Tuesday, May 7, 2013

MYRA BRECKINRIDGE 1970

Although Myra Breckinridge was a movie that thoroughly captured my adolescent imagination and attention in 1970, it was also one of the very few films my parents absolutely forbade me to see. Obligingly in the dark about so many of the other age-inappropriate matinees I traipsed off to on Saturday afternoons, since my parents actually owned a copy of Gore Vidal's novel (which my sisters and I snuck clandestine, barely comprehending, peeks at) they weren't about to let their 12-year-old son see a movie whose much-touted set-piece and raison d’ĂȘtre was the dildo rape of a young man by a transsexual in a star-spangled bikini. Good parenting will out!
Needless to say, all of this failed to quell my fascination with the film. On the contrary, it fueled it. The hype surrounding Myra Breckinridge (the words"disgusting" and "obscene" almost always in attendance) set my hormonal teenage mind racing at the thought of Hollywood making the first big-budget, all-star, dirty movie. And here I was, a young man fancying himself a mature-beyond-his-years cineaste, present at what looked to be a seminal moment in the cultural shift in American motion pictures...and I wasn't allowed to participate in it.  Life can be so unfair.
"It's going to be treated importantly. It's not going to be dismissed."
A sweetly delusional Welch talking about Myra Breckinridge on The Dick Cavett Show
Well, as we all know, once Myra Breckinridge hit the theaters, that anticipated cultural shift turned out instead to be but a brief detour into a blind alley. Myra Breckinridge tanked stupendously at the boxoffice, taking with it Mae West's unasked-for comeback, Raquel Welch's already tenuous legitimacy, and director Michael Sarne's entire career (every cloud has a silver lining). Following months and months of pre-release hoopla, Myra Breckinridge swiftly dropped out of sight and by the time I finally got around to seeing it, I was 21 years old and it was showing on a double-bill with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles (a Sunset Strip revival house just blocks away from the site of that iconic rotating cowgirl billboard).
The Sahara Hotel billboard on Sunset Blvd with the iconic rotating showgirl atop a silver dollar.
 The Billboard was erected (if I can use that word in a Myra Breckinridge post) in the mid 50s and at one time included a pool and bathing beauties. It remained in that spot for 11 years. 
(Image courtesy of  Classic Las Vegas)
The billboard shows up during the title sequence of the 1963 Joanne Woodward film, The Stripper
The billboard recreated for the film. Myra, the symbol of the new woman.
Obscene and disgusting are certainly in the eye of the beholder, but it's my guess that this sexual revolution comedy was a good deal more shocking at the start of the sexual revolution than during its last gasps. I saw Myra Breckinridge in 1978, and by then the New Hollywood was on the verge of obsolescence, the underground films of John Waters and Andy Warhol had practically gone mainstream, disco was on the wane, Linda Lovelace had found religion, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show was the latest word in gender-bending camp. In this atmosphere, Myra Breckinridge's legendary irreverence seemed almost quaint. With nothing to be shocked about in its content, all that was left to respond to was the freakshow spectacle of movie stars who should have known better, making absolute fools of themselves. This may not sound like much, but in the days before reality television, celebrities humiliating themselves was a rarity, not a nightly prime-time attraction.

If you don’t count a thoroughly delightful episode of Mr. Ed (!) in 1965, Myra Breckinridge was Mae West’s first time in front of the cameras since 1943’s The Heat’s On. Top-billed and paid more than twice Raquel Welch's salary, West insisted on singing several songs in the film, although it really made no logical sense for her character, a talent agent.  But nobody went to Myra Breckinridge looking for sense.
Observant fans recognize Mae's nightclub as the surgical arena used for Myron's operation at the opening of the film.Whether this was a budgetary choice or an early indication that all of this is a hospital fever dream cooked up in Myron's head scarcely mattered, since the film makes absolutely no sense.
Much like when a little kid learns his first words of profanity and proudly struts about shouting, "Fuck...fuck...fuck...," with no comprehension of what he is really saying, Myra Breckinridge's so-called sexual effrontery is peculiarly naive, and thus, uproariously funny...but in almost none of the ways intended.
Behind Myra Breckinridge's convoluted fantasy about a homosexual movie buff (a typecast Rex Reed) undergoing a sex change to become the Amazonian Myra Breckinridge (Welch) in order to destroy masculinity and thus realign the sexes (!?!), there lurks a rather cynical and misanthropic film that has no convictions, sexual or otherwise, beyond doing anything it can to attract a young audience.(20th Century Fox was feeling the sting of maga-flops: Star!, Doctor Dolittle, and Hello Dolly!) Myra Breckinridge is beautifully shot, splendidly costumed, and I really thought the use of old movie clips was quite inspired; but the casting, script, and performances are downright surreal. I couldn't wrap my mind around this being a film a major studio actually thought audiences would turn out to see. Even by the screwy standards of 70s gonzo cinema (see: Angel, Angel Down We GoMyra Breckinridge is bizarre beyond belief.
Raquel Welch as Myra Breckinridge
Mae West as Leticia Van Allen
John Huston as Buck Loner
Roger Herren as Rusty Godowski
Farrah Fawcett as Mary Ann Pringle
Introducing Rex Reed as Myron Breckinridge
Although Myra Breckinridge ranks rather high on my roster of favorite cult films, I've put off writing about it until now because, unlike films like Xanadu and Valley of the Dolls that actually work for me on some level (even if that level is simply camp), Myra Breckinridge is a rarity in that it is one of the few films I take pleasure in precisely because it doesn't work at all. I know that sounds odd, but Myra Breckinridge is such a misguided oddity - from concept to execution - it commands a kind of respect. You marvel at how anyone involved in getting it to the screen ever thought there was any hope for the film at all. It's not a film I laugh with (outside of John Huston's note-perfect performance, this is one of the least funny comedies I've ever seen), its a film I laugh at.

I'm reminded of the 1955 Frank Tashlin comedy, The Girl Can't Help It, a movie that appears on the surface to be a celebration of rock & roll but is actually a scathingly satiric, anti-rock & roll diatribe. Myra Breckinridge sets itself up as a contemporary sex comedy out to skewer America's sexual hypocrisy and lampoon Hollywood's repressed gender images; but at its core, it's a staunchly anti-sex film deeply embarrassed by itself. A sexual fake-out promising a more progressive experience than it's capable of delivering.
Something is definitely wrong with an X-rated film that puts Raquel Welch and Farrah Fawcett together in the same bed and doesn't know what to do with them.
Starting with the bait-and-switch casting of Ms.Welch herself (what else but a perverse sadistic streak would inspire the casting of 60s sex symbol Raquel Welch in an X-rated movie, only to have her be one of the most overdressed members of the cast?), the people behind Myra Breckinridge not only appear to have had little to no understanding of the book, but seem to have harbored an outright contempt both for its subject matter and the young audience whose favor it hoped to curry. Every frame has the feel of 20th Century Fox communicating its resentful vexation at having to stoop so low in order to appeal to the base sensibilities of the suddenly indispensable youth market that kept American movie boxoffices in a stranglehold during the 60s and 70s.
It's not for lack of bread, like the Grateful Dead
Michael Sarne (l.) played a director on the set of Myra Breckinridge. Donald Sutherland (r.) who had a small role in Sarne's first film, Joanna, played a Michael Sarne-esque director in 1970s Alex in Wonderland. 
Listen to Michael Sarne's 1964 pop hit, "Come Outside" HERE  
Alfred Hitchcock and Cecil B. DeMille may have worn a suit and tie while directing, but by 1970, long hair and a beard was considered standard equipment if you wanted to be taken seriously in Hollywood. Michael Sarne was a former British pop star with only one other film to his credit (Joanna, a film I actually liked) before being handed the $5 million reins to a movie at one time pitched to Bud Yorkin (Start the Revolution Without Me) and George Cukor. Michael Sarne has continued to work as an actor, appearing in a small role last year's Les Miserables, but the debacle of Myra Breckinridge effectively ended his career as a director of any note.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
The only people I know disappointed on seeing Myra Breckinridge for the first time are those expecting it to live up to its notorious reputation. Always a very tame “X”, Myra Breckinridge is nowhere near as explicit as its rating would suggest, it's ideologically dated, more asexual than sexy, narratively jumbled, not particularly funny, and arrives at its camp appeal mostly by way of having its laid-on-with-a-trowel attempts at intentional camp land with a resounding thud.
Calvin Lockhart, star of Michael Sarne's Joanna, portrays the flamingly effeminate Irving Amedeus, a student at Buck Loner's acting school. In a film with so many people to offend in a mere 94 minutes, Lockhart's character saves time in being simultaneously offensive to both African-Americans and gays.
So what does work about the film? To enjoy Myra Breckinridge, one has to accept that its greatest value is as sociological artifact. In the staunchly conventional world of moviemaking, Myra Breckinridge is an oddity that could not have been made at any other time in the history of motion pictures, not even today. Its weirdness is almost exhilarating. You may not get it, hell, you may not even enjoy it that much, but to watch this film is to gaze into the very heart of the panic, chaos, and desperation that was Hollywood in the transitional 60s and 70s. With cinema icons John Huston and Mae West relegated to the roles of dirty-old man / dirty old woman; sexpot Raquel Welch used as the uncomprehending butt of the film’s sole sex joke; and a glossy, $5 million production built around pissing on the entirety of motion picture history, Myra Breckinridge is a big monster truck rally faceoff between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood.
In a role originally intended for Mickey Rooney (I shudder at the thought) John Huston gets into the absurdist spirit of things and is terrific. Mae West (here looking more than a little like Nancy Sinatra) is unfortunately more crass than sass when her legendary talent for comic innuendo is replaced by blunt coarseness.
PERFORMANCES:
No actor gets to choose the role for which they will always be associated and remembered. Sometimes, as was the case with Mia Farrow and Rosemary’s Baby, it occurs at the start of a career and sets a difficult to match standard.  If the fates are not kind, it can happen mid-career with the taking on of an embarrassing role that  unjustly overshadows all the quality work that came before it…that would be Faye Dunaway and Mommie Dearest. In the case of Raquel Welch, a breathtakingly beautiful actress who, if one were to base these things on talent alone, could well have gone the way of Edy Williams (who you ask? I've made my point), Myra Breckinridge, for better or worse, is the role she was born to play and stands as an appropriate representation of both the woman and her career.
A Simple Girl With a Dream
I can't imagine a major actress taking on this role today. Had the film been successful, what kind of "better" parts did Ms. Welch hope  would come her way? As for the vulnerable Mr. Herren, he wisely dropped off the face of the earth after this.
And that is by no means a put-down. While I think the filmmakers cruelly exploit Ms. Welch’s limited range and rather artificial appeal to create a campy portrait of an affected woman whose image, behavior, and speech patterns are inspired by old movies, Welch is surprisingly good. In fact, she’s rather winningly committed to the silliness of it all and shows more life and spirit in the role than she usually does onscreen. She is the only reason the film remains so watchable for me. Displaying a kind of amateurish aplomb in the face of truly cringe-inducing scenes, Welch is both vivacious and engaging while never coming across as quite human...which, oddly enough, works perfectly for this movie. I still think she gives her best screen performance in The Wild Party (1975), but Raquel IS and always will be Myra Breckinridge, and I applaud her in the role.
The only convincing part of Rex Reed's performance
Homophobic but desperate-for-work director Michael Sarne (who, in a documentary about the making of the film, literally says "Ick!" when describing the book) complained to producers about Rex Reed being "faggy," "prissy," and "unpleasant"  on the set.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Two things: Myra's wardrobe, Raquel Welch's looks. The late, great  costume designer Theadora Van Runkle (Bonnie & Clyde, New York, New York) channels her inner drag queen and comes up with some outrageously outrĂ© 40s-inspired fashions for America's most famous transsexual. Welch, who has gone on record as saying that her costumes are the only happy memories she takes from the making of the film, is a solid knockout in the looks department, and for all the weirdness she's engaged in, she's probably never been photographed more flatteringly.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
With then 28-year-old Raquel Welch now just three years away from approaching Mae West's 76 years when they first clashed during the making of Myra Breckinridge, I find that once again, personal nostalgia comes into play when reassessing a film from my youth. Although there was a time when I used to look at Myra Breckinridge and merely sigh at all the lost opportunities, when I watch the film now it is with a lighter spirit and a perspective born of seeing what has become of the reckless instincts that spawned Myra Breckinridge in the first place. In the wake of today's formulaic comic book franchises and film adaptations of everything from old TV shows to board games; the spectacular disaster of Myra Breckenridge looks positively brave.
And as is often the case with spectacular disasters, the story of the making of Myra Breckinridge is a good deal more fascinating than the film itself. The internet is full of great interviews, clips, and articles about the Myra Breckenridge's troubled path to the screen.

Not to be missed: A YouTube clip of Raquel Welch on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970. Welch (who has since lightened up quite a bit) is heavily into her "I'm a serious actress!" phase, and it makes for riotously fun television watching her espousing at pretentious length Myra Breckinridge's merits, all while having her pomposity continuously deflated by the gentle directness of Janis Joplin. (See it HERE)
You know you've found true love when your partner supports  (if not exactly encourages) your obsessions. The are Tippi Hedren Barbies, Audrey Hepburn Barbies...my talented partner decided it was high time for a Raquel Welch as Myra Breckinridge Barbie and came of with this amazing creation.
Also, the DVD release of Myra Breckinridge has just about the best bonus feature commentaries I've ever heard. Director Michael Sarne talks on one side of the disc (pretty much absolving himself of all blame and settling a few scores), but the best is Raquel Welch talking about the film on the flip side. Gone is the 1970s pretentiousness, and in its place, a hilariously straightforward incredulity at what she got herself into so many years ago. She's self-effacing, truthful, and very, very funny. It redeems the sins of the film tenfold just to hear Raquel herself exclaim, "What was I thinking?"
Myra- "God bless America!"              Leticia- "God help America!"
Copyright © Ken Anderson

23 comments:

  1. I saw this film in one of my cinema studies film classes back in the 90s, and was surprised not only by how amateur it looked (such as the weird--the very weird--opening sort-of dance performed by Welch and a hapless Reed), but by how many old-Hollywood character actors peppered the piece, such as Grady Sutton and John Carradine. It gave the movie such a strange sense of disconnect (dear old Grady Sutton in an X-rated movie?). But I recall Welch sailing bravely through it all; she seemed to grab at her role as if it had Oscar potential. I just love your post and your great analysis of the old/new clash in Hollywood that epitomizes this film.

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    1. Once again, you bring up such excellent points for discussion!
      Ah, yes...Raquel's earnest approach to the role is one of the reasons I think the film can be kind of painful to watch. At this point in her career Welch was clearly on the defensive about her lack of talent, and was hellbound to make "Myra Breckinridge" the vehicle to prove the naysayers wrong. At times her indomitability reminded me of Joan Crawford in "Trog"; it's like she thinks she can wrest the entire production out of the gutter single-handedly.

      And all those older actors trotted out as sight-gag grotesques. You get the impression they were all so happy to be working again and were never shown the rest of the script.

      Lastly, I'm glad you brought up that title sequence. It looks like it was shot by another director (and given that the film had 11 screenplays, I wouldn't be surprised if someone had taken over for Sarne at some point). The choreography between Welch and Reed is really clumsy and awkward-looking, like they had no time to rehearse. Also, I'm never sure if it was intentional for us to have seen that huge stage light and crew member standing on a ladder reflected in the glass doors and in the side of the frame. The effect is indeed amateurish.It gets the film off to a very wobbly start.
      Thanks very much, GOM. I always get a kick out of reading your take on these offbeat films!

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  2. I recently rewatched this for the second time (my own first viewing coming about eight years or so ago.) I read the book about 16 or 18 years ago and remember liking it a lot! What a mess of a film, but one that's fascinating to behold. As a child of the '70s, I always like seeing Farrah Fawcett looking so young, fresh and pretty (before her legendary 'do!) and Tom Selleck without his mustache. I also enjoy behind the scenes feuding, so its interesting to note how Mae and Raquel didn't hit it off at all and, in fact, never appear in the same frame together. (I've been trying to decide if it's them or stand-ins for them whose rear head views are shown in the restaurant/diner scene.) I thought Roger Herren was kind of dreamy and wind up feeling sorry for both his character and him.

    I was veryclose to doing a tribute to the movie on my own site, but somehow let the moment pass me by. When I saw your own post about it, it surprised me because somehow I thought you had already covered it! I guess I must have known instinctively that it was the sort of movie you would like and would write about sooner or later.

    Mae was a bit of a horror show (but utterly captivating to witness!) and really should have let this be her swan song. "Sextette," about eight years after, was a major misstep! I recall Edith Head saying she made Mae's clothes (a person she delighted in designing for), but refused to ever watch the "filthy" movie itself. Like you say, but(t) for the sequence with Myra and Rusty, it's all really rather tame now!

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      I think Gore Vidal's book was very good too (although steer clear of its sequel, "Myron"). I really have no idea what audience they thought they were making the film for. it's a film that should have been targeting the gay/ arthouse/Warhol crowd, and they pitched it to heterosexual America.

      You're correct, by all taste indications this is the kind of film I would normally have written about years ago, but i really did put it off because it IS such a mess of a film. My subjective enjoyment of it aside.
      But, like you, I find it to be such an ambitious flop with such a terrible production history that it fascinates me.
      They have a lot of production stills from the movie at the Academy Library here in LA (Oh, what I wouldn't give to see the footage that was cut out...or even an early draft of the script!) and I was able to find a still that showed both Welch and West sitting together, but perhaps that was a setup for a medium shot. When they did the close ups, it totally looks like stand ins (also, I can't imagine Mae West's ego allowing for having the back of her head photographed while the lens is trained on Welch). There's also a still (you can see it online) of the two of them in the same shot from a scene not used in the film. You can totally see why West didn't want them in the film within the same frame. The pale Mae West looks like the ghost of Christmas past next to the super-tanned Welch.
      I really wish someone had written a book about the production of this film. It sounded like such a circus.
      Oh, and Herren was indeed very handsome. You can catch sight of him in "Paint your Wagon" during that "They Call the Wind Maria" number. The only thing I ever saw him in.
      If you ever should cover this film on your site, I look forward to reading what you can dig up!

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  3. It's great to read your review of "Myra Breckinridge"! I really wanted to read your opinion of it. Your point about the movie actually being anti-sex and embarrased about what was not considered the norm is very interesting. It may have been Michael Sarne's attitude toward all things queer shining through.

    It is such a strange film. It's mind-boggling that Farrah Fawcett and Raquel Welch, two of the biggest sex goddessses of the 70's, were not only in the same film but shared scenes together and even a bed in the film! Did Farrah ever comment about this? I agree that Raquel was very good and was very brave playing such a camp character.

    The film clips from old Hollywood movies in "Myra" do not work, in my opinion. It's a cheap way to make fun of old movies. I suppose that at the time those old films were considered ridiculous and unmodern as opposed to being considered classics of the golden age. Without those film clips "Myra" would have been much shorterand I wonder if the director would have had enough material of his own to fill an entire movie. I would rather have seen more scenes from the acting school, and of Raquel and her 1940s outfits, Roger Herren and Mae (and less of Rex Reed. Who could take him seriously as a film critic after that?).

    I must see this film again. I love the colourful photography. I wish it would have been a hit so that the studio would have made more films in similar style (minus the old film clips). Maybe it being a flop paved the way for John Waters? I remember that the commentaries on the dvd by Raquel and Michael Sarne were very entertaining and funny. Raquel's comments about Mae are priceless!
    -Wille

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    1. Yes. Although "Myra Breckinidge" has a cult following, I think it is considerably less beloved by some fans of gay camp because the movie has such a homophobic streak that some are more sensitive to than others. I could expand that and just say misanthropic, because nobody comes out of it very well.
      As for Farrah, wish I could remember the source(Playboy, perhsps?) but the only thing I ever read about her saying was that she was very unhappy making it and that she said that she would never let herself be treated so badly on a job again. I wish she had elaborated! Nobody seems to have had much fun on that film.

      Although I like the old clips, I think you are right in that the movie uses them as short cuts to degrade and make fun of the "corniness" of old movies and to make everyone associated with old Hollywood appear as ridiculous as possible. Such a sourball of a film, huh?

      I have seen lots of production stills of scenes not in the movie so I am positive that there were lots of things cut out (I'd read that Mae West had another song -God help us). I kind of thought they might have appeared on the DVD.
      But as you say, Raquel Welch's commentary on the DVD is hilarious and i love the potshots she takes at Mae West.
      She wasn't as scarred as badly as this as Faye Dunaway was by "Mommie Dearest" (Faye was a big star who had a big fall, Breckinridge was Welch's big chance to bust out (if you'll pardon the expression) from cheesy films like "Fathom" and "Flare-up"...it torpedoed her stardom a bit.

      By the way, I like your question about Rex Reed. how DID he ever bounce back from this?
      Thanks, Wille!

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    2. Vidal did squarely level the weirdly homophobic streak of the film at Sarnes, for what it's worth.

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  4. When I first saw MB when it was released, I didn't like it, but I did feel that Raquel was the only cast member who got the fey quality that the movie required. Having seen it about six months ago, my opinion hasn't changed. She's the best thing in it. It's a shame she didn't have more opportunities for comedy, as she has a deft, throwaway talent for it that has only been showcased now and then.

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    1. I agree. The film is very flawed, but Welch at least seems to be trying to play to the tone of the novel. The same for John Huston. Like Candice Bergen and Cybill Shepherd, beautiful women often have to age a bit before anyone grants them the opportunity be funny.
      Thanks for your comment!

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  5. Raquel Welch is an extremely underrated comic talent. If you ever want to see something really funny, check out the television special "Raquel!" (available on DVD) where Raquel does a flawless impression of Mae West that's more Mae than Mae. There's also much more recent online footage, from a Q&A session at a theatre last year, where Ms Welch, speaking about the making of "Myra Breckinridge", breaks out her Mae West impression.

    Also available online is footage of Raquel's appearance on "The Muppet Show" and her seduction of Fozzy Bear, the one where she refers to the Muppet as "sexsational"--all this from a "family-friendly" television show.

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    1. Hi Mark
      Yes! I saw that TV special (here I go dating myself, yet again) when it first aired! She does a great Mae West.
      Raquel is definitely better comedically than she is dramatically. But in "Bedazzled" she really sort of misses every comic opportunity for her role of Lust. When speaking bout that film on one of those YouTube interview clips, she criticizes her own performance (especially her terrible southern accent), only to have audience members say how much they loved it.
      She thanks them but adds something like, "Oh, you love me in everything," she then goes on to tell them that they should be more discerning. I loved that!

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  6. I don't have much to say about Myra B other than I struggled through it once out of curiosity and thought it was a total piece of crap at it's conclusion.

    Raquel was quite fetching in those costumes, unfortunately the disc I watched didn't contain her commentary which I'm sure would have improved this turkey immeasurably but I don't think I could make myself suffer through it again to hear her takedown of it.

    I really like Miss Welch not because I think she's a great actress, at best she's a fair to good one, but she is a very canny woman who understands her niche. She at times tried to broaden it slightly but never to the abandonment of her core image nor did she sacrifice her dignity for publicity cheapening her brand. She was also smart enough to change with the times, when her time as Sparkle Plenty was over she moved on to being the sexy mature woman. It helped of course that she has amazing bone structure plus she takes care of herself. She's obviously had work done BUT she has wisely not overdone it keeping her from becoming an unseemly gargoyle like Faye Dunaway. Then there's also her successful wig business which has provided her with the luxury of only taking work when she feels like it, loved her cameo in Legally Blonde brief though it was.

    None of her solo starring vehicles are much to write home about, although I really enjoyed Hannie Caulder and Fathom, but she's been in a few good all star productions the best of those being The Last of Sheila, a big favorite of mine. I also loved the blatant TV movie ripoff of the Elizabeth Taylor/Larry Fortensky romance-Torch Song.

    I caught the Raquel! special upon it's original airing and she deserves credit for trying but having revisited it on DVD last year it really wasn't very good. I also saw a clip on Youtube of her performing Bang-Bang surrounded by her safety gays and it is now seared into my brain, not in a good way.

    As for Mae West in MB, poor darling, I wish she had not allowed her vanity to get in the way of her legacy. She should have said no and let The Heat is On remain the finale of her film career. As far as Sexette she should have said OH HELL NO! to that catastrophe.

    I am familiar with Edy Williams having seen her "performance" in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as well as being routinely confronted with her shameless pandering for publicity back in her day. Surely that is one of the biggest factors why Raquel has endured and she hasn't, Rocky was never willing to debase herself simply for the sake of attention while Edy was not only willing but eager to do so. Fame whores have a very short shelf life.

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    1. Like the film "Sextette", "Myra Breckinridge" is a cult film people either love unconditionally or outright loathe. In listening to Welch talk about the filming, one can sense the origins of her the legendary self-protectiveness that helped to derail her career in later years.

      I make it a practice never to feel sorry for movie stars, but it must be a very vulnerable feeling to be involved in a project for which you will receive the lion share of blame for things you have absolutely no control over.
      This is one of those crazy productions I wish someone had kept a day by day diary of. It sounds like such a mess.
      O, and I agree with you about Welch's enduring appeal. Her innate prudery and unflappable self-enchantment seems to have saved her from engaging in some of the more of the more desperate attempts to stay relevant that so many of her sex symbol peers have fallen to. And indeed, she looks terrific and stopped short of whatever happened to Faye Dunaway.

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  7. The casting of Mae West (!!) was absolutely brilliant. She looked quite awesome for 76 years old, in some scenes a full 30 years younger than that. As a result, she was able to get away with playing a 40-ish (according to the book anyway) Leticia Van Allen. I also thought that West was the funniest thing in the movie.... how can you NOT laugh at her response when a tall cowboy says he's "five foot seven inches"?? She was also not a bad singer, and the sight of a woman her age actually feeling herself up during "Hard to Handle" (the Black Crowes / Otis Redding song, yep) is somehow hilarious yet absolutely right. Ms. Welch was stunningly beautiful, although it's hard to really laugh at her EXTREMELY mean-spirited character, played hard for comedy though it was. I like this movie a lot, except for the gruesome female-on-male rape scene, which tried way too hard to extract laughs when there were none to be had. It's still worth seeing, just to see West in such splendid shape, and Welch at her most cuttingly beautiful.

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    1. I enjoyed reading your genuine appreciation of Mae West in this film. It sounds as if you delight in her uniquely self-aware, slightly tongue-in-cheek take on sex, and in "Myra Breckinridge" she does serve as retro contrast to Raquel's more direct approach. Since my blog revels in the vive la difference aspect of motion picture appreciation, thank you for providing a fair-handed salute to the great Mae West, whose virtues are sometimes lost in people's discussion's of the film's vices.

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  8. Reading your take on this film makes me want to see it again. I did see it several years ago and thought it was an unmitigated disaster. One aspect worth mentioning in regard to the casting of Mae West, is how at the time it was seen as embarrassing that an old woman would still be interested in having sex. A remake with Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep might prove interesting!

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    1. Be careful about seeing this again, it stands a pretty good chance of seeming worse than before!
      And you're right, the way age was treated in the youth-centric 70s was geared towards West being a figure of camp. Happily, Mae West registered so little in the way of genuine sex appeal, her vulgarisms seemed almost naive. I almost shudder imagining how it would play to have a legitimately sexy Letitia Van Allen!
      Thanks so much for commenting!

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  9. I've grown to love this movie for the exact same reasons you do. But I admit, as a young teen obsessed with the novel (in grade 8 it became a bit of an obsession among my group of pretentious friends,) I was so disappointed by it when I first saw it. I guess the fact that Sarnes apparently was aghast about the rape scene (and Rex Reed's involvement for that matter,) says it all.

    I AM disappointed that the film's infamous rep has sorta diminished the rep of the novel it seems to me. Of course it no longer would be the scandal it was when it was first published (when the sequel Myron came out times had already changed enough that no one found it shocking at all,) but it genuinely is a brilliant satire. I remember for some reason my mom ended up reading my copy and although she made it clear she did NOT approve of "that scene," she was shocked at how much she enjoyed it considering what she remembered reading about it when it came out. I definitely think it's right near the top of Vidal's fiction.

    And since I see you said to steer clear of Myron, I have to stick up for the book. It's gonzo, yes--whereas Myra is actually very carefully written, Myron is all over the place--but personally I find it wonderfully gonzo, and I appreciated it all the more after seeing the film of Myra and noticing all the jabs at it Gore fairly cleverly includes (although his technique of replacing vulgar words with the names of politicians he disagreed with was just annoying--especially reading it as I did in the 90s when I had no idea who any of them were.) I dunno--anyone who loves the B movies Myron in his fugue state constantly enters and manipulates alone should get a kick out of it and I think it complements the first book well. So there ;)

    Eric Henwood-Greer

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    1. Hey Eric
      I think anybody who really loved the book couldn't help but be disappointed with what they did with the film. I think it's fine as a stand-alone film vehicle, but as an adaptation of the book themes (although the tone isn't too off the mark), it leaves me with too many "what could have been" thoughts.
      Hollywood is so fond of remakes, so...
      Thanks for commenting, Eric (and for putting in a good word for "Myron")

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  10. I feel so sorry for your youthful self, unfairly barred from seeing "Myra Breckinridge." I was but 13 in the summer of 1970, but when Myra came to a local drive-in theater I made a full-court press to my mother to go see this film. To my everlasting discredit, this all involved a goodly number of references to Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Alice Faye and absolutely no mention at all of dildos or buttsex. Mom soon figured out she had been conned, but I got to see Myra Breckinridge! And I was not harmed. Right? Right???

    At 13, I certainly had no idea what to make of this film, but decades later I caught it on DVD and fell in love with it. What a delightful out-of-control mess. I would love to see Raquel Welch and Patty Duke discuss their experiences with bigger-than-life performances in mega-flop movies that have lived on to become among their most widely loved films. (The volcanic Ms. Dunaway is not invited for this imaginary discussion.) The work of neither actress was especially profound, but it was absolutely theatrical. That counts a lot with me. Who else would have given Roger Herren that spirited pounding? Only Raquel. She was bold, very bold. And that matters.

    As for casting Mae West... why? It was an interesting stunt, but she certainly was not box office. As for her performance, what on earth did they think she would do? And why did they make so many concessions to her in her contract? So much control given to an actress who was admittedly iconic, but historic. She showed up and she gave 'em Mae West. Regardless. I am always reminded of those stories that "Sunset Boulevard" was originally envisioned for Mae West. Thank God she would have none of it! They could have gotten Zsa Zsa Gabor for a fraction of what they paid West.

    What is the story of the Hollywood figures in the opening dance number. Why on earth is a Frank Sinatra double just standing there? Frank and... Charles Laughton? And who is the third figure there? I'm always confused.

    Lovely to have found Myra tucked away on your site. Thank you!

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    1. Hi George
      A man after my own heart with that gambit you pulled on your folks! Wow, i wish i had thought of that!
      I agree with all of your comments. Welch is sort of rising to her level in this, and she's sort of perfectly in line with what it all turned out to be. With the distancing of time, I would really ove to hear (even more than she discloses on the DVD) what was going on. She was kinda pretentious in those days and even a tad delusional about her "talent"...but now maybe she could look at it and extrapolate on what that set was like.
      There are so many still of filmed but deleted scenes, I would love to get my hands on the working script.
      And it is IS weird they made so many concessions for Mae West. I know there was "stunt" written all over it, but did they really think she was worth the trouble?
      I had to go to YouTube to rewatch that credit sequence. It's really so horribly shot, it's anybody's guess who those figures are supposed to be. There's a guy in jodhpurs who could be Cecil B DeMille, a nondescript lady in a sarong, and then a few others so poorly costumed, they could have just walked into frame.
      Mostly I'm distracted by Welch's graceless, Dolly Dingle Dance Academy recital dancing. She's waaaay too confident in her abilities here. Talk about tripping the heavy fantastic. And don't get me started on Rex Reed, one of the rare breed of gay men with absolutely no sense of rhythm.
      Thanks for sharing your childhood experience of getting to see this (ata Drive-In, yet). And I think I can vouch that absolutely no harm was done to your adolescent psyche.

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    2. I've been thinking about Mae West, since composing my original post on this august topic. Myra's references are all to the golden era of Hollywood film, and West certainly embodies that. The overt sexuality of her indelible screen persona, not to mention the persistent rumors of her being a man in drag, tie her very closely to issues near and dear to the heart and soul of Myra Breckinridge. It's time to re-read the novel, as I don't have a clear recollection of Gore Vidal's 'Letitia Van Allen,' only West's. But Michael Sarne was telling this story visually, and Mae West is nothing if not a potent image. I have also read that Bette Davis was lined up to play this and subsequently withdrew. This suggests they were really focused on a vintage star for the role. Perhaps they were feeling pressured to quickly find a replacement for Davis, hence the numerous concessions. The novel was popular, but also very controversial. There may not have been a long line of bona fide classic star ladies lined up to play a supporting role in something as edgy as "Myra Breckinridge." But how about Ann Miller? She would have been faaaaabulous.

      Huston also anchors the film in the past, but not as effectively as Mickey Rooney would have, had he played Buck Loner. I've read that he was Sarne's first choice, but the studio was not having any of that. He might have been very funny, in addition to being a slick way in to Myra's fascination with Hollywood's golden age.

      A big part of this film's big flop has to be the advance publicity. Vidal's novel was a sensation, as novels go. Myra's sex-change was hugely titillating (sorry!) and even if you didn't read the book, you knew that much of it. I remember lots of advance noise being created in the syndicated newspaper show biz columns. (Yes, I was a twisted 12 year old, but I followed these things as well as I could from the dreary midwest.) Radie Harris, Rona Barrett, et alia. Myra Breckinridge was great copy for them. Elizabeth Taylor was repeatedly mentioned for the role of Myra. Is she? Isn't she? Will she? Won't she? Liz Taylor... a sex change??? On and on. She's the ideal choice. For a MUCH better production of Myra Breckinridge. (Perhaps she read the script?) In the late 1960's, Welch was not at all in Liz Taylor's league as a film star. That they settled on Welch suggests to me that early on, things were not going well. The film got a huge advance build up, making the short fall of the final product even more dramatic.

      Rex Reed was great casting, imho. He was sooooo gay for his time and mincing his way through all the talk shows. To a 1970 audience, he was already tied closely to show biz, as well as to clandestine sexuality. I don't think anyone in America, in 1970, would have trouble with the idea of Rex Reed cutting his dick off and getting silicone tits. It's what they all thought he wanted, anyway.

      All those crazy asides plucked from vintage film remind me of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. They were doing the same sort of thing, starting in 1968. (Richard Nixon: Sock it to me?) Getting to do the same thing with vintage film stars must have been fun to map out. Must have been some great meetings with film buffs and studio old-timers to pull all those clips.

      There is so much weirdness in this odd and interesting film, that turned out to be not nearly as bad as the denunciation it received on release. While certainly a minor film, I think it's really ahead of its time in many respects. So many decades ahead of its time that it left Roger Herren in a life time career vacuum. All over one little ass fucking.

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    3. All great points you bring up!
      I think you're right in that the filmmakers were no doubt trying to bridge the old/new Hollywood in securing Mae West.
      I can't imagine what other stars they might have considered (so many at the time were so disgusted at the "smutty" trend in movies). Still, there were all those folks like Lana Turner and Jennifer Jones making stabs at trying to appeal to the younger set.
      I really wish someone would write a book about the making of this film.
      I take it you've seen the DVD documentary (an AMC thing) where we get to see the real life transesxuals who tried out for the role. Also, several years ago there was a great piece in "Vanity Fair" about the making of it. ust seems no two people could agree on just what film they were making.

      I have no idea about "What might have been", but for what we've got, Raquel Welch is better than she gives herself credit for, and the whole enterprise does have a loopy charm to it.
      I'm glad this piece and our comments jogged your thoughts a bit about a film you seem to "get" very well.
      Thanks, George!

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