The 1970s were not kind to Gore Vidal’s film career. The decade opened with the noxious adaptation of his novel Myra Breckinridge (dir. Michael Sarne, 1970) and ended with the travesty of Caligula (dir. Bob Guccione, 1979)—to which we’ll come presently. For now, let’s spend a moment reflecting on the disaster that is Myra Breckinridge. Virtually since its premiere, the film has maintained a reputation as one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history. I’ve noticed a disturbing recent trend whereby the, um, auteurs of such so-bad-they’re-good classics as Troll 2 and The Room have mistaken the cult followings surrounding their films for genuine praise. Thankfully, everyone associated with Myra Breckinridge seems to recognize it as pure trash. Perhaps even more painful than the film itself is Raquel Welch’s commentary track for the DVD, recorded c. 2003, made up largely of periods of silence in which I can only imagine she was busy gritting her teeth.
The premise: for reasons never made clear, Myron Breckinridge, the nephew of a salacious studio exec (John Huston), determines to take over Hollywood and then the world by conning his uncle out of his money and wreaking havoc on the male sex. He does so by undergoing gender reassignment surgery (though this is too sophisticated a term for the procedure depicted in the opening scene of the film) and becomes Myra. His male self persists in hanging around for the remainder of the film, kind of like a ghost. Myra is played by Raquel Welch in a performance that suggests a woman who suddenly realizes she’s on a sinking ship and can’t get off. Myron is played by the much-hated film critic and television personality Rex Reed. Highlights include Myra giving Myron a blow-job while he fantasizes about being fed junk food by Farrah Fawcett; 65-year-old Mae West (above) in not one but two production numbers, both surreally bad (in the second she appears to be rapping); Reed on a hospital bed screaming “where are my tits!?”; and an infamous scene in which Myra rapes a hunky male acting student (Roger Herren) with a strap-on dildo while wearing an American flag bikini.
Could it get any worse, you might ask? It could, and it does—because peppered throughout are painfully awkward cutaways to archival film footage, much of which is horrifying in itself (for example, Shirley Temple doing an Al Jolson impression for a Chinaman. Temple apparently insisted that the film remove another shot of her being squirted in the face by a goat udder.) Is Myra Breckinridge so bad it’s good? No; it’s so bad it’s loathsome.