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Myra Breckinridge

Myra Breckinridge(1970)

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teaser Myra Breckinridge (1970)

Initially dismissed as the most tasteless movie ever made, Myra Breckinridge (1970) now seems almost quaint in its childish fascination with the shocking. The picture's much derided excesses quickly paled in comparison to John Waters' Pink Flamingos (1972), which premiered just two years later. Although the film seems disjointed and lacking in a consistent directorial focus, there's no denying that it achieves exactly what its heroine sets out to do, dismantle the Hollywood patriarchy. Myra (Raquel Welch) takes on toxic masculinity in the form of her uncle, former cowboy star Buck Loner (John Huston), and an overly macho male student (Roger Herren). Though her methods are ultimately as destructive as theirs, they provide a fascinating comment on the sexual hierarchy that led to the modern "Me Too" movement. Throw in Mae West's return to the screen after a 27-year absence and you get one fascinating motion picture.

Writer Gore Vidal, whose most recent successes had been the historical novels Julian and Washington, D.C., originally conceived Myra Breckenridge as a sketch for the sexual Broadway revue Oh! Calcutta!. Realizing there was more to the story than that, he turned it into a novel about a trans woman out to introduce female dominance to Hollywood. Her key vehicle for that is Rusty Godowski, a macho student at her uncle's acting school. During the course of a physical examination, she anally rapes him and then sets out to seduce his girlfriend Mary Ann. The novel was a controversial bestseller, damned by conservative critics as tasteless and pornographic but praised by more liberal critics as a satire of Hollywood and traditional sexual roles.

The novel's notoriety and success made it a hot property in a Hollywood where the advent of the movie ratings system had brought on a new era of on-screen permissiveness. Twentieth Century-Fox paid Vidal $750,000 for the screen rights in addition to a percentage of the profits and a fee for writing the first draft. Unhappy with that script, studio head Richard Zanuck then hired David Giler--who turned in a draft Vidal liked. Originally Bud Yorkin, a writer-producer-director who co-created All in the Family and Maude with Norman Lear and had just scored a success directing Divorce American Style (1967)--was hired to direct, but producers feared his version would be too safe. Desperate to create a film with youth appeal, Zanuck offered the picture to writer-director Michael Sarne, who had scored a cult hit with the off-beat comedy Joanna (1968). Sarne didn't want to do the film, disliking the novel and claiming that Vidal's influence would make it 'too gay,' but all his recent projects had fallen apart. He held out for a contract that kept him on the film until he handed in the first cut.

Casting the film was a bit of a circus. Audrey Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave turned down the title role. The studio also considered Elizabeth Taylor, Anne Bancroft and Angela Lansbury, while Andy Warhol superstar and transgender actress Candy Darling fought unsuccessfully to play the title role. Eventually, they chose Raquel Welch, who had a three-picture deal with the studio and had campaigned vigorously for the role, hoping it would help her break out of her sex-symbol status to prove herself as an actress.

Bette Davis refused the role of Hollywood agent Letitia Van Allen because she found the book offensive. The studio then considered Geraldine Page for the role. That's when Sarne entered the picture. He had already lost his choice to play Buck Loner when Fox executives insisted on casting John Huston instead of his preferred Mickey Rooney. He then took the liberty of offering the role of Letitia to Mae West, because, as he later admitted, he was so new to Hollywood he didn't know what he couldn't do. To his surprise, West agreed to a meeting (on the advice of her psychic advisor). The two hit it off, and she got Fox to give her $350,000, top billing, the ability to write her own dialogue, the chance to sing two songs, a starting time of 5 p.m. each day and approval of not just her own wardrobe (to be designed by Edith Head) but Welch's as well. She also insisted her character's first name be changed to "Leticia," for fear people would make jokes about her playing a character whose name included the word "tit." The studio was thrilled to have her in her first film since The Heat's On (1943), but were justifiably concerned about the 76-year-old's health. They lined up Shelley Winters to step in just in case West didn't pass the insurance physical. When she did, all was well, at least for the time being.

Welch tried to forge a warm relationship with West, and though they posed for pictures together, the older actress never warmed to her. West had decided that only she would be allowed to wear black and white in the film. When Welch showed up for their first scene together, she learned the black dress with white ruffle designed for her had been vetoed by West. Welch stormed off the set, only returning when she got the dress back, with the ruffle died pale blue (the blue reads as white on film). The two stars feuded so much that they never appear together in a single frame of the film, despite having scenes together. In interviews, West consistently got Welch's name wrong, calling her everything from "Rachel Woosh" to "Rock Walsh." In an interview in Out magazine, she even said of Welch's casting, "Of course, no real woman would play this part". When the film premiered in New York, there were two after parties, one for West and the other for Welch.

Lee Majors turned down the role of Rusty, but recommended his girlfriend and later wife, Farrah Fawcett, to play Mary Ann. Because she was blonde, West insisted her hair be dyed different shades so it wouldn't clash with her own. With Majors out of the picture, the choice for Rusty fell to two young actors, Tom Selleck and Roger Herren. Although he had only had a bit role in Paint Your Wagon (1969) and stage experience in a production of The Boys in the Band, Herren won the role, while Selleck would make his film debut as a member of West's stable of young actors. Herren was so inexperienced, he didn't understand anything going on in the film nor would Sarne explain it to him.

For Myron, Myra's pre-operative male persona, they cast film reviewer and interviewer Rex Reed on proviso he not write about the film while it was in production. Reed signed under the impression that George Cukor was going to direct, with Davis and Rooney in the cast. Once he found out none of them were involved, it was too late. Originally, Welch had hoped to play both Myra and Myron, but she welcomed Reed to the film and even helped him with his screen test. At least Reed got script approval in his contract, so he didn't have to do anything he didn't want to, including a nude scene Sarne wanted to add. When he refused to say the line "My tits are gone. Where are my tits?" however, he was advised the studio would just get an impersonator to dub the line for him. Reed went home to New York for a break over the Christmas holiday and got a call from the studio telling him he wasn't needed any longer, even though he'd only filmed half his scenes.

Problems with Sarne started almost from the beginning. He gave an interview in which he called Huston a "decrepit old hack" and disparaged his classic films. As a result, Huston simply did his job without offering the young director any guidance. When Huston reached the stop date in his contract, he left, even though the film was far from being finished. Sarne also took to insulting Welch, calling her "old raccoon" and telling her she had only been cast as a joke. Welch spent a lot of time in her dressing room crying. The picture quickly went over budget and fell behind schedule due to Sarne's erratic behavior, but because of his contract the producers could do nothing. He re-wrote the script constantly, adding scenes with no relation to the story. At one point, he kept the cast sitting around all day while he photographed a cake. He was also in the habit of halting shooting for as long as seven hours so he could go off and think. Finally, Zanuck shut down the production and told Sarne to put together an ending out of the footage he already had.

Myra Breckenridge was one of two 1970 Fox films to be rated R. The other was Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which, despite initial controversy, has become respected as a satirical cult favorite. Myra Breckenridge has yet to recover from its financial failure and disastrous reviews. The film elicited an unprecedented level of moral outrage from critics. The reviewer for Time said, "Myra Breckenridge is about as funny as a child molester." Sarne's use of stock footage throughout the film--featuring such stars as Carmen Miranda, Laurel and Hardy and Judy Garland--triggered a protest from the White House, which demanded shots of Shirley Temple and a U.S. ambassador be pulled. Loretta Young threatened a lawsuit until Fox cut a shot of her from The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) out of the film.

Although Myra Breckenridge broke box office records in its first few days, word of mouth and bad reviews sank the film. It grossed only $4.3 million on a $5 million investment. The picture ruined the careers of Sarne and Herren and kept Welch from achieving the credibility she desired. West reveled in the publicity the film brought her but would not make another picture until Sextette (1977), seven years later. For her part, Welch took to joking about how bad the film was in interviews, including disparaging her own performance. Vidal completely disowned the picture. At one point, he wrote that Sarne had been reduced to working in a pizza parlor, which he called proof that God exists.

In retrospect, however, the film hardly seems the disaster it was dubbed at the time. Although West's dialogue had been recycled from her stage appearances in the 1940s and 1950s, it was new to film and often quite funny. Welch actually pulls off some of her comic scenes, creating a stylized performance as Myra that looks much better today than it did in 1970. The film's revolutionary sexual politics, although somewhat watered down from Vidal's original novel, have led to sporadic revivals at gay film festivals.

Director: Michael Sarne
Producer: Robert Fryer
Screenplay: Michael Sarne & David Giler
Based on the novel by Gore Vidal
Cinematography: Richard Moore
Conductor/musical supervisor: Lionel Newman
Cast: Mae West (Leticia Van Allen), John Huston (Buck Loner), Raquel Welch (Myra Breckenridge), Rex Reed (Myron), Farrah Fawcett (Mary Ann Pringle), Roger C. Carmel (Dr. Randolph Spencer Montag), Roger Herren (Rusty Godowski), George Furth (Charlie Flager, Jr.), Calvin Lockhart (Irving Amadeus), Jim Backus (Doctor), John Carradine (Surgeon), Andy Devine (Coyote Bill), Grady Sutton (Kid Barlow), Kathleen Freeman (Bobby Dean Loner), Tom Selleck (Stud), Toni Basil (Cigarette Girl), Dan Hedaya (Patient in Hospital Ward), William Hopper (Judge Frederic D. Cannon), Michael Sarne (Acting School Student), Genevive Waite (Dental Patient)

By Frank Miller

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