Long before Rupert Murdoch bought it, back in the freewheeling days of the late ’60s, Twentieth Century Fox was a studio with an identity crisis. Demonstrating a complete lack of awareness as to who the moviegoing audience was at that time, the boys at 20th pinned their hopes on big-budget, roadshow attractions like Doctor Dolittle in 1967, box office bomb, and the following year’s Star!, an even bigger money-loser for the studio. By the end of the decade, the studio had changed course completely, and cast its lot with the freaks.
Maverick nudie filmmaker Russ Meyer and screenwriter/film critic Roger Ebert got the green light to make an X-rated sequel to Valley of the Dolls, while the studio forked out big bucks for the rights to Gore Vidal’s controversial novel Myra Breckenridge, a book thought to be unfilmable.
The director chosen for the project was relative neophyte Michael Sarne, a 29 year old English actor whose only previous directorial credit was the1968 hippie flick Joanna. He set about the daunting task of adapting the book into a screenplay (with David Giler), then attempted to capture his vision of the novel on celluloid with a cast that included Raquel Welch, John Huston, a young Farrah Fawcett, and Mae West. This particular challenge was made all the more difficult by Welch and West not speaking to one another, and refusing to be on the set at the same time.
The plot concerns Myron Breckinridge, played by film critic Rex Reed, who has a sex change operation (performed in the movie by legendary character actor John Carradine) and is transformed into the predatory, insatiable Myra (Raquel). Huston, himself a legendary filmmaker but wisely keeping to the other side of the camera in this case, plays Myra’s Uncle Buck. The mummified remains of Mae West toss off some off-color one-liners and perform a mind-boggling version of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.”
The critics of the day were less than kind: Time Magazine put it thusly: “Myra Breckinridge is about as funny as a child molester. It is an insult to intelligence, an affront to sensibility and an abomination to the eye…The result is an incoherent tale of sodomy, emasculation, autoeroticism and plain bad taste.”
A legendary cinematic disaster in its day, Myra Beckenridge made the rounds for its 40th anniversary in 2008 in a spiffy new print. Tonight, Wednesday May 30th, in the last ever installment of the Celluloid Handbag series, the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, 320 East Sixth Street in downtown Austin will screen one of those prints at 7 p.m.