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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 visionaries.
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.
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 painting. 2
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 Joanna.
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 Kathleen Freeman 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".