Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The aggressively tasteless Myra Breckinridge is the key title at the core of the Great Hollywood
Meltdown of 1970. With their expensive roadshow attractions bombing, several studios brought in "hip"
young talent to try to find the elusive new youth market augured by movies like Easy Rider -
"You know, for kids." Because of the success of M*A*S*H, anything with Elliot Gould or Donald
Sutherland could find a place before the cameras. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda were treated like
Most of America scoffed at the notion that hippies, free love and foreign-movie sex would start a
cultural revolution in America, but at 20th Fox the idea must have been taken as gospel. The unfilmable
erotic novel by Gore Vidal was greenlit for no other reason than it was Far Out and Groovy, and like,
anything goes, man! English director Michael Sarne's previous Joanna was a mannered but fairly
well-reviewed art film. The fact that he had long hair was probably just as important a factor in his
hiring. With the same perverse sense of anarchy that produced such jaw-droppingly witless spectacles
as Otto Preminger's Skiddoo!, Myra Breckinridge reared its ugly head, only to be hammered
back down again.
Myron Breckinridge (Rex Reed) undergoes a sex-change operation and emerges as
Myra (Raquel Welch), a ravishing, man-hating harpy. But Myron and Myra seem to coexist separately as
Myra tries to wrest control of a flaky acting school run by Myron's Uncle, Buck Loner (John Huston).
Super agent Leticia Van Allen (Mae West) is dragged into the proceedings, which become an unending
parade of wild parties and sinister seductions designed by Myra to use sex to seize power and
As "shocking" movies go, all that really distinguishes Myra Breckinridge is some smutty talk
and seamy sex scenes that would be rated with a soft "R" if it weren't for a general air of perversity.
There's lots of nudity but all the sex is presented as wild comedy that wants to be satiric. An inert
party scene is decorated with naked people playing patty-cake, and that staple of the times, nude body
Most of the big-name cast is game for what they hoped would be a movie about a new kind of sexual
revolution. John Huston is totally content to make amusing faces, read his lines and
collect his paycheck. He's actually rather entertaining. Raquel Welch is gung-ho as Myra, although
nothing she can do can begin to make sense of a confused character. What she wants to accomplish
by sexually dominating Buck Loner's top pupils (Roger Herren and misty-eyed Farrah Fawcett) is
completely unclear. After four or five features as a bikini model, this was to be her ticket to a
higher level of stardom, and it must have been a huge disappointment.
Mae West is a welcome sight, even though she looks postively scary, like a disinterred corpse. She
gives out with a steady stream of dirty one-liners that reportedly were personal contributions ("I'll be
right with ya, boys. Get your resumés out!") and sings what sounds just like a Rap song
in a flashy musical number. West exists in her own meaningless fantasy inhabited dozens of handsome
studs, like a young Tom Selleck. If it weren't for some verbal references to her and a phone call here
or there, she's not even in the same movie.
Rex Reed was the second major film reviewer to be contribute to a Fox movie in 1970; I'd like to imagine
a meeting between him and Roger Ebert during filming. Reed's god-awful acting confuses the proceedings
beyond hope, especially when we learn from the director's own lips that 99% of Myra Breckinridge
is supposed to be a straight man's wild sex dream after having an automobile accident. Rex Reed's grotesque
performance needs to be analyzed by someone with more insight into gay-straight movie politics. Potentially
offensive gay stereotypes are all over the place, especially Calvin Lockhart, returning from Sarne's
One of Michael Sarne's few observations about the Gore Vidal source novel in his commentary is that Vidal
placed a major sodomy scene at the climax of all his books. (!) Sarne's approach to the material tries
to turn it into a freewheeling satirical grab-bag of jokes and trendy references. He'd already ended
Joanna with a limp attempt at a big tinseltown musical number, and here he decides that Hollywood
nostalgia fever should dictate everything in sight.
The film starts with Raquel and Rex dancing to an old Shirley Temple song across the street from Grauman's
Chinese. Rex Reed drops meaningless references to older movies, even obscure pictures
like The Lost Moment. Sarne keeps the camera moving and scenes popping, but deprived of
a context, few of the jokes are funny. Pointless and weird can be a real drag even in straight
comedies like Casino Royale and
1941. Here we're just hit with a barrage of unpleasantness. The Myron-Myra duo of
Raquel and Rex remains obscure and unrewarding - neither funny nor interesting.
Sarne injects an editorial snowstorm of clips from old movies, mostly Fox pictures, that comment
Fractured-Flickers-style on the proceedings. Old actors in B&W do double-takes in response to
dirty jokes, etc. These can be amusing (when can Laurel & Hardy not be amusing?) but the device
quickly begins to drag. In his commentary, Sarne thinks he invented the device, which has been used in
comedy short subjects since at least the 1930s. Editor Ralph Rosenblum used ancient film clips to
comment on new comedy footage much more adroitly in The Night They Raided Minsky's just
two years before.
Myra Breckinridge has clearly wants to be shockingly hip, as if audiences couldn't wait to see
movies with every kind of sexual taboo flaunted. Some cinema politics at the time advanced the notion
that taboo-breaking would lead to needed social and sexual revolutions ... conquering Nixon with smut,
I suppose. All Sarne can contribute are flower-power movie clichés: cops busting the heads of
hippies, a judge (William Hopper of
20 Million Miles to Earth) secretly smoking
a joint, live sex being cheered in an "acting" workshop. Actresses today micromanage every detail of
their performances with an eye to their star image; Welch in Breckinridge seems ready to do
anything. In an unfunny scene of miserable taste, Myra straddles a meeting table in a miniskirt and
removes her panties to show a bunch of businessmen her sex change operation. 1
In another extended scene it appears she's raping young actor Roger Herren with a strap-on device that
we're never shown. Michael Sarne says what she straps on is a set of six-guns, but we never see them ...
and they wouldn't account for what's happening to the rather upset Mr. Herren.
Around the periphery are many more decorative and insubstantial bit parts using familiar old faces. John
Carradine is great as a mad doctor. Jim Backus, Andy Devine and Grady Sutton show up briefly. Favorite
Singin' in the Rain shows more
understanding of the premise than anyone with a ten-second imitation of Rita Hayworth. Sarne, meanwhile,
shows his commitment to the concept of a personal stock company by giving his previous star
Geneviève Waïte a lame bit in a dentist's chair.
Nothing can rescue this picture; its only possible worth is as a sordid curiosity. Only Mae West comes
out in one piece, and she's a petrified fossil from thirty or forty years previous. I guess I'm glad
to have seen Myra Breckinridge, but I can't wait to start forgetting it.
Fox has presented Myra Breckinridge in a lavish and unheralded special edition that will amuse
and intrigue the curious. The flipper disc has one "special" version with a Michael Sarne commentary,
and on the other side a second, theatrical version with a Raquel Welch commentary. Both are fascinating.
Sarne comes off as a flavor-of-the-week director who knew little more than how to place a camera and
keep things visually interesting, and not much else. Tim Lucas will be interested to know that Sarne's
biggest hero is Federico Fellini and that he modeled several scenes after Toby Dammit. He openly
admits that the film was chaos, that he took the job because he was broke and now thinks it a
complete disaster. But he's ready to start re-editing a "good" version any time!
Raquel's commentary on the Theatrical Version is candid, unguarded and amusing. She's a great sport to
be doing a commentary at all. She starts with a big sigh, saying she still can't believe
she's in the film. She mainly reacts to the scenes as they come up - mostly being upset that
she didn't get to play both the male and female aspects of Myron/Myra. She compliments John
Huston and the old film clips, and rues every bad line and meaningless scene she's in. Her
opinion of Mae West: "She was a dockworker in drag."
Welch also gives an intelligent rundown on Gore Vidal's relationship to the film, something not
attempted in the 30 minute AMC Backstory episode, another extra. It's content to round
up all the gossipy highlights makes the film sound like a hoot - at least until it comes time
to show how it was received. Star Loretta Young successfully sued Fox for having her film clips hijacked
for an "X" rated film. A shot of Shirley Temple being squirted in the face by a cow's udder was
reportedly excised by Presidential decree (she was an ambassador at the time). After watching
the feature, it's easy to guess how the Temple clip was originally edited.
Raquel was luckily able to prove herself a good comedienne in Richard Lester's
The Three Musketeers. Once she
was clear of her Fox contract, she used her smarts to choose her roles very carefully.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Myra Breckinridge rates:
Movie: Fair - but better if you're into bizarre campy cultural atrocities with historical value
Supplements: separate theatrical and special edition versions ,
Commentary by Raquel Welch, Commentary by Michael Sarne, AMC Backstory episode.
Packaging: flipper disc in Keep case
Reviewed: March 7, 2004
1. This really reminds me
of the end of a Doris Day movie. Day becomes incensed at the sexual exploitation of a stunt when
Rock Hudson uses a buxom "bimbo" character to distract a boardroom of executives with her cleavage.
In neither film do we see anything, but the Day picture has a point to make while
the Sarne movie is just a cheap shock.
2. Yes I know Myra Breckinridge is rated "R" ... when it first
came out, it was rated "X".
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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