"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 just cared if the lights were trippy and the girls gorgeous (reasoned the producers). But even the older crowd knew flop sweat when they smelled it it, and lo, stayed home to watch LAUGH-IN.
Within a brief time period, starting around 1966 and ending with the saving of the studio system by GODFATHER, STAR WARS and JAWS, there was a ton of such youth trend-aping films: over-priced, star-studded, psychedelic imagery-and-song-filled counterculture-satirizing (and aping) bids for mainstream success, usually about an average square man leaving his average, square wife for a young free spirit hippie chick, from established directors from both Europe and the US: 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 a few.
|We're not a big fan of 'eaters' here at Acidemic|
What made MYRA a hopeful buzz generator was the sex change angle, coupled to the idea that it could be a dizzy countercultural farce, but it was only the Raquel Welch as a sex change dominatrix part which had real appeal. She had been made an international star before her breakout film ONE MILLION YEARS BC (1967) had even been released, just from the poster! And while sometimes strident she had two great assets: a body that redefined 'smokin'' and--the less renowned one--an air of take-no-prisoners imperiousness that made her perfect for roles like Myra.
The fatal flaw of the film is right there in the opening, with John Carradine as 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 Myron can change his mind, which he does, as soon as Farrah Fawcett hints she'd sleep with her if she were only a he. 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. 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, that is 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 instead of letting Raquel play Myron, 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 the 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. 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!' 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, and so it knocks a few holes in the wall then quick patches 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. 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 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 belongs... as it says in the bible.
|Tarzan, w/ Amazons|
And then, 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 even though 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" desperately trying to escape his stall, and Clark Gable leering down from his poster. If nothing else, Hollywood devotees will find whole new ways of reading their favorite MGM stars' enigmatic grins.
But the pictures leering doesn't end there. As Myra starts whooping it up while Rusty bears it, old movies bear shocked witness in intercut shots, alongside the spooked horse in a virtuoso spree of Eisensteinian montage editing. The old films become like living windows wherein old movies stars peer in at the current action as if through an interdimensional window. Welch's orgasm is simulated via a damn breaking; a scan of photos of 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; a ballet dancer in a split bowing forward, 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 actors 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 even so, 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 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. 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 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 discourse instead of robust cleavage leering. Someday, maybe, we shall have both.
|To avoid the seeming cop-out end, stop watching here|