Box Office Failures Week: Myra Breckinridge (1970)

Gore Vidal’s 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge was a landmark novel, an attack on the traditional norms of gender and sexuality, while also a biting satire of Hollywood. It was also seen as incredibly pornographic, so the idea that a movie could be made from the book seemed pretty out there.

After all, two weeks into writing the book, Vidal decided to make his main character transgender — and if you think transpeople are an issue today, you can only imagine how the world felt about them fifty years ago. An interesting trivia note — the name Breckinridge was taken from Bunny Breckinridge, who played The Ruler in Plan 9 From Outer Space. He was an openly gay man in a time when it was dangerous to be homosexual and was even jailed several times as a result. His desire to become a woman was ruined by the legal system and even a car accident on the way to get an illegal transition surgery in Mexico. In his later years, he’d open his San Francisco Spanish bungalow-style home to hippies and regale them with the history of closeted Hollywood.

Somehow, this got made, with Vidal making $750,000 ($5 million in today’s money) for the rights and screenplay. Original director — and Pittsburgh native — Bud Yorkin was replaced by Michael Sarne, an auteur who had made all of one film, 1968’s tale of swinging London Joanna. Somehow, he got complete creative control over this project.

Sarne quickly went over budget. One reason is that he’d often lock himself in a room while union cast and crew made money outside, thinking of what he’d do next for up to seven hours as a time. He also famously spent several days filming close-ups of food instead of handing that task off to a second unit. He also was big on getting the cast members to fight amongst themselves.

A former singer — who had a novelty #1 hit with “Come Outside” in the UK, somehow Sarne was able to do whatever he wanted, at least until this movie flopped. He never directed a movie in the U.S. again, but has acted in several films since this movie bombed oh so badly.  And his movie The Punk did well, but it took decades to revive his career.

I mean, Sarne trashed the entire cast long before the movie even came out. Welch was “useful only as a joke” and “an old raccoon.” Rex Reed was “faggy, prissy and unpleasant.” John Huston was “an old hack.”

When asked by The Independent about the film, Vidal minced no words. “One of the worst films ever made. A disaster. Myra was the most pre-publicized film since Gone with the Wind. It made the covers of Time and Newsweek. But you could tell it was going to be a disaster from reading Sarne’s script.”

So how bad is it? Well, somehow this 94-minute film feels like it takes 94 years to unspool. It ridicules old Hollywood for shock tactics, leading many of the Golden Era film actors who appeared in the movie to be angry that their old films were being used to punctuate puerile gags and a woman on man pegging assault. It got so bad that the White House asked for footage of Shirley Temple — now a U.S. ambassador — to be removed. Loretta Young successfully sued to have herself cut out of the film.

Yes, it’s a movie so bad that actors sued to get themselves on to the cutting room floor.

The film begins with Myron Breckinridge (critic Rex Reed, who also shows up in another megaflop, Inchon) has gone to Copenhagen to become the gorgeous Myra (Racquel Welch, who is, well, Racquel Welch and nearly melts the screen with each appearance). When he returns to the U.S., he heads off to his/her (Myra has no set gender pronoun) uncle Buck Loner’s (John Huston, who I would say deserves better, but he’s also in TentaclesBermuda Triangle and The Visitor, so he obviously would do anything; also all three of those movies are a billion times better than this) acting school, where he/she acts as his/her own widow to try and get half the school or a half a million bucks.

Somehow, Myra ends up becoming an etiquette teacher at the school, which means that he/she discusses mainly the Golden Age of Hollywood and female domination, all with the end goal of “the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes, thus reducing population while increasing human happiness and preparing for its next stage.” Oh yeah — Myron also shows up as his/her conscience.

Myra has also grown obsessed with lovebirds Rusty and Mary Ann (Roger Herren, whose career was ruined after this lone role, and a very young Farrah Fawcett), who she sees as everything old fashioned, apple pie and America. To destroy them, she first pegs Rusty, who leaves his girl behind, then enters a lesbian relationship with Mary Ann, who wishes that Myra was really a woman so they could have a complete life. Ah, 1970.

Also — Mae West — pre-Sextette — is in here as a casting agent who is pretty much Mae West redoing all of her old routines. After auditioning plenty of men — look for a young Tom Selleck — she ends up getting the used up and presumably dilated Rusty as her next boy toy.

Buck is convinced that Myra is a liar and keeps trying to trip him/her up. These machinations end when Myra reveals that she hasn’t lost all of Myron, who then manifests himself and hits her with a car.

Myron awakens — in black and white thanks to a re-edit made to the DVD release to show us this was all a dream — and was never a woman at all.

All manner of people are utterly wasted in this movie, which I’ve come to respect in the same way that one looks up to rats for being able to get into social media eating pizza on a near-weekly basis. There’s Dan Heyada in a young role as a mental patient, Toni Basil more than a decade before her hit video “Mickey,” The Monkees’ actor Monte Landis, Helda Hopper’s son William, former pro wrestler Buck Kartalian, Kathleen Freeman (Microwave Marge from Gremlins 2), Grady Sutton (who was often in W.C. Fields movies and often played “sissy” roles), Andy Devine (who was Cookie, the sidekick of Roy Rogers), John Carradine (are you shocked?), Jim Backus, Calvin Lockart (The Beast Must Die), George Furth (Blazing Saddles) and Roger C. Carmel (Harry Mudd himself!).

Raquel Welch claimed that she was fascinated by Mae West, as she could never fully decide if West was a man or a woman. That seems like sour grapes, as West had a contract that allowed her to pick her costume colors above anyone else in the cast, leading to many of Welch’s outfits needing to be picked all over again.

And hey — Rex Reed refused to say the movie’s best — or worst — line, “Where are my tits? Where are my tits!?!” until he was told they’d just have someone impersonate his voice. He did it anyway.

As we’ve seen numerous times over Box Office Failures Week, many movies that were flops didn’t really flop. And some of the ones seen as poor films are actually pretty good. This is not the case. Not even a little bit.

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