Gore Vidal‘s novel, Myra Breckinridge, is a satire that explores gender-roles and sexual-orientation whose main character undergoes a sex-change. It skewers and roasts conventional ideas of American sexuality and was adapted into an X-rated 1970 film, which was pretty much universally panned. Vidal disowned it, saying it was,
“an awful joke.“
May be, but it’s still giving us a lot of ideas and imagery that American society is still pretty uncomfortable wrestling with. The film features Raquel Welch as Myra with director John Huston as Buck Loner, Mae West as Leticia Van Allen, Farrah Fawcett, Rex Reed and Tom Selleck in his film debut as one of Leticia’s “studs”. Theadora Van Runkle designed the costumes although Edith Head did Mae West’s.
There were months of speculation over who would play the title role and after Raquel Welch was cast the next was Mae West, in her first film role since 1943. Said West at the time,
“It’s a return not a comeback. I’ve never been away, just busy.“
West was allowed to rewrite her own dialogue and sing and she was paid $350,000, a LOT of money in the late 60s.
Filming was apparently a gigantic mess that started with the director, Michael Sarne who was granted complete control over the project. He very quickly went over budget for his some of his bizarre methods like spending up hours at a time “thinking” while the cast was waiting around on the set. Sarne encouraged bickering among cast members and there were reported conflicts between Welch and West.
It was controversial for its sexual explicitness, but unlike the novel, the film received almost zero praise. Herb Kelly wrote in the Miami News:
“I now nominate Myra Breckinridge as the worst movie ever made… nothing can touch it for tastelessness and boredom”.
After it flopped, Sarne was never asked to direct another American film. The story goes that upon learning that the director was now working at a pizza joint, Vidal said that it was “proof of God’s existence.”
Myra Breckinridge was one of two films with an X rating to be released by 20th Century Fox in 1970 (the other being Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). It has rarely been shown on TV, though in recent years, the film has aired on the Fox Movie Channel. In 2004 it was released on DVD with changes: to make the film’s ending (Myra never had her sex change?) clearer, the ending sequence was changed to a black-and-white format. Of course it has developed a cult following.
Oh, kids it’s just a big mess, but doesn’t this make you want to see it? Here’s the trailer along with “The Mae West Cut” which will probably be MORE than enough.