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 in the unre-member-rabble mess/tear/racy-piece MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. That scalpel in old John Carradine's mitt will, you feel, definitely cut off something, and it's not Bunny's member. No, "ma'am" --it's the end of the 60s and the last vestige of hetero-studliness associated with the counterculture's orgy mentality has fishtailed out into a 'Joe Buck on the Deuce'-style gay orbit. MYRA B. is--as the kids all say--one truly awful film, but it's pretty fascinating nonetheless, as a truly anti-Hollywood Hollywood production, and even better, a rare example of a mainstream film that's truly misandric (the kind of thing Valerie Solanis might dream up after too much pruno). "My purpose in coming to Hollywood," Myra announces early on, "is to destroy the American male in all its forms." Count me in! As long as the film focuses on this aspect, draws heavily from an array old film clips to create the feeling dead actors are watching from the screen, and lets Raquel Welch spout pro-40s camp Hollywood anti-doctrine, it's pretty badass. But --as such a film might indicate, the self-sabotage is off the chain. For some unbeknownst reason, Michael Sarne--a Brit actor, singer, and flashy gent with no discernible know-how--was given the directorial reins. If nothing else, the film really needs a Yank directing; only an American could really understand Hollywood and its twisted sexuality in the way needed. While the script is cutting on many levels, Sarne's camera is almost too polite; he forgets to leer down Raquel Welch's dress and he cuts away right when a tirade is getting interesting.

Sarne's album, once again trying to cut short a sexy tryst
But first, historical Hollywood context: in 1970, Fox--MYRA's parent company--also released BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. Both used film critics either as actors or writers and then passed the project to directors unused to working with big budgets (Sarne and Russ Meyer). Apparently anyone--as long as they were coming from outside the system--could get a major studio movie made in the late 60s-early 70s. Studios were dying right and left and the old guard was clueless in the face of the psychedelic / feminist / black power / anti-Vietnam revolution generation. They were so clueless they were even able to admit and grasp at straws, but their grasping strategy was born from their old guard derision for what was 'selling tickets.' If they hadn't done drugs themselves, they either hired someone who had (maybe even their pool boy) or just threw some breasts, loud music, and strobe lights on the screen and hoped for the best. Damned hippies wouldn't even notice, the desperate bigwigs assured each other, those kids were too high from smoking acid and snorting reefer to realize the movies were just big expensive shitshows. This was the reasoning. So people like Bob Hope, Peter Sellers, and David Niven rode out their contracts bedding young girls in flowery miniskirts while Top-40 bands of the day wailed on the soundtracks.

They reasoned wrong. Even the farthest gone of the freaks could sense--like a shark sensing a wounded seal--the flailing micro-vibrations of a square's desperation in the waves, but they weren't biting. In fact, they swam the other way as fast as possible. Narcs were everywhere, man, and worse, horny balding idiots who'd heard about all that free love being given away on the Haight --big burly old dudes in Beatle's wigs looking to 'connect' - they made a hippie watchful and a whole lot of paranoid.

But the studios had to try something. As early as 1966, a glut of over-priced, star-studded, psychedelic imagery-and-song-filled counterculture-satirizing (and aping) bids for mainstream success crawled desperately along the nation's marquees like dollar-starved junkies. The story they told was almost always the same: some average, middle-aged white collar square who feels trapped in his plastic existence (Bob Hope, Peter Sellers, George C. Scott) leaves his nagging wife behind, to shack up with a young free spirit hippie chick (Goldie Hawn, Joey Heatherton, Julie Christie) and finding themselves, or at least getting their freak on, in some form (in the darker versions, he kills her, due to his latent prudery). There was: CANDY (dir. Christian Marquand); 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), PETULIA (dir. Richard Lester), to name just a few.

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

Some of these bloated midlife crises 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 an older generation for whom the notion of 'freedom' began and ended with the free sex with luscious young hippie girls they'd read about in the Times Sunday supplement. Those little chipees were just giving it away, strutting around with their painted midriffs, according to the gospel. How was he supposed to go home to his dour middle-aged wife and not groan in torment? He'd think about the ease with which he'd score if only he wasn't married.

Thus these old dudes of the dying studio system masked their one-track minds in what we call 'terminal quirkiness.' They'd hire a handful of already has-been flower power bands for the album tie-in / soundtrack; get some B-roll of the girls of the Haight on a groovy summer afternoon; show a middle-aged guy with paste-on sideburns and a giant peace sign medallion getting it on with a lovely ladie in a fringe mini-dress, threw the whole thing on the big screen and hoped for the best.

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 wouldn't appreciate a dirty Billy Wilder-esque punch line.

Hollywood had labored too long perfecting a system of satire to understand its sense of satire itself was now under satiric attack. It couldn't understand there was no way out but to feign death gracelessly and play the ogre. Trying to be anti-establishment (ala the Guy Debord concept of recuperation), the establishment ended up only anti-youth. I get it now that I'm (a member of Generation X) am too old to go to any party young enough to interest me: the mix of prurience, jealousy, and legitimate concern I feel when hearing about 'bracelet parties,' for example. The fact that we can never really never know for sure if those bracelet parties are real or not without going to one is enough to make us crazy with a constantly shifting amalgam of jealousy and concern.

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 (and wanted to) play both Myron and his post-op female counterpart Myra --kind of how Ed Wood played both Glen and Glenda. She rightly considered it an acting challenge. And if the filmmakers had stuck with that idea it might have been a great film (or less bad). Sarne insisted on casting Rex Reed instead. Urgh. One of the worst casting choices in the history of movies, Reed's air of defensive snootiness sabotages what little chance the film had. (No offense Rex, you doe-eyed minx).

What made MYRA a hopeful buzz generator was the sex change angle coupled to the image of Raquel Welch as an American flag-waving 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! No shit, Sherlock - look at this image at left - them gams. No boy or man of any age can remain unmoved. But she had another thing going for her too: an in-person air of take-no-prisoners imperiousness, the kind of thing that might make her come off as stringent (but seems more akin to self-defense considering all the pawing he's surely had to endure) that made her perfect for Myra.

But alas.

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 Myron has one to begin with, AND either way it does apparently grow back. As soon as Farrah Fawcett hints she'd sleep with Myra if she were only a 'he', Myron backs out of the whole damn movie.

This is intended to be very clever but it only reflects male-dominated mainstream cinema's still-unresolved castration anxiety, an anxiety which clouds its vision to the point of myopia (even films that tout their castration angles, like HARD CANDY and TEETH back out at the last minute, with sew-it-back or 'just kidding' cop-outs). No way Farrah would sleep with a pisher like Rex Reed, we hope! 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 homophobic cop-out in film history.... at least until Blake Edwards' SWITCH (if you've seen that film, you know the scene I mean, it will make you hate Blake Edwards forever, VICTOR/VICTORIA or no).

Huston on a horsie ride
So, my caveats emptied, I'm going to go out on an already severed limb and defend MYRA anyway, because, even with the cop-outs, it's one of the few truly misandric films ever to come out of Hollywood.

Misandry: the hatred of men; an understandable feeling for anyone who loves movie stars and hates the cigar-chomping little midlife crisis sleazionaires--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 (as Myra puts it): "facilitate the destruction of the last vestige or trace of the traditional man... to realign the sexes in order to decrease the population, thus increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage."

Baby, you read my mind.

The problem is, while some of the film's dialogue does attain this dizzying height of cinematic savvy, it also betrays 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 immediately departed for rehab, leaving MRYA caught between the zipper of gender studies exhibit-A and a "hard" place limbo. Feints at validating the lifestyles of queers, commies, nymphos, hippies, and the semi-condoning of punking out of dumb "I'm straight!"-pleading studs (ala SCORE!) all adds up to zilch if it all ends up merely being the prelude for the same old vindication of boy-meets-girl establishment wonkiness, 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.

Maybe what MYRA's makers subconsciously seem to fear isn't so much rejection of its message but the idea of Hollywood without censorship to rail against. A film like MYRA can't break walls if there are no walls left, and MYRA is terribly afraid it has nothing else to offer besides wall-breaking. So it knocks a few glory holes in the drywall, and then rushes to quick patch them up before dad comes home. 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. And when that doesn't work, stepping down off the wall and going back into the church. Rex Reed's well-known hatred of the film is telling it that sense. In his little three minute film reviews on TV, Reed's snootiness was rawther droll, but this is a real movie, and no snootiness stays droll longer than, maybe, five?

Sadly, for all that, Rex might have been right. As with so many movies with 'queer' characters in that less-enlightened albeit more heterosexually-liberated era, the 'ick' factor is camped to the point of gauchery, and so all that's left of substance 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, for example. In her scenes as an educator of Hollywood acting classes, Welch is superbly authoritarian and uber-confident--making these parts the real highlight of the film, as when explaining-- with just a touch of mock wistfulness--that they "really did roll out that barrel... And no one ever really rolled it back." When she socks 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. Carrying her points along, ld movie footage of giggling Richard Widmark from KISS OF DEATH and Marlene in Navy drag from SEVEN SINNERS comes rolling in like a welcome reprieve and apt commentary, as if the history of gender-bent Hollywood was looking down from a thousand screens as an omnipresent Greek chorus.

Tarzan, w/ Amazons
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 still makes even lame double entendres ("Ah, the pizza man! When do you deliver?") and ultra-subtle come-ons ("I don't care about your credits, as long as your oversexed") 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, able to find no real anchor to hold her in place. 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 dams 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 sequence in which Myra takes a stud's anal virginity, and Welch's dominatrix acting style finds its ultimate expression of howling vengeance. Wearing, finally, a stars and stripes bikini and (unseen) strap-on. Myra explains her validation for the approaching violation was when she declared earlier to her acting 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 lines are intercut with footage of a bucking bronco ("who's never been rode before" a cowboy actor warns) desperately trying to escape his stall; Clark Gable leering down from a poster like a leering peeping tom.

If nothing else, this scene can provide Hollywood devotees with whole new ways of reading their favorite MGM stars' enigmatic grins.

But the picture's meta-Eisensteinian leering doesn't end there. Welch's orgasm alone, for example, is crosscut with (I wrote them all down): 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; 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 - my homage to this moment). Best of all, Welch whoops it up with great abandon. The only other actor to match her for America-encapsulated yee-hawing is Slim Pickens on his H-bomb in STRANGELOVE. Yeeeee-Haw!

The cumulative effect (even if the Shirley Temple milking the cow footage was excised on her request [though we do see her sloppily eating creme puffs]), 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. And it is pissed, and pissing, and ahhhh

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, Farrah 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. He's still a man after all--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?  Urgh! FUCK YOU SARNE!

I'm sure our flaky, second-guessing director Sarne 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 you have to show some balls and stick to your gun. When that doesn't happen, we come away with a bad taste in our mouths. There were times in this film where the level of madness made it hum like electricity, like the best part of Russ Meyer's (similarly problematic) 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 when you see this image
and imagine they live happy ever after, 


  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.

  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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