Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Reader Request: Rants on "Myra Breckinridge"

Before I even popped in Michael Sarne’s 1970 film Myra Breckinridge, I was totally expecting some kind of simplistic, crowd pleasing film chock full of delicious camp moments. After the first scene, in which Myron Breckinridge (played by film critic Rex Reed) undergoes a sex-change operation in a heavily stylized hospital room straight out of All That Jazz, I figured that the film might be a little artier than I expected. Twenty minutes in, after a scene in which Myron receives oral sex from his post-operation alter ego Myra (played fabulously by Raquel Welch), I had no idea what was going on and decided to just go with the flow.

The story of Myra Breckinridge is actually pretty straight forward: Myra returns from her sex-change operation to her Uncle Buck’s (John Huston) acting school and, claiming to be Myron’s widow, tries to claim her part of his interest in the school. He tries to delay her claim so he can speak to his lawyers by offering her a teaching position at the school. She develops a crush on one of the dim-witted students, which leads to a shocking scene in which she sodomizes him with a strap-on dildo (yes, you read that right). Myra feels guilty and eventually passes him onto horny super agent Leticia Van Allen (Mae West). By the end, as Uncle Buck desperately tries to fight Myra to keep her away from his money, she reveals to him that she is really Myron and shows them her penis.

Based on the controversial book by renowned author Gore Vidal, it would make sense for Myra Breckinridge to be a little on the artier side. Unfortunately, problems arise nearly every time it breaks from the story to try to make an artistic point. One example is the few times that both Myron and Myra appear in the same scene. I’m sure there is some metaphorical point to be made from this about how a part of Myron is still living with Myra or something to that effect, but Sarne doesn’t do a good job explaining or setting this up- it seems like he just appears out of nowhere. Another example is the aforementioned oral sex scene with Myron and Myra. During the middle of it, Myron has the fantasy/dream in which a hot blonde woman sexily offers him a wide selection of food from a long buffet table. I can’t even fathom what Sarne was attempting to do with scene, but what he created definitely doesn’t work.

Another problem with Myra Breckinridge is the Leticia Van Allen character. Although the role is tailor made for Mae West (making her "return" to the screen after a 37 year absence) and she is quite funny, Leticia doesn’t seem to fit into the structure of the film. The only times that she is even minorly important are when she appears at the acting school for about a minute and when she takes the male student off of Myra’s hands- and these moments are unnecessary as it is. My guess is that she was a minor character in the book, but had to be made larger to appease the diva West. And why the hell did she sing during that award show?

Although Myra Breckinridge has many problems, there are a couple of redeeming factors. One of them has to be Raquel Welch’s fabulous performance. What makes it so refreshing is that instead of the usual 70’s Method style, Welch uses the 40’s style of star charisma- an era she absolutely adores. She takes no prisoners and seems to be having the time of her life with this role (although the episode of Backstory that appears on this disc says otherwise).

One of the best scenes in the whole film has to be the previously mentioned scene where Myra puts on a strap-on and practically anally rapes the student she has the hots for. Even today, after seeing my fair share of shocking and strange sex scenes (even living through the Cronenberg version of Crash), the scene still stunned me for all of it’s graphicness without even showing anything. Throughout much of the film, Sarne slips in clips of old 20th Century Fox films for no other reason, it seems, than to highlight Myra’s love of the era. But, during this scene, the clips actually seem to serve a purpose as they provide a running commentary. There’s even one towards the end that is utterly brilliant: in the clip Oliver Hardy laments to Stan Laurel something to the effect of "It hurt me more than it hurt him." It fits so easily into the scene that it almost seems that it was written specifically for it.

In the end, Myra Breckinridge is full of faults, but thanks to a couple of brilliant parts, it is not unwatchable and actually a little bit of fun.

My Rating: ***

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