Myra Breckinridge (1970)

“All men have a lot to learn… I’ve taken it upon myself to teach you.”

Synopsis:
After Myron Breckenridge (Rex Reed) undergoes a sex change operation and becomes Myra (Raquel Welch), she visits an acting school owned by her uncle Buck (John Huston), pretending to be the “deceased” Myron’s widow in order to receive half of his estate. Meanwhile, Myra plots “the destruction of the American male in all its particulars” by blackmailing a studly young acting student (Roger Herren) and sending him into the clutches of aging casting director Leticia Van Allen (Mae West).

Genres:

Review:
A notorious turkey from the moment it went into production, this big-budget adaptation of Gore Vidal’s satirical novel is, as noted in the Toxic Universe review, both “hypnotically awful” and “audaciously dreadful”. British writer/director/performer Michael Sarne — whose debut film was the quirky Joanna (1968), starring Genevieve Waite — was recruited to helm the pic, but immediately clashed with both producers and stars about how to proceed; the result is a hyper-surreal pastiche which won’t make much sense to those who haven’t first read Vidal’s novel.

With that said — since I have read the novel, fairly recently — I must say I was pleasantly surprised by Breckinridge; it may be over-the-top, but it’s never boring, and Sarne’s post-modern insertion of vintage film clips at key moments (he was sued over several of his selections) is inspired. Welch — dressed in a series of fun 40’s-era outfits, including hats — almost seems to be channeling the spirit of Joan Crawford in her bitchily determined attitude, and John Huston at the very least seems to be having fun. Film critic Rex Reed (a non-actor) is the worst of the bunch, but doesn’t damage the proceedings too badly.

What really elevates this flick to must-see status, however, is the presence of aging diva Mae West as a horny septuagenarian casting director with a foul mouth and a surprising amount of sexual allure — ya’d think she’d come across like simply a parody of herself, but she’s remarkably well-preserved, and so sincere in her efforts to carry the show (complete with a “show-stopping” musical number) that one can’t help enjoying her efforts. See below for just one of her hilarious quips, which had me laughing out loud again and again.

P.S. Myra Breckenridge was voted one of the “fifty worst films of all time” by the Medved brothers in their 1978 book.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • 73-year-old Mae West as Leticia Van Allen
    Myra West
  • Raquel Welch as Myra
    Myra Welch
  • John Huston as Uncle Buck
    Myra Huston
  • Leticia singing “Hard to Handle” while surrounded by a bevy of African-American male dancers
    Myra Song
  • Theodora Van Runkle’s ’40s-inspired costumes
    Myra Costumes
  • Inspired use of vintage film clips
    Myra Vintage
  • A harsh skewering of gender norms
    Myra Gender
  • Effectively stylized sets and visuals
    Myra Design
  • Mae West drawling countless hilarious lines:

    Leticia Van Allen: How tall are you without your horse?
    Aspiring Male Star: Well, ma’am, I’m six feet seven inches.
    Leticia Van Allen: Well, never mind about the six feet — let’s talk about the seven inches.

Must See?
Yes, for its notoriety as a camp classic.

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One Response to “Myra Breckinridge (1970)”

  1. No one who calls him/herself a film fanatic can miss this one!

    I saw it on its release – on a double-bill with ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’! (Obviously my fondness for train-wreck films developed early; I suspect that has much to do with my worldview that life is patently absurd – and films that support that vision warm my heart.)

    After seeing ‘MB’, I did read the book – but I’ve no memory of it; nor do I know if not reading the novel renders the film meaningless. My feeling is that the film works on its own terms – whatever they may be.

    Between my ‘virgin’ experience of ‘MB’ and its recent DVD release, I’d only seen it in a pan-and-scan version – and that changed my opinion of the film quite a bit. As I recall, it looked simply awful and made the film even worse than it ‘is’. (That opinion held when I posted on ‘Joanna’.) Having now seen the DVD release, I can see ‘MB’ has more or less been restored to its former ‘glory’ – long live LBX, and the return of respect for the visionary! But I digress… 😉

    I don’t mean to imply that ‘MB’ is anything but a mess – but what a mess! As noted, it ain’t dull! If you go in deciding to give over to it, chances are you’ll have a pretty good time.

    There are a lot of genuine laughs here:

    My fave has to be Welch and Herren’s first meet-and-greet; when, to the rhythm of ‘Chattanooga Choo-Choo’, Welch mimes playing a trombone – aiming it directly at Herren’s butt.

    Later, when Herren returns for his ‘physical’, we get this playful exchange:

    Welch: Now, we’ll need a urine specimen. Step behind the screen.
    Herren: But, uh–
    Welch: (firm) But?
    (Thundercrack)

    (Who else has noticed that the ‘pee-shy’ bit of the turning on of the faucet resonates years later in ‘Gods and Monsters’?)

    …which leads to the ‘Ride ’em, Cowboy!’ sequence. (A bit more, kind of on that, later.)

    Much of the humor is blissful throwaway – i.e., Dr. Montag (“the great dental psychiatrist”); the apparent ad-lib by Genevieve Waite (of ‘Joanna’ fame) to the dental assistant: “Oh, you’ve got such lovely boobs. They’re such a comfort to me.”, etc.

    And that cast! And I’m not just talking about the leads. FFs will definitely get a kick out of the supporting help (esp. John Carradine and George Furth).

    But speaking of the leads:

    I don’t know what this is saying, of course, but this may be Welch’s finest hour! In what other film did she get the chance to break-out in anything close to this way? (Well, there was ‘Kansas City Bomber’, but there we’re talkin’ a respectable equivalent.) She’s often quite impressive here, oddly enough; the chaos of the shoot may actually have worked in her favor. (And at moments she looks shockingly like Edy Williams in the aforementioned ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’ – so seeing the two as a double-bill is not such a bad idea after all.)

    Rex Reed? Agreed, no real damage there.

    John Huston does know what his role is about and goes appropriately full-tilt with it. No one can accuse him of not knowing what a part requires. (Compare this with his small but polar-opposite role in his own terrific film ‘The Kremlin Letter’, released the same year.)

    Ms. West? I have to confess I’m not taken with her – and never really have been. I’ll give her her due in film history, but here she comes across as someone expecting to be adored. Yes, she affords a few laughs. But I actually think she could have been better if she didn’t give off the scent of entitlement.

    Farrah is actually pretty cute. Herren is yummy. (He got this role after appearing as Cowboy in a west coast prod. of ‘The Boys in the Band’. Need I say more?)

    Is ‘MB’ camp? Yes. But not in the same category as ‘Mommie Dearest’ or ‘Showgirls’. Those other films set out to make BIG STATEMENTS – and ended up being quite the opposite. Well, no, THEY ARE BIG STATEMENTS…just not the ones intended. ‘MB’, on the other hand, is a much different kind of ‘happy accident’. In one way or another, everyone was fighting for their lives during the filming. But they all seemed, in spite of themselves, to be hanging on to some elusive lynchpin. And waddayaknow? It works!

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