I remember reading “Myra Breckinridge” about five years ago after perusing the selection of Gore Vidal novels at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. I found the novel to be delightfully wicked in a way only Vidal could do and, in the context of when he wrote it, a fascinating critique on masculinity, femininity and what was considered “deviant behavior.” (I regret what I’ve read of Vidal’s work is rather small and I need to rectify that problem.)
I later learned there had been a film adaptation done and since the novel seemed impossible to film and also has a premise that only seems eclipsed in absurdity by a Chuck Palahniuk novel, it felt like it deserved a place in “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!”
At the start of the movie we meet a young man who is about to undergo sex reassignment surgery. The young man is named Myron Breckinridge (Rex Reed) and we jump forward to California where Myra Breckinridge (Raquel Welch) has come to take a job at an acting academy owned by Myron’s Uncle Buck (John Huston). Myra, as it turns out, used to be Myron and is hell-bent on destroying the very idea of masculinity and ensuring female dominance. She befriends student Mary Ann Pringle (Farrah Fawcett) and sets out to destroy the hyper-masculine student, Rusty Godowski (Roger Herren). Meanwhile, there is an agent and recording artist named Leticia Van Allen (Mae West), whom Myra tries to get to represent Rusty.
The biggest problem with transferring “Myra Breckinridge” from a novel to a film is it loses all of the nuance of Vidal’s novel. What works as a very effective satire of gender and sexual norms at the time comes across as an exploitative film with an edge of transphobia due to Myra being a crazed misandrist who uses sexual violence to emasculate a man. Although this isn’t too far from the premise of the novel, a lot of the message of the book ends up being muddled because of how this film is made. However, Vidal’s intended irony of the incredibly gorgeous feminine woman being transgender would potentially come off as transphobic no matter how you would make the film today.
It’s worth noting at the time he wrote the novel and this movie was made transgender women were likely viewed as horribly cartoonish women who had masculine features and feminine features. There weren’t prominent transgender women like Laura Jane Grace, Candis Cayne and Laverne Cox to shatter the preconceived notions of what transgender women are. Still, a lot of the things Vidal does in the book could in a critique today be viewed as poor satire, but in the context of the target of his satire the novel arguably works. (It’s worth noting the novel was published pre-Stonewall and although LGBT people existed prior to Stonewall, that was the spark that ignited the LGBT rights movement and after that awareness of LGBT people arose.)
If you push aside how Vidal’s razor-sharp writing is not well transferred to the film and came to this with no knowledge of the book, it would still be a terrible film because it feels like three different films were being made at once. The Van Allen subplot, which works out well in the novel, feels tacked on and West does not feel like she’s in the same movie as the rest of the actors. You could honestly cut out the character of Leticia Van Allen and maybe have a better film. But it wouldn’t be that much better largely because of director Michael Sarne constantly using archival clips from old films throughout the movie. Although this sometimes works for a comedic effect, it mostly serves as a distraction from what is going on during the course of the movie. Did we really need a clip of George Sanders applauding in “All About Eve” while Myra is raping someone using a strap-on dildo? No.
There’s also muddled scenes like one where Myra gives Myron a blowjob, which is either the world’s weirdest fantasy, or just a scene that seemed like a good idea to Sarne at the time–he wrote the screenplay–and doesn’t work well on the screen. The ending also lacks the impact of Vidal’s novel, but really anything in the movie lacks the impact of Vidal’s novel.
What is possibly the weirdest cast assembled in Hollywood history gives the most inconsistent overall performance. Fawcett and Reed give very lovely and natural feeling performances, while Herren and Huston feel performances where it feels like Sarne yelled, “ACT MASCULINE” and then pointed a camera at them. Welch gives what is a delightfully campy performance, but it would only work if everyone around her were being equally campy. Meanwhile, I have no idea what is going on with Mae West’s performance.
Finally, I would really like to watch a movie for “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!” where there is no sexual assault. All three films in this series have featured sexual assault or attempted sexual assault and I’m a little tired of seeing it in these movies. If it pops up in whatever the next movie is, I might just skip watching it.
Verdict: Skip the movie, read the book, unless you enjoy watching confusing trainwrecks.