My Year Of Flops Case File #19: Myra Breckinridge
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With cinematic disasters of epic proportions the viral contagion known as bad buzz attaches itself to a movie and steadily kills it from within. That was certainly the case with 1970's Myra Breckinridge, a movie that destroyed itself well before critics or audiences could have a go at it.
Myra was a troubled project from the very beginning. A faithful, literal-minded adaptation of Gore Vidal's comic novel would probably cost a hundred million dollars to make, get an X-rating and violate the decency statutes of every country in the known universe. Vidal himself had a go at adapting the film for the big screen but his draft eventually found its way into the circular file at Twentieth Circle Fox.
In desperation the studio turned to an actor, sometimes film critic and inexperienced writer-director named Michael Sarne, who had a relatively fresh and novel take on the material. Why not make the entire film a dreamy fantasia on classic Hollywood glamour that exists largely inside the fevered imagination of a tragic young transsexual whose imagination was long ago hijacked by the slippery magic of the silver screen? To further flesh out the Old Hollywood dimension of Sarne's vision snippets from classic movies were interspersed into the action of the film as a cheeky Greek chorus.
Alas, Myra Breckinridge, like Bonfire Of The Vanities illustrates how a filmmaker with a relatively clean, conceptually interesting handle on their material can nevertheless completely destroy a zeitgeist-capturing literary landmark. Sarne's good ideas didn't stop with re-conceptualizing Myra as a cinephile's raunchy daydream. For the pre-operative portion of the lead role Sarne casts a young film critic, talk show guest and man-about-town Rex Reed, an amateur who'd stumbled into the perfect role in a perfect disaster. Who better to play a confused young man with a film projector lodged inside his cerebellum than a professional voyeur by trade? There's a tragic yearning at the core of Reed's performance that's enormously touching. As the director notes in a wonderfully bitchy, deluded commentary Reed was utterly convincing as a man who wanted to close his eyes and become Raquel Welch but Reed's longing to crawl out of his old skin and slip into something out of a MGM melodrama is the only thing about Myra that rings remotely true.
Reed's performance is the unexpected highlight of the film but it brought with it all manner of complications. For starters Reed used his position as one of television's leading talking heads to bash the film well before it made its way to theaters. As if all that wasn't disastrous enough star Raquel Welch insists on her equally bitchy, deluded commentary that the only reason she accepted the lead role was because she'd been assured that she'd play the character both before and after their sex change operation. In other words she'd play both Myron and Myra Breckinridge.
In Welch's estimation playing a dual lead role would have saved the film, or at least rendered it a compelling acting challenge. I, on the other hand, suspect that having her play a dual role would have only rendered a grotesque spectacle even more skin-crawlingly awkward.
The drama didn't end there. Heck, listen to the dueling audio commentaries and it's apparent the drama still hasn't ended. For Sarne conceived Myra as a comeback vehicle for semi-recluse Mae West. Depending on who you ask Welch was either a shy, humble grandmother type deeply traumatized by Welch's indifferent treatment of her or an insane, deluded prima donna who colluded with Sarne in destroying the film.
West insisted on performing several musical numbers that couldn't be more jarringly out-of-place if they were sung in Estonian by a talking dog hanging upside down on a trapeze. West's insanely elaborate production numbers seem to belong in another film altogether, if not the gayest cabaret night in the history of Fire Island, but then so does much of Myra
Sarne might have conceived Myra as a featherweight fantasia on old-school glamour but the film's dominant mood is one of shrill, ugly misanthropy. It's a sledgehammer satire that misses all the wit and sophistication of Vidal's prose while zealously preserving its gleeful vulgarity. Myra can't seem to decide whether it wants to bury Hollywood or to praise it so it veers incoherently between the two approaches.
According to Wikipedia Myra was one of two X-rated movies released by Fox in 1970: the other was Russ Meyer's legendary Beyond The Valley Of the Dolls. Considering the rampant similarities between the two films why is one considered a cult classic and another fairly reviled (though Myra certainly has a bit of a cult as well)? I think the answer boils down to Valley having a consistent satirical approach and Myra fatally lacking a cohesive angle on its subject. Meyer and Ebert knew exactly what they were doing even when it seemed they had lost control whereas Sarne was clearly in over his head from the very beginning
Myra's shooting was famously combative. Sarne reportedly disappeared into his trailer for hours and allegedly devoted nearly half a day to shooting a cake. A cake. Just about the only upside to Myra was that it essentially destroyed Sarne's directorial career. Yet Myra retains a strange fascination today thanks to its one-of-a-kind cast, misplaced audacity and time-capsule qualities. In its own strange way Myra is now as much a part of Hollywood's past as the black-and-white classics it samples liberally, even if everyone involved outside of Sarne–who clearly feels he made a visionary masterpiece–probably wishes they could close their eyes and wish it out of existence.
Failure, Fiasco Or Secret Success?: Fiasco