the extent to which he wanted to say something serious in the midst of all this camp, and the whole reason for the film’s existence seems confused.
But still, there’s a fair bit of fun to be had for the viewer who sticks with it. Be warned, though: it has one of the most disappointing endings I’ve ever seen, the kind of ending an adolescent writer would find cutting-edge but is really just lazy and, like so much else here, irrationally weird. Everything you’ve heard about this film is true. Can you handle it?