Saturday, March 30, 2013

Pictures Taking Pictures - MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (1970) and the Misandric Hollywoodophile


"Myra Breckinridge was born with a scalpel and don't you ever forget it motherfuckers, as the kids all say," Raquel Welch--as post-op woman Myra-- narrates, and you feel that something is definitely being cut off--it's the 60s and the last vestige of hetero-studliness associated with the counterculture's orgy mentality. MYRA B. is generally considered one awful film but it's pretty hot as an anti-Hollywood, anti-acting school, anti-cowboy rant, something Valerie Solanis might dream up in prison after too much pruno. "My purpose in coming to Hollywood," Myra announces. "is to destroy the American male in all its forms." As long as the film focuses on this aspect, draws heavily from old film clips, and lets Raquel Welch spout pro-40s camp Hollywood doctrine, it's pretty badass. But Michael Sarne, a Brit actor, singer, and flashy gent, was given the directorial reins. A mistake, because only an American could really understand Hollywood and its twisted sexuality. The Brits are way different and Sarne's camera is almost too polite; he forgets to leer down Raquel Welch's dress, and up it; he cuts away right when a tirade is getting interesting.


But first, historical Hollywood context: in 1970, MYRA's parent company Fox also released BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. And both had film critics either as actors or writers and directors unused to big budgets. But it was a time in Hollywood where anyone outside the system could get a major studio movie made, as the older guns were clueless in the face of the psychedelic / feminist / black power / anti-Vietnam revolution generation-- and by 1970 were able to admit it. If the producers hadn't done drugs they either hired someone who had or just threw some breasts, loud music, and strobe lights on the screen and let the clock run out. Damned hippies wouldn't even notice, they reasoned. The reasoned wrong. Even stoned freaks knew a boondoggle when they smelled its flop sweat.


It all happened fast, starting around 1966: a glut of over-priced, star-studded, psychedelic imagery-and-song-filled counterculture-satirizing (and aping) bids for mainstream success, crammed with old bread line character actors, usually about an average square man (played by Bob Hope, Peter Sellers, Goerge C. Scott) leaving his average, square wife for a young free spirit hippie chick (Goldie Hawn, Joey Heatherton, Julie Christie) or some such variation. There was: CANDY (dir. Christian Marquand); BOOM! (dir. Joseph Losey); CASINO ROYALE (dir. Ken Hughes); BLUEBEARD (dir. Edward Dmytryk); SKIDOO (dir. Otto Preminger); I LOVE YOU ALICE B. TOLKAS; WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT? and THERE'S A GIRL IN MY SOUP (all w/ Peter Sellers); HOW TO COMMIT MARRIAGE (w/ Bob Hope), everything by Roger Vadim; PETULIA (dir. Richard Lester), and to name just a few.

We're not a big fan of 'eaters' here at Acidemic

Some of these went perhaps too far into the freedoms wrought by the psychedelic era, and grew careless with them as if they were merely the next wave of crappy symbols for sexual intercourse and perversion. The idea that LSD had created a kind of post-modern melt-down was lost on a generation for whom the notion of 'freedom' began and ended with scoring some of the hippie love they'd read about. They just masked their one-track minds in what we call 'terminal quirkiness' and made movies where men in gray flannel suits and nagging wives met Goldie Hawn at a hippie bar in the midst of their mid-life crises.

But the youth didn't want old comedians leering over their cleavage. Thrusting themselves into the modern world and making it up as they went, the youth were goal-free; it wasn't about the orgasm, man, it was about being in the moment. Hollywood reared back on its haunches like a spooked lion at that idea, lashing out at the very things the youth thought important, baring its fangs and ready to burn down the studio and laugh maniacally like Lionel Atwill or Joan Crawford rather than surrender the reins to some young turk who didn't appreciate a dirty Billy Wilder-esque punch line. Hollywood had labored too long in the system that was now under satiric attack to understand there was no way out but to feign death gracelessly. Trying to be anti-establishment they ended up only anti-youth, the way older men like me feel a mix of prurience, jealousy, and legitimate concern when we hear about 'bracelet parties' yet are convinced we're hip and tolerant.


Which brings us to MYRA, the talked-about adaptation of Gore Vidal's seminal, fluid novel. Raquel Welch came aboard early, mainly, as she puts it in the DVD commentary, because she was supposed to play both Myron and his post-op female counterpart Myra --kind of how Ed Wood played both Glen and Glenda. She considered it an acting challenge. And if the filmmakers had stuck with that idea it would have been a great film. Sulky Rex Reed was cast instead as Myron, for some unknown reason, and his air of defensive snootiness sabotages what little chance the film had.

What made MYRA a hopeful buzz generator was the sex change angle, coupled to the image of Raquel Welch as a sex change dominatrix. She had been made an international star before her breakout film ONE MILLION YEARS BC (1967) had even been released, just from the poster! She had two things going for her: a body that redefined 'smokin'' and--the less renowned one--an air of take-no-prisoners imperiousness that made her perfect for Myra.


The fatal flaw of the film is right there in the opening bit: John Carradine plays a mumbling doctor performing the gender reassignment in what is presumably a psychedelic dream sequence "You realize once we cut if off it won't grow back," Carradine says, trying to talk Myron out of it. "How about circumcision? It's cheaper."

Now, that's in itself hilarious and Carradine rocks, but if you start a story already in a dream sequence, and never really come out of it, then there's nothing ventured, no risk, no reason to care what happens through the whole rest of the film, unless it contrasts at some point with a recognizable reality. Carradine's warning that "it won't grow back" has no weight since we don't even know him AND it does apparently grow back. As soon as Farrah Fawcett hints she'd sleep with Myra if she were only a he he backs out of the whole damn movie.

This is intended to be very clever but it only reflects cinema's still-unresolved castration anxiety, an anxiety which clouds its vision, if not Welch's, not Vidal's. No way Farrah would sleep with a pisher like Rex Reed, but Myra is awesome. We want to see Farrah and Raquel hooking up, but no one wants to see Rex hooking up with anyone. It's the most irksome lesbianism cop-out in film history until Blake Edwards' SWITCH. I guarantee you, Edwards and Sarne, heterosexuality would have survived.


But I'm going to go out on an already severed limb and defend MYRA anyway, despite the bitter flaw of deciding to bring in Rex, because it's one of the few truly misandric films ever to come out of Hollywood. Misandry is of course the hatred of men, an understandable feeling for anyone who loves movie stars and hates the cigar-chomping little men--the pimps of the ephemeral--who molded their leading ladies from virgin clay into sexually assailed golems of gorgeosity-made-flesh. In the context of MYRA, misandry is the desire to punk out, or "facilitate the destruction of the last vestige or trace of the traditional man in order to realign the sexes in order to decrease the population thus increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage." So it's really only misandric by design, which how can any free-thinker not approve?


The problem is, while some of the dialogue does attain a dizzying height of cinematic savvy it also has a very short attention span. In parts it seems like Sarne checked his watch, realized the film had played long enough that it could stop and still be considered a feature, and so made a 'wrap it up' gesture and departed for rehab, leaving MRYA caught between the zipper of gender studies phenomena and just another hard place limbo. Feints at validating the lifestyles of queers, commies, nymphos, hippies, and the all-rightness of punking out of dumb "I'm straight!"-pleading studs (ala SCORE!) add up to zilch if the jab is a sucker punch-wearin'-a-wire vindication of establishment, the old 'we had a lot of fun here tonight boys and girls but remember, gender straitjackets are there for your protection!' switch and shuffle.


But what MYRA fears isn't rejection of its taboo-breaking but the future of Hollywood without censorship, because it can't break walls if there's no walls left, and its terribly afraid it has nothing else to offer. Knocking a few glory holes in the wall it then rushes to quick patch them up for the next customer. Or another metaphor: the little boy dancing on the top of the dam, screaming that its about to burst, and kicking at it with his little churchy shoe, and then whipping out his dick when no one pays attention and, when no one pays attention even then, pretending to cut it off. Rex Reed's hatred of the film is telling it that sense. In his little three minute film reviews on TV, Reed's snootiness was droll, but this is a real movie, and no snootiness stays droll longer than three minutes.


Sadly, for all that, Rex might have been right. As with so many movies with 'queer' characters in that less-enlightened era, the 'ick' factor is camped to the point of gauchery, and all that's left is Myra's knowing but bizarre love of 40s musicals. She's horrified that the dumb acting student hunk she aims to deflower never heard of the Andrews sisters, and Welch is superbly authoritarian and uber-confident explaining with just a touch of mock wistfulness that they "really did roll out that barrel... And no one ever really rolled it back." Old movie footage of giggling Richard Widmark from KISS OF DEATH and Marlene is Navy drag in SEVEN SINNERS comes like a welcome reprieve and apt commentary, as if the history of gender-bent Hollywood was looking on as a Greek chorus. When she clocks John Huston during class she explains that she's using the fighting style of Patricia Collinges in THE LITTLE FOXES. And TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS (1945, below) is, she adds, a masterpiece. Myra also explains that, "The real Christ can't compare with either actor in King of Kings," and the only one now to compare oneself with is James Bond "who inevitably ends up with a blow-torch aimed at his crotch." All this is very, very welcome and taken, no doubt, straight from Vidal's lips to hers, where it
... as it says in the bible.

Tarzan, w/ Amazons
Bacchantes
Continuing the more-is-less-but-what-the-hell philosophy and upping the camp level are scenes involving the geriatric bacchant Mae West. Her sultry comic timing with double entendres such as, "Ah, the pizza man! When do you deliver?" and the ultra-subtle, "I don't care about your credits as long as your oversexed" helps them come off clever, especially when interspersed with gay-themed musical numbers ("Hard to Handle!") and vagina dentata Busby banana circles (from THE GANG'S ALL HERE). As a bonus diva, however, West's presence never really pays off. She provides the haughty Myra with an equal and they share some properly jovial and queenly laments about the states of their men, but then she fades away. Still, if you think she's an embarrassment, being so old and still stuck on vibrate, well fuck you! She's an intrinsic part of the film's value as a phallic rhinestone time tunnel ramming up Hollywood's golden age, right past the barriers set up by the angry Catholic censors, for whom West's whole schtick was once the direst threat facing America.


And then there's the main reason to see the film: the awesome Raquel Welch taking a stud's anal virginity, and it's here where Welch's dominatrix acting style really finds its ultimate expression of howling vengeance. She seems to come alive wearing, finally, a stars and stripes bikini and (unseen) strap-on. Myra explains her validation for the approaching act in an earlier scene, declaring to her class that "every American woman secretly longs to be raped." We may not agree, but you have to admire her brazen insanity-- and then, before she invades Rusty with a strap-on she consoles him by saying "Your manhood's already been taken by Clark Gable and Errol Flynn, I'm merely supplying the finishing touches." Those touches are intercut with footage of a bucking bronco-- "who's never been rode before" a cowboy actor warns--desperately trying to escape his stall, and Clark Gable leering down from his poster like a leering peeping tom. If nothing else, MYRA can provide Hollywood devotees with whole new ways of reading their favorite MGM stars' enigmatic grins.


But the picture's leering doesn't end there. As Myra starts whooping it up while Rusty bears it, old movies bear shocked witness in intercut shots of Eisensteinian montage editin and old stars from the vantage point of their old movies peer in at the current action as if through an interdimensional window. Welch's orgasm is simulated via: a damn breaking;  Jayne Mansfield; 30s dancers cavorting in a studio rain, waving umbrellas as jump ropes; Welch on a flower swing ala the opening of SCARLET EMPRESS; a roller coaster; a mushroom cloud; rich 30s socialites laughing from their swanky balcony; Laurel and Hardy covering their eyes; a ballet dancer in a split bowing forward, Welch riding a broom and wearing a witchy hat, and tinted silent footage from MACISTE IN HELL (the same footage used in Dwayne Esper's MANIAC and my own 2007 film that climaxes with a Kali-esque goddess anally assaulting a helpless hetero-bro --QUEEN OF DICKS). The cumulative effect (even if the Shirley Temple milking the cow footage was excised on her request), is a rupturing of the historical fabric of film history -- like this strap-on represents the the return of everything 40s Hollywood repressed and coded into abstraction. Best of all, Welch whoops it up with great style. The only other actor to match her for America-encapsulated yee-hawing in that era's cinema are Slim Pickens on his H-bomb in STRANGELOVE. Yeeeee-Haw!


It's a great moment but its not long after that we're burdened with sulky Rex Reed again and his eyeliner-ed Richard Benjamin mystique, sneering his way nostrilly through party scenes where actors barely notice him, either because he doesn't really exist, or because he's so busy masking his self-consciousness with an air of haughty disdain that he plum forgets to notice anything around him, including that he's making people very uncomfortable. You know, that guy who spends the evening looking at your bookshelf and not talking and you're not sure why but you wish he would leave?


And it gets worse! Once Myra has Farrah on the third base line, she cops out of the lesbian tryst: "Oh, if only you were a man!" So Myra decides to switch back to Myron. Turns out it was all a dream. Aww. Farrah Fawcett is just his nurse, and Raquel is on the cover of some gossip magazine and did he have a car accident like in the book or is he just recovering from a vasectomy?  I'm sure our flaky, second-guessing director would say he meant this cop-out as a challenge to preconceived notions of sexual hierarchy, i.e. that masturbation fantasy is somehow just as relevant as actual fornication within the fantasy of a film. In the book, apparently, Myra's sex change is never completed and after she gets in a car accident she winds up in the hospital, and that may have been the original reason for ending the film there, but any hep person knows that when you try to make it real (compared to what) you have to show some balls and stick out to your gun. We come away with a bad taste in our mouths, even though there were times in this film where the level of madness made it hum like electricity, like the best part of Russ Meyer's BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, only with intellectual gender-bent discourse instead of robust cleavage. Someday, maybe, we shall have both.

To avoid the hetero cop-out end, stop watching here and imagine they live happy ever after

2 comments:

  1. I've been a longtime passionate defender of MYRA B., and I'd like to get your thoughts on my strangely personal tale of the movie. Obviously we're going to be in disagreement on some points, but I think you might get a kick out of it too.

    http://projectorhasbeendrinking.blogspot.com/2012/09/my-weekend-with-myra.html

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  2. Have you ever seen Sarne's 'Joanna' Erich? I believe Vidal once referred to it as 40 TV commercials in search of a movie. 'Myra' is awfully painful for me to sit through. Welch is va-va-voom, but dragging poor Mae West out of her monkey turd and muscleman mausoleum, well; and Rex Reed makes Capote in 'Murder by Death' look like Olivier declaiming over the skull of Yorick. Your piece is far better than Sarne's film.

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