Myra Breckinridge (1970) (part 1 of 12)
Back in the late 1960’s, the success of the counter-culture movement in film stunned the Hollywood establishment. Films like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy (which were light on conventional plots, but heavy on non-linear storytelling and stylistic experimentation) had execs at the big studios scratching their heads. Very few of them understood this new type of picture, but one thing was clear: Young people were spending money to see it. So, as per its nature, Hollywood did its very best to cash in.
What followed was a string of films that, in retrospect, look completely foolish. Almost as if they had come down from a great high, major studios would immediately come to regret releasing pretentious junk and repulsive comedies like Candy, The Happening, The Big Cube, Wild In The Streets, The Last Movie, R.P.M., The Strawberry Statement, The Harrad Experiment, and future Agony Booth target Skidoo.
And, of course, Myra Breckinridge.
Like most other faux “counter-culture” movies, Myra subjects us to random images and nonsensical dialogue, all in the director’s vain attempt to seem “with it”. But even worse, this movie forces us to watch legendary actors debase themselves as they try to act “hip” by casually tossing out sexually explicit dialogue and making references to the popular recreational drugs of the day.
This a rare film that features not one, not two, but three generations of stars humiliating themselves. Pin-ups of the past (Mae West), present (Raquel Welch), and future (Farrah Fawcett) are all here, and they’re all set adrift in a film that hasn’t a clue where it’s going or what it’s even about in the first place.
Myra Breckinridge is allegedly based on the 1968 novel of the same name by Gore Vidal. Which, of course, I’ve never read. This is mostly out of laziness, but I also feel that a movie should live or die on its own. I hate when someone rationalizes a lousy movie by saying, “Well, it makes sense if you’ve read the book.” If a director makes a standalone movie, it should stand on its own. If the movie only makes sense if you’ve read the book (and I have no doubt that this is true of Myra Breckinridge—Certainly, there’s no way it could make less sense), then the filmmakers should be handing out copies at theater entrances.
When it was announced that 20th Century Fox was making Vidal’s best-selling novel into a movie, there was naturally a lot of excitement surrounding the production, which prompted trade publications to publish frequent updates on the status of the shoot. Ultimately, this was probably what did the movie in, because once it was clear that Myra was going to be nothing less than an unqualified disaster, the media gleefully printed every bit of vicious gossip and ugly rumor that wafted off the set.
There were reports that director Michael Sarne, a virtual unknown at the time (and for all time, for that matter) would frequently hold up the shoot, spending six or seven hours a day off by himself “thinking”. Also, one report detailed how Sarne spent several days filming food. Meanwhile, the actual, non-edible cast and crew were left standing around idle. All on Fox’s dime.
Gore Vidal had originally signed on to write the screenplay, but once he saw where things were headed, he bailed on the production halfway through and fled to Italy. In addition, there was friction between many of the principal players, particularly Raquel Welch and Mae West. It’s rumored that they got along so terribly that the two eventually refused to film any scenes together. This resulted in the use of stand-ins whenever they had to appear on screen at the same time. (And after all the hoopla made about this in the press, it turns out only one such scene made it into the final cut of the movie.)
Topping it all off, Rex Reed himself penned a scathing piece for the August 1970 issue of Playboy, ridiculing the film and expressing doubt that it would even be released.
Finally, with the production hemorrhaging money and reports of on-set acrimony making daily headlines, Fox had to step in. They abruptly shut down production and forced Sarne to finish the movie with whatever footage he had already shot. As a result, the movie ends up being something akin to Monster A-Go Go, in that it doesn’t so much end as simply stop.
Predictably, Myra Breckinridge arrived in theaters DOA. It was soundly trashed by critics, with Time calling it “some sort of nadir in American cinema”, Variety saying “the bad taste is beyond belief”, Newsweek calling it “a horrifying movie” and the Herald-Examiner finding it “repulsively neurotic”. Years later, the movie would end up in the Medveds’ book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. And to this day, Fox clearly considers this movie an embarrassment, because as of this writing, they’re never given it more than a limited video release and rare showings on pay cable.
Unfortunately, it’s all justified. This movie is a mess. This is one of those rare films where, ten minutes into it, you think (provided you’re not racked with headaches and you can think), “Is it me? Have I somehow forgotten how to watch a movie?”
This will be one of my longest recaps, but there’s really no other way to get across in words how disorienting this film is and how poorly it’s put together. Subplots begin but are never resolved. Characters are introduced and never referred to again. These are sure signs that a lot of what was planned for this movie never even came close to being filmed. But given what was filmed, we should all be grateful.
To make matters worse, director Sarne decided to pad out the unfinished movie by lifting footage from other, much better movies in the Fox library. Clips from old movies are scattered throughout, to supposedly comment on the action. Today, some hail this technique as proof that Myra was “ahead of its time”. Which just goes to show, sometimes being “ahead of your time” isn’t necessarily a good thing. After all, do you really get bragging rights for anticipating the quick-cut, mix-and-match, Ritalin-deprived style of music video-turned-major motion picture directors at their worst?
In what is rapidly becoming a regular feature here at the Agony Booth, this tape begins with yet another Bizarre FBI Warning. In this particular warning, they spell out the title of the movie at the top, and believe it or not, they misspelled it [!]. So you know we’re in for some quality.
The movie opens on handwritten words sliding up the screen. Technically, this means that The Curse of the Opening Crawl has struck once again. The letter reads (in part) “Now I sit at the surgical table, making the greatest effort to calm myself, to put it all down, not only for its own sake but also for you, Randolph, who never dreamed that anyone could ever act outhis fantasies and survive…”
I have absolutely no idea what the point of this letter is supposed to be. We’ll eventually find out who Randolph is, but that’s well over an hour from now, and I can’t imagine what kind of person would even remember the name by then, much less care.
Anyway, it’s signed “Myron Breckinridge”, and as the letter scrolls up the screen, we hear upbeat 60’s elevator music that I think is supposed to indicate that this will be a “lighthearted” film. We fade to black and suddenly we cut to—Gah! It’s a tight close-up of movie critic Rex Reed in the role of Myron Breckinridge! Dammit, movie, warn me next time you do that!
Myron weakly sings to himself. “Secret place / Known to none but meeee / And in my secret place / You can beg and torture me….” While it’s true that Rex Reed was a relative unknown at the time he made this film, I think it would be stretching things to say his appearance counts as part of the Before They Were Stars roundtable topic. But it’s true that today he is much more well known as a shoplifter with a taste for Peggy Lee CDs.
Myron is lying beneath a ghoulish surgical lamp on an operating table, and beside him are stock nurse types in white hats. We then get seemingly disconnected shots of several older people sitting around in director’s chairs [?]. Cut to the rather disturbing image of a nurse with a giant fake beauty mark, who’s wearing heavy eyeliner and thick layers of lipstick. Hey, it’s the “in” look for surgery this year. She winks [?] at Myron.
We get another glimpse of the folks in director’s chairs looking on, and a substantial number of them are dressed completely in black and wearing sunglasses, just like film school rejects. Winky McNurse takes Myron’s pulse as she chews gum [!!], while another nurse gives Myron an injection. We briefly see a woman with a big whip [?] walking around the operating theatre, and then the surgeon enters. He swaggers in, twirling his surgical mask around his finger.
As he approaches the operating table, the people in director’s chairs break into applause. Incredibly, the doctor is smoking a cigarette [!!], but even more incredibly, the doctor is played by Red Zone Cuba guest star John Carradine [!!!!]. Welcome to the Agony Booth Repeat Offenders list, Mr. Carradine, wherever you are. I never had any doubt that you would make it here someday.
You know, I’ve been meaning to sit down and watch a movie like, say, The Grapes of Wrath, but I’m afraid the shock of seeing John Carradine in an honest-to-God quality movie role might just kill me.
John Carradine takes a small bow and waves to the crowd. For some reason, more crowd noises are dubbed in to make the group seem much larger than it really is. Movie lights surround the operating table, and there’s a magnifying mirror on the ceiling providing an enlarged view of the operation to the spectators.
John Carradine steps up to Myron and says, “You realize, once we cut it off, it won’t grow back! I mean, it isn’t like hair, or fingernails, or toenails, you know!” Or your lungs, either, Johnny Boy. So ease up on the smoking. (When you think about it, Carradine has a cigarette in his mouth for the duration of both of his roles seen on this website, which certainly explains the quality of his singing voice on “Night Train to Mundo Fine”.)
John Carradine pulls out what looks like a normal kitchen knife [!] and asks, “How about circumcision? It’d be cheaper!” Myron snaps his fingers, ordering him to get the surgery started because “Myra’s waiting!” John shrugs and says, “We’ll have to fill up your tits with silicone!” Wow, did John Carradine just say “tits”? I think this might be his most risqué role since his screen test for 20th Century Fox.
For no particular reason, Winky McNurse again winks at Myron. Hey, when your nickname is Winky McNurse, what else are you gonna do? Myron is shocked to learn that he’ll get silicone breast implants. He cries, “I thought they used paraffin!” You know, this is probably one of those things that maybe should have been cleared up before the day of the operation.
John Carradine laughs and tells Myron that they can’t use paraffin because “that would make them flammable!” He then offers up what might be the most immortal line ever uttered in any movie on this site.
|John Carradine: You don’t want flammable tits, now do you?|
No. No… I do not. No… no, sir.
Myron simply sighs and returns to singing “Secret Place”. John Carradine calls to his nurse, “Cleaver! I mean, scalpel!” I guess this was meant to be a joke, because when he says “cleaver”, the nurse really does put a meat cleaver in his hand. See, this is funny because Myron’s about to get his thingee chopped off. Get it?
John Carradine is all set to operate, so he says, “Well… wish me luck!” Sorry to be blunt, Mr. Carradine, but I think your luck ran out a long time ago. He says, “I’ve never done one of these before!” I guess this line was added in the off chance that his smoking and a nurse’s chewing gum in an operating room wasn’t enough of a clue to the general incompetence of this surgical team. Carradine begins to operate, and we still hear Myron singing, so I guess he’s going to be awake through the procedure [?].
The crowd again applauds as they rise to their feet cheering. Winky McNurse again winks at Myron. Does she have a facial tic, or what? Meanwhile, Myron is looking down at… Well, let’s just say he’s now been fully Lorena Bobbit-ized.