Saturday, 26 July 2014

Vidal Loca… Myra Breckinridge (1970)

This film has all the hallmarks of a classic cult movie – rated as the worst film ever made by some and yet so chock full of transgression and in-jokes that it can’t fail to arouse the support of those who admire its counter-cultural tone… It’s certainly confused a fair few since its release and frightened some others. Is there any point in watching Myra Breckinridge in 2014?

Based on the spitefully witty novel by Gore Vidal, who also wrote the initial treatments, the film ended up being directed by Michael Sarne from a script he co-wrote: it was the last feature he would ever get to make but I don’t know if Myra was completely to blame.

John Huston, Mae West and Raquel
Sarne’s methods appear to have been wasteful and unfocused in the studio but I think the film hangs together reasonably well in terms of its narrative but there doesn’t seem to be a defined motivation for many of the characters and the satire’s a little too obvious at times.

Raquel Welch
Raquel Welch stars as Myra, the result of a sex change to Myron (Rex Reed), who wanted to realign not just his own gender but the pre-set programming of all Americans. To do this he/she aims to infiltrate the film star training school run by he/her Uncle Buck Loner (John Huston) and to, presumably, create a master race of newly sexualised super stars to go forth and screw with the mother country’s mind…. It’s a crazy plan and it just won’t work.

Still, tiny steps… you probably have to read the book to make sense of the reasoning. Taken on its own merits, the plot – as in Myra’s plot – makes sense as a revenge on her Uncle’s money-grabbing exploitation of the gullible, but on a larger scale?

Toni Basil, John Carradine and Rex Reed...discuss the deed.
Myra arrives after a sex change operation delivered by John Carradine, cigar in mouth and rather casual of demeanour… The results look spectacular though and more than good enough to convince Uncle Buck that she is Myron’s widow or at least that she is a she. She’s aiming for half his million dollar business and maybe more if he fights back too hard.

Buck’s school is a phoney, aimed at perpetuating the myths of the worst aspects of Hollywood and extending the stay of students as long as possible along with their fees of course.

There are many clips from older Hollywood films including a nice sample form the Welch “classic” 1,000,000 Years BC… which arrives just as Myra does: you think maybe this film is better than they say? But whilst the clips are obviously used more out or respect for a golden era of cinematic fantasy, they don’t always work and sometimes distract. It’s also interesting that a sequence of clips from one of Laurel and Hardy’s last features – Atoll K - not one of their best but still funnier than all of the original material in Myra..

Laurel and Hardy protest...
 In between trying to extract maximum value out of Uncle Buck, Myra sets about perverting his students to her way of thinking. Her main targets are the none-too-smart jock Rusty Godowski (Roger Herren) and his too good to be true girlfriend Mary Ann Pringle (Farrah Fawcett). Her motivations seem just spiteful but she obviously sees them as emblematic of all American narrow-band thinking on boys, girls and relationships.

Mae West and Tom Selleck
Meanwhile there’s a major sub-plot boiling over with a 76-year-old Mae West playing the queen of the casting couch Leticia Van Allen. Miss Van Allen is constantly “interviewing” a long line of male acting talent – including a fresh-faced Tom Selleck (who does pass his audition you’ll be relieved to know!). It’s the Mae West legend writ large and she’s pretty spot on with her delivery even though her character’s role in the film is merely to underline the point about the endlessly exploitative dream factory.

And so the film goes as Uncle Buck has yet another massage at the hands of a variety of young masseurs, he brings in his own sleazy lawyers to disprove Myra’s claims and she outwits him at every turn.

Finally the film gets to the – sexual – point and Myra gives Rusty a “lesson” he’ll never forget. Revenge for a woman-kind taken for granted by “guys like him” or Myron/Myra getting their kicks? We’re not clear.

A broken Rusty is handed over for Miss Van Allen to use a she wilt and Myra turns her attention to realigning Mary Ann’s sexuality, using Rusty’s disappearance as a tool to push her into the arms of an alternative sex. But Mary Ann isn’t buying what Myra’s selling and now Myra wants the one she can’t have…

Confused Myra loses the plot...
Dusty verdict: Myra Breckinridge hits most of its targets but it doesn’t deliver knockout blows… Yes we know that the Dream Factory can chew people up and spit ‘em out but why should we sympathise with Myra’s “revenge”? We don’t even like Myron to be honest – credit to non-actor Rex Reed for that – although we do admire Myra’s style - Miss Welch really is a revelation with her timing and sardonic charm!

Rex Reed
It ends up falling a little flat with a “so what” denouement that doesn’t ring true at all… not for Myron or Myra.

Toni Basil - "Oh Myron,you're not so fine..."
There are moments of style and it’s more coherent than people give it credit for whilst there are also some great guest appearances from the likes of Andy Devine as Coyote Bill. It also features a young Toni Basil who pops up throughout with a knowing wink, chewing gum… maybe she knows a lot more than she’s letting on?

Worth watching but too mean of spirit to qualify as genuine satire and too sexually violent to be a guilty pleasure, you can buy Myra on DVD from Amazon and others.

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