"Remind me to change my massage from 5:00 to 6:00 because watching my niece is making me horny."
Gore Vidal, noted and prolific author of such intellectual fare as United States, Creation: A Novel, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, and Messiah, also wrote a highly controversial novel back in the '60s entitled Myra Breckinridge. Several decades back, the book spurred much conversation with its graphic handling of its topic. Even then, Hollywood saw an opportunity to make a film with instant notoriety and buzz and hopefully big box office. Many thought the book could never become a movie, but, with Hollywood, never say never.
The controversial book became a controversial movie. Today, not too many people remember either the controversy or the tale of Myra Breckinridge.
Facts of the Case
Myron Breckinridge (movie critic Rex Reed in his first film role) is sitting on the operating table, his legs up in stirrups, moments away from having his manhood removed. Myron has decided, for reasons we do not know, to have a sex change operation and become Myra.
The operation is a smashing success, and the rather plain and ordinary Myron is transformed into the sultry, sculpted, and beautiful Myra (Raquel Welch, Mother, Jugs, and Speed, One Million Years B.C.). Now as Myra, she has decided to declare war on men, to strip them of their masculinity. Her first stop is Hollywood and the Buck Loner School of Acting.
As it turns out, Buck (John Huston, director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen), known affectionately to all of his students as Uncle Buck, literally is Myra's uncle. Myra has trained her sights on this has-been Western actor. She's decided to force his hand on some willed property that he cheated away from Myra's mother. Myra, being quite fair, only wants half the property value, half a million dollars, and she'll go away. Buck doesn't take too kindly to her proposition, but Myra is extremely strong willed and aggressive. Not taking no for an answer, she makes Buck hire her to teach etiquette and poise at the school.
But she doesn't quite teach that. Instead, Myra's class is about film history and the exploitation of women and the empowerment of men. She rankles many a feather in the class, both students' and Buck's alike, but she also has a point that many can relate to, on some level.
All the while, no one is aware that she used to be a he. Myra is stunningly beautiful and completely feminine. But, even so, she has a hard time catching the attention of a delicious piece of eye candy in her class, Rusty. He finds nothing appealing about Myra and is only interested in his girl, Mary Ann (Farrah Fawcett, Charlie's Angels, The Cannonball Run). Undaunted, Myra has decided that she will have Rusty and Mary Ann before it's all over.
Meanwhile on the other side of town, we are introduced to the number-one scout of male talent in Hollywood, Leticia Van Allen (Mae West, Go West Young Man, My Little Chickadee). Leticia has all the right connections with all the right men in town. She's irresistible to the opposite sex, and it's said she beds every man she represents. She and Uncle Buck are good friends, and she works with the school to find fresh talent. Seeing her "in," Myra decides that Leticia is the ticket to conquering Rusty and Mary Ann. During a visit to the school, Leticia is introduced to the extroverted Myra who surprisingly gets Leticia to represent Mary Ann and get Rusty out of some trouble.
Using that angle, Myra makes her final move to emasculate Rusty and win her first battle in her war on men. Will she win? Will she get Rusty? Mary Ann? And, will she get the million dollars (the ante was raised due to his procrastination) from Uncle Buck?
I really enjoyed Myra Breckinridge. It caught me off guard with its rather bold topic, further accentuated because it was made in 1970 based on material by Gore Vidal. I never knew the man had it in him; I had always figured him to be a rather dry writer (based on no first-hand knowledge, of course). Today, as heated as the debate over homosexuality is in our society, I really can't begin to fathom how controversial it would have been 30 years ago. A presumed result of the peace and free love movement of the '60s, Myra Breckinridge was given life. How did people react to a major Hollywood release with a transsexual as the lead character? It would seem that people at the time enjoyed a good shock, as Midnight Cowboy, an X-rated film released a year prior, went on to win Best Picture. Myra herself was also originally released with an X rating.
Because I enjoyed the film, I ended up watching it three times in one afternoon. Yes, three times in one afternoon. Why? Obviously the first time was to simply watch the film. The remaining two viewings were to listen to the two commentary tracks provided. I was really intrigued by the boldness of the topic and the obvious implications that led to the controversy. I watched the movie, watched the featurette bonus item, and then watched the movie two more times with the commentaries. I wanted to learn more about the film and the scandalous history surrounding it. Unfortunately, the disc was pretty thin on supporting material.
As such, my interpretation of the movie is probably way off base. I say this because my take on the film doesn't match up with the thoughts of either of the commentators. To me, Myra Breckinridge is a biting satire of male roles in society, homosexuality, Hollywood, communism, and the concept of "normality." Myra is simply an instrument to make a point. The movie shouldn't be interpreted as an endorsement for radical surgeries or homosexuality (or bisexuality), but simply as an insightful and edgy look into society's perceptions at the time. Now, you'd think that 30 years would have changed a lot of the impact of the film, but you'd be wrong. Though today's woman is certainly more liberated and stronger, much of what Myra has to say about society and normality is as poignant as ever. Myra is still an excellent and candid satire.
As many of you know, I am a liberal, which I believe explains why I wasn't offended or unnerved by the topic in any way. The idea of a man becoming a woman is indeed wild, but I wasn't upset or dismayed by the idea or the underlying bisexuality of our titular character. What did somewhat gnaw at the back of my brain was the "fact" that Myron, as played by the rather mild and wimpy Rex Reed, blossomed into the gorgeous and vivacious Myra, as played to perfection by Raquel Welch. As evidenced in "The Charge," it's hard not to be infatuated by this attractive woman. In today's vernacular, she's totally hot. As any red-blooded male should, I found myself admiring her form in the many varied outfits she wore throughout the film. Though not wearing an animal skin bikini, Raquel Welch as Myra is worthy of pin-up status. So, as you're almost drooling over the luscious Raquel, you can't forget the "fact" that she is supposed to be a he. It's only a movie, but it is somewhat disturbing to try to put that aside when faced with such a beauty. Am I allowed to be attracted to Myra, I mean Raquel? Is it wrong for me to think dirty thoughts? I'm so confused. Oh, Myra, you've made me gay…or would that be bisexual?
There is a certain scene in the film that is at the core of most of the controversy surrounding this film. I am not going to reveal what happens, but it centers on Myra's final conquest of Rusty. What finally happens is very disturbing and totally over the top. As aggressive as Myra is throughout the rest of the film, it's still hard to swallow what she does. It's rough; it's nasty; it's shocking. Yet watching how Myra gets to this point and does what she does is also morbidly fascinating. Adding to that is the odd way in which Rusty reacts in the aftermath of the situation. His reaction is completely opposite of what you would expect, yet it is perfectly in line with what Myra set out to do. Still, that doesn't address the scene itself. Should it have been included in the film? Is it pushing the bounds of cinema? Of morality? Is the moment glorifying the action, making it acceptable? These are all massive questions that are worthy of contemplation. It's fabulous that a movie can promote such deep thoughts, and, in the end, it's up to an individual. I think the movie must have the scene or else we've wasted our time with Myra. She becomes "less of a woman" if she doesn't act the way she does. It weakens the impact of the message.
Let's go back a moment to something I said in passing: "…the gorgeous and vivacious Myra, as played to perfection by Raquel Welch." Raquel Welch is fabulous in this film, as she completely embodies the free-spirited and progressive Myra. She embodies Myra as a powerful, dynamic, and uncontrollable woman. You don't want to get into it with Myra because you'll lose. If Raquel wasn't at the top of her game in this role, the movie would have lost the impact of its message and instead turned into a shoddy joke. Raquel Welch is more than simply a sex symbol in this movie; she is an excellent actress. Now while Raquel is in some good company in the film, John Huston, Farrah Fawcett (surprise!), and Roger Herren (the man who played Rusty, in his only credited film role), she is also in the midst of some bad company. On the not-so-bad side is Rex Reed. Rex is not an actor; everyone knows that, including Rex. Fortunately, I think he's good enough to portray Myron, but we're also lucky that he doesn't have many lines. He's a bit wooden and obvious, but 99 percent of his scenes are with Raquel, who fortunately masks most of his shortcomings. On the very, very bad side is Mae West. In my opinion, she is awful in this film. True, she's a screen legend, but here, she's a mere shadow of her former self. Really, how can the 76-year-old Mae West really pull off being a voracious, sex-crazed woman? How are we supposed to believe that all the young men in Hollywood (including Tom Selleck, in his first movie role) want to sleep with her? We can't. I mean, it's one thing to sleep your way to the top, but I don't think men would willingly throw themselves at her feet these (those) days. And that scene where she sings…simply awful! She just doesn't have it, and she didn't deserve top billing for the film. This is Raquel's movie from start to finish.
As already mentioned, there are three main bonus items on the disc: two commentaries and a featurette. Let's first talk about the latter called "Backstory: Myra Breckinridge." This 21-minute featurette is fascinating as it gives you the backstory on all of the numerous problems related to this film, from Gore Vidal denouncing the film, to Mae and Raquel fighting on set, to budget problems, and more. There's a lot that went on with this film back in the day, and this feature seems to only scratch the surface. At the end of it, I had an idea of what went on, but I wanted more. I would have been very happy to see this behind-the-scenes documentary double or even triple in length, so I could really see what a mess this movie was to make.
Let's move on to the two commentaries, which I believe I could write a good thesis on, but I will spare you from most of the sordid details.
The first commentary is by director Michael Sarne, whose credits at the time included one small film, Joanna, a minor hit for 20th Century Fox. This commentary track is woefully lacking in details. Sarne barely scratches the surface of his film, seeming to really not know what he's talking about. He comes across as detached from the true history of the movie. All accounts point to Sarne as a major source of the problems with the film, yet he doesn't own up to any of it. He, instead, constantly portrays himself as the victim in the situation. And, instead of talking about the scenes and what he was trying to convey, he goes off on tangents about transsexuals and homosexuality. Much to my surprise, at the end of the commentary, I found myself labeling Sarne as a homophobe. When he says this film is about "the folly of the transsexual" and that "gayness is a cover-up of sadness," what other logical conclusion could I come to? I certainly wasn't expecting to say this after watching this film. You'd think the director of such fare would be a little more open to the alternate lifestyle. Oh well. He's obviously still bitter after all this time. And, lastly, it needs to be mentioned that Sarne is completely obsessed with Mae West. *shudder*
The second commentary track is by Raquel Welch, and the first statement out of her mouth is, basically, "Why did I agree to do this film?" It seems that Raquel still regrets her part in this film. It didn't work out the way she hoped, as she had wanted to portray both Myra and Myron. She wanted to truly stretch her acting chops, but Sarne decided to bring Reed on board. Beyond this, Welch shares very little we didn't already hear on the rest of the disc. We get her side of the story on the Mae vs. Raquel situation and a few other tidbits, but, for the most part, she states the obvious amidst large gaps of silence. She hasn't watched the film in many years, and so she's doing that now.
I was terribly disappointed with both of the commentaries. We had a chance to learn something about Myra Breckinridge, but these two squandered it. Neither track is really worth listening to.
But, wait, we're not done yet! There is more to detail in the features department. Additionally, there are a few TV spots for you to look at and also a bevy of Raquel trailers for your viewing pleasure, Bandolero! (love that accent!), Fantastic Voyage, Fathom, Lady in Cement, One Million Years B.C., and Myra Breckinridge.
But, wait, there's even more! This DVD is a flipper with two "different" versions of the movie. Beyond the controversies I've already mentioned, there's a whole other layer of trouble that plagued poor Myra. Part of Sarne's method in telling his story was to quickly intercut archival film footage from the 20th Century Fox movie library. As most of the film takes place at Buck Loner's School of Acting, Sarne thought it would be a clever juxtaposition to have other "actors/films" comment on Myra as we go along. So, when Myra does something bold, you'll see Laurel and Hardy "comment" on it. And so it goes with many of the greats of the yesteryear. I actually thought it was quite a sharp idea. But, as you might imagine, when word got out, many of these stars were very unhappy to be associated with this film. The stars of 20th Century Fox sued the studio to have these clips removed, and they won. Don't mess with Ambassador Shirley Temple!
Now follow closely because this could get messy. First, neither version of the film seems to be the original X-rated cut of the film; both appear to be R-rated versions (which is how I interpret the R rating listed on the package). Second, unless you're really paying attention, you'll barely notice the few minor changes in archival footage used. Third, the awkward and poorly "bleeped" cursing at the beginning of the film is apparent in both versions. Fourth, the major difference in the two comes in the final moments of the film where we get to meet Mr. Magoo, I mean Jim Backus (Gilligan's Island). Fifth, Sarne's commentary is on the "special edition" of the film (side A), and Raquel's commentary is on the "other" version of the film (side B). And, lastly, there are different audio options on the versions…
For the "special edition," your audio choice is a mere Dolby stereo. Overall, it's a very flat presentation with limited dynamics, a touch of echo, and an almost constant background hiss. The audio is at its worst in the beginning of the movie, and it either gets better or I got used to it as it progressed. On the flipside's "other" edition, you can choose from either a Dolby stereo or Dolby mono track. Like its counterpart on the other side of the platter, this audio track is very weak and also seems to have a subtle hum in the background.
Fortunately the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is far, far better than the audio tracks. The video transfer here is spectacular. For a film that's over 30 years old, it looks great. Everything is simply bold and alive, with a realistic presentation. The picture is clear and sharp, without any flaws. I was very impressed with the quality of the picture, which allowed me to ignore the flaws with the audio. A very rich and vibrant picture.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only problem with the movie comes with the ending. I didn't like it. It was a cheap way to end a very powerful and provocative film. I presume this is the way Gore Vidal wrote it, but I would have preferred an ending that didn't give an easy out. I wanted to be left wondering what's going to happen to Myra and what she'll do next. Such a powerhouse character did not deserve such a flimsy and weak resolution. Perhaps back then it was a new and clever way to resolve things, but it's not appreciated by today's standards. Of course, no movie is perfect.
According to the commentaries, this film seems to appeal to a very limited audience, mostly homosexuals. It's implied that they seem to be the most receptive to the ideas presented in this film, and they seem to take the least offense at Myra and her antics. Also, we're told that women seem to be able to relate to the infamous Myra/Rusty scene with greater ease than men. That all seems logical, but I cannot verify such broad generalizations; however, I do give them some credence since Sarne and Raquel have lived with the legacy of Myra Breckinridge for nearly 35 years.
I've told you that because I'm about to wholeheartedly recommend this film. I found it shocking, intriguing, fun, and provocative. But, is it for you? I don't know. If nothing else, you should certainly go out and give this one a rental. It's a story unlike any you've seen before, and, if you have a low opinion of Raquel's acting, then this film will probably elevate it. If your ideology is a bit more on the conservative side, you may not like this film, or you may even find it troubling and disgusting. Controversy can be a good thing or a bad thing, and I believe that Myra Breckinridge has been on the short end of the stick for too many years. Go out and give this one a chance. I think you'll be riveted and drawn into the tale and be glad you did so.
Myra Breckinridge is guilty of a multitude of crimes, but all charges are dismissed due to mitigating circumstances.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Michael Sarne
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