This is Part 3 of an apparent series about the 1970 film “Myra Breckinridge” – find part 1 here [link], and part 2 here [link]. In short, I think “Myra Breckinridge” is the worst film ever made because I needed it to be the best ever made, and it wasn’t – a statement I made so snappily in my notes, I didn’t realise I hadn’t used it in my first two thousand words on the subject.
Having given myself time to recover, I can return to my study of “Myra Breckinridge” to discuss what happened next. To further understand my enemy, I have invested in my own copies of the sources of information that have most influenced the opinions made about the film, and one that even Gore Vidal’s original novel couldn’t do without. My intention is ultimately to refer to them when I eventually write the definitive book on “Myra Breckinridge” – I have already pointed out the rarity of a transgender film buff writing about a film whose protagonist is also a transgender film buff – but, in the meantime, I will share with you what they are, and what they say.
The best narrative account of the making of “Myra Breckinridge” is contained in the essay “Swinging Into Disaster,” by Steven Daly, published in the April 2001 issue of “Vanity Fair” magazine, and collected into the book “Vanity Fair’s Tales of Hollywood,” published by Penguin in 2008. There are interviews with the film’s writer and director, Michael Sarne, producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, and with the film’s star, Raquel Welch – Gore Vidal responded in writing, Farah Fawcett declined to be involved, and others are reflected through narrative and anecdotes. The essay does a great job of centring its story on Sarne, his becoming director, and his influence in creating a notoriously chaotic production, people being fired left and right, and scripts rewritten every day. The decision to use archive pieces of Laurel & Hardy and Shirley Temple came during the editing process after the film was completed, not when it was being written. The ultimate outcome is that no-one came away from the film unscathed, either by it becoming a blot in John Huston’s filmography, or Raquel Welch not being properly recognised as a comic actress until four years later, in Richard Lester’s “The Three Musketeers.” Sarne clearly had scores to settle, as later proved in his DVD commentary in 2004, in contrast to Welch’s bemusement on her own.
The film critic Rex Reed, playing the pre-transition Myron Breckinridge in a white suit, like an episode of “Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)” is often quoted in saying that, of “Myra Breckinridge,” “on this movie, everybody’s asking, ‘Who do you have to screw to get out of it?’” This comes from “Myra Goes Hollywood,” an essay for the August 1970 issue of “Playboy” magazine. Yes, I really did buy a copy of “Playboy” for the articles and, for the time, it reads like “The New Yorker” with soft-core pornography leavened into the mix. The advertisements are for alcohol, tobacco, and British Leyland – their page 3 pin-up is the MGB GT. The purpose of the article is for Reed to provide a more authoritative contemporary account of the chaotic production than the leaks could have suggested, played out as mostly juicy gossip, but the most telling part is how Reed details his agreeing to play Myron, based on having script approval for his role – his not interested in playing a gay man who has a sex change, his eventual role as “a sort of carnal Jiminy Cricket to Raquel’s erotic Pinocchio” ultimately resulted from working around his demands. Reed does not state why he even agreed to be in the film, apart from making some reference to how critics should take the opportunity to learn the technical side of making a film.
The writing of the film critic Parker Tyler looms large in Myra Breckinridge’s mind, as she waxes lyrical about Hollywood dealing in myths, and in exclaiming that, “during the decade between 1935 and 1945, no unimportant film was made in the United States.” Parker’s 1947 book “Magic and Myth of the Movies,” a seminal work that applies psychoanalysis to then-recent films like “Mildred Pierce,” “Double Indemnity” and “The Seventh Veil,” at a time when films were only just doing that themselves, for example in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” (1945). However, the glow of the screen does better for Parker than the real life it reflects upon, and Myra also basks in that glow, as the new Hollywood of the 60s produces less effectual role models.
Tyler initially complained that “Myra Breckinridge,” both the novel and film, defamed him and his work, but the attention led “Magic and Myth of the Movies” to be republished in 1971. My copy of the British reissue, with Rita Hayworth on the front cover, also features a new foreword by Tyler, where he deals with the ambiguous nature of the tribute the story gives him, as his ideas are even dropped by Myra upon the novel’s end.
Finally, the February 1971 issue of the British journal “Films and Filming” has an article by Michael Sarne, returning to the magazine for which he used to write reviews, titled “For Love of Myra.” Sarne plays the production as an affair between himself and the character of Myra. Photographic evidence was provided, also on the cover of the magazine, to prove Sarne did try to find a male actor to play both Myra and Myron, before opting for the baggage of Rex Reed. Sarne labelling his affair as “the ultimate love-hate relationship, the Lord Byron and Caroline Lamb of the ‘sixties, perhaps all that remains of our affair will be the things they say about us.” For certain, that is all Sarne has, as Myra returned in Gore Vidal’s sequel novel “Myron.”