Myra Breckinridge was one of the big early debacles of Hollywood's Second Golden Age, as one might expect from a wild and star-studded comedy about transsexualism in 1970. In my youth I knew of it — from Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film — as that weird old movie in which movie critic Rex Reed gets turned into Raquel Welch, which sounded intriguing if not exactly inviting. I finally watched it in October, having drawn it from a movie exchange in which the participants watch highly ranked moves we haven't seen from each other's Flickcharts.
In the moment, Myra Breckinridge was a considerable slog: it's noisy and messy — aiming inaccurately for zany — with repellent characters and an unfortunate climax which presents rape as either a triumphant act of revolution or as a "hilarious" fantasy of vindictive gender-insecurity, or maybe both. For a movie that's so bold about its own wackiness, Myra Breckinridge never got a laugh out of me — it's just too mean-spirited and muddled about its purpose — but there's no doubting its visual creativity and ambition. Director Michael Sarne turns in one vibrantly designed set piece after another, and fans of Welch will likely delight in her extravagant wardrobe.
The rest of the cast of Myra Breckinridge is one of its most enticing curiosities: John Huston and Mae West portray decrepit Hollywood power-brokers, while newcomers like Farah Fawcett and Tom Selleck represent the beautiful young sex ideals that the movie industry hungers to exploit, consume and discard. Despite stories of rampant acrimony on set, everyone seems game for whatever weirdness gets thrown their way... but they're all lost inside a satire that doesn't seem sure what it's satirizing.
With a more focused point-of-view, Myra BreckInridge might have had something to say about Hollywood's sexual consumerism, but Sarne's and David Giler's screenplay from Gore Vidal's novel is mired in a sniggering attitude toward sex that is indistinguishable from the industry's lowest-brow embarrassments.
It's interesting to look at Myra BreckInridge from today's new standards regarding transsexualism, but it's yet another example of a movie that was considered revolutionary in its day for daring to broach a taboo subject, but makes a complete hash of how it presents that subject. In Myra Breckinridge, transsexualism is not the valid expression of non-binary gender dysphoria, but is both a deliberately aggressive act of transgression intended to upend archaic models of sexuality and a craven revenge scenario concocted by a narcissist consumed by his feelings of masculine inferiority. Rather than a progressive battle cry, it's confirmation of the suspicions held by transexualism's most uncharitable critics.
As an almost uncharitable critic of Myra BreckInridge, I will grant that thinking about it is not nearly as unpleasant as watching it, and its brazen insistence on whatever it's doing is admirable, if not fun. However, if I had to pick one bold, racy, wacky and subversive satire of Hollywood perversions from 1970, I would go for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in a heartbeat.