James Gent takes a look at Myra Breckinridge and the wider issue of trans roles in film.
Actor and producer Mark Ruffalo recently attracted controversy with the much publicised casting of cisgender actor Matt Boner as a transgender sex worker in The Normal Heart. Hollywood has a history of casting cisgender actors as trans, notably Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, and Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent – all fine actors – and this has understandably led to vocal criticism within the trans community.
Reading about this recent furore online brought to mind an incident back in Hollywood’s first tipping point, when as the 60s died to an ember, the old-style studio system gave way to the maverick directors of the hippy counterculture who would define the subsequent decade, in the era of Stonewall riots and gay power.
Change did not come overnight, and emblematic of that was the movie adapation of Gore Vidal’s novel Myra Breckinridge – an unlikely star vehicle for pinup Raquel Welch, in the title role of Myra. It has gone down in history as being ‘the worst film ever made’. Myra Breckinridge was also the first recognised incident of a prominently transgender character being performed by a cis actor, when there was a viable trans candidate for the role who had all the right qualifications. As we shall see…
Myra Breckinridge begins with Myron Breckinridge, a gay film critic (played by real-life gay critic Rex Reed), about to undergo gender reassignment at the hands of a chain-smoking surgeon (John Carradine). Thus is Myron’s alter ego Myra Breckinridge born. Unlike in the book, Myron actually appears alongside Myra in several scenes, the pair existing as a kind of id and ego. Myra dresses like a 1940s film star at all times, and speaks with the melodramatic diction of one as well. Her mission is to infiltrate her way into redneck cowboy Buck Loner’s acting academy, get her hands on a fortune that was left to Myron, revive the values of the Golden Age of Hollywood in the era of the permissive society, and destroy men. A kind of Valerie Solanis in slingbacks.
Along the way, she befriends an all-American couple, all white teeth, blow-waved hair, and full of vacuous comments about being ‘normal’ (“It’s what the majority do”). The male half of this couple, Rusty, is the embodiment of American youth – masculine, dumb, uptight. Rusty becomes Myra’s first victim of revenge, via a series of humiliating scenarios which climax in a surreal anal rape sequence, with Myra dressed in a Stars and Stripes bikini buggering the helpless male.
Yes, that’s problematic, to use the current argot, but for right or wrong, the post-hippy era was all about shock tactics and pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable to be portrayed onscreen as censorship rules began to be relaxed. As a sidenote, it’s worth mentioning that Vidal wrote one of the first post-war gay-themed novels, The City and the Pillar, which also features a climactic scene of anal rape, albeit in very different circumstances. It’s the ur-text for novels regarding the doomed, tragic, conflicted homosexual male, à la John Rechy’s City Of Night.
The legendary sex-positive icon Mae West makes a small but significant contribution to the film, as the head of an acting agency with a voracious sexual appetite. Her scenes are full of the sexual innuendos that made her famous and she almost walks off with the film when she performs a funky number called ‘Ya Gotta Taste All The Fruit’ and a proto-rap version of the blues song ‘Too Hot To Handle’ accompanied by black dancers in tuxedos! Like the film as a whole, it has to be seen to be believed, and is pure camp.
What makes the film is the character of Myra herself. In her own words, “Myra Breckinridge is a dish, and never forget it, you motherfuckers, as the children say nowadays”. Writing in the February 1971 issue of Films and Filming, director Mike Sarne described Myra’s appeal thus: “…feared for what she says about America, attacked for being too outspoken, hated because she laughs too loud, Myra Breckinridge has lost the chic of New York’s cocktail parties and acquired a kind of underground celebrity among the faggot freaks and dope addicts, the rejects from your ‘normal’ society, the people who love her for being daring and for fighting their battles…”
Myra herself would probably not see things quite the same way. In Vidal’s novel, she writes of the hippies and drug addicts; “As a spiritual child of the Forties, I cannot give my imprimatur to this sort of behaviour. The drug taker is a passivist. I am an activist. Yet – to be fair – how can the average person make a meaningful life for himself in an overpopulated world? There is very little of interest for him to do in the way of work, while sex is truly absorbing only for those who possess imagination as well as means. With these young people one has the sense that they know instinctively that there are plenty more where they came from and so why fuss? They’ll soon be gone, their places taken by others so closely resembling them that only a mother’s eye could tell the difference.”
Myra is a ball-breaking woman on a mission to emasculate the all-American male and revive the values of the Golden Age of Hollywood. As she tells her class, “In the decade between 1935 and 1945, no irrelevant film was made in the United States.”
With such a strong mission statement, it’s hard not to love her in spite of herself as she pursues her aims with single-minded passion with her ever-changing wardrobe and assortment of hats and putdowns. As Sarne said of his incarnation of Myra, “You must admit that you would like to have known her, too, with her forties hairdo and her hatred of cant and hypocrisy.” Of his creation, Vidal insisted that “Under that hard-boiled exterior is the heart of a tender man/woman.” It’s also easy to see her as a bit of a gay icon. Raquel Welch’s portrayal of Myra is a peak moment in her career, and she does a good job of a difficult role. What with her cameos in The Magic Christian and Bedazzled, it would seem that Welch’s presence in a film is enough to seal its cult status! Sadly, Welch had a sense of humour loss when she starting trying to establish herself as a ‘credible’ actress and has disowned the film.
Rex Reed also deserves credit for his character Myron. In the book, Myron is only referred to by Myra in the past tense – Myron is dead, Myra lives – but he plays a larger part in the film, often sharing the screen with Myra. Myron is very much the id to Myra’s ego in the film. Reed was (and still is, I believe) a major film critic known for his caustic opinions, and is perfect as Myron. With his slick jet-black hair, blue eyes and smart suits, he is the epitome of the clean cut 1950s bachelor and yet with his waspish quips and sidelong glances, there is something distinctly cruisy about him. There is a very unusual scene in which, after a row with his alter ego, they make up and Myra goes down on Myron – effectively a narcissistic masturbation sequence! I don’t know if Reed acted before or since, but he’s one of the best things here.
STRIKE A POSE MYRA!
The most striking aspect of Myra Breckinridge is the way that clips from vintage films are intecut into the main action. Clips from slapstick comedies, musicals and Westerns appear to provide commentary or juxtaposition on the main action. The American sitcom Dream On did this to similar effect with TV clips two decades later. As much of the action takes place at an acting academy, with Myra lecturing on film, legendary scenes such as Busby Berkeley’s infamous phallic production numbers and ‘cameo appearances’ by Laurel and Hardy, Shirley Temple and Marlene Dietrich among others create a reality-confounding hall of mirrors. The cleverest is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clip of Marilyn Monroe in a swimming pool (from her unfinished last film, Something’s Gotta Give) inserted into a scene at a poolside party.
It is recorded that director Mike Sarne originally considered using a man in a dual role playing Myra both as a man and as a woman. He screen-tested six guys before deciding that it wouldn’t work. A few pictures of Stanley Glick, one of the actors he tested, as Myra appeared in the February 1971 issue of Films and Filming in an article entitled ‘For Love of Myra’.
Had someone AMAB (Assigned Male At Birth) been cast as Myra, there would have been only one candidate. Myra Breckinridge was a role that Candy Darling, one of Andy Warhol’s trio of transvestite superstars (Women In Revolt, Trash), was born to play – and she knew it.
Born James Slattery, Candy Darling lived her life as a woman since a teenager, many years before being discovered by Warhol’s factory, much less prior to being memorably enshrined by Lou Reed in Walk on the Wild Side. Her key scenes in the Paul Morrissey directed Warhol film Women In Revolt portray her mimicking Veronica Lake and Kim Novak, as per Myra’s silver screen role models.
Andy Warhol wrote, in his book, “POPism – the Warhol 60s”: “Candy suffered a big disappointment in ’69. In fact, she never got over it. As soon as the news that a movie of Myra Breckinridge was going to be made appeared in the trade papers, Candy began writing letters to the studio and the producers and whoever else she could think of, telling them that she’d lived the complete life of Myra and the she knew even more about forties movies than Gore Vidal did. It was true. And they gave the part to Raquel Welch. Poor Candy wrote begging them to please, please reconsider. She knew that if there was ever going to be a role in Hollywood, for a drag queen, this was it.”
Apparently, it was the ultimate rejection for Candy Darling, as she felt that Hollywood was the only place that she would fit in. Candy died in 1974, at the tender age of 29, of lymphoma – according to her friend, fellow trans Warhol star Jayne County, this was as a result of illegal hormone replacement drugs. Peter Hujar’s photo of Candy on her deathbed later acquired a new level of queer iconic status when Anohni used it as the cover of I Am A Bird Now.
Also considered for the role of ‘Myra’ was drag queen Rachel Harlow, who appeared in The Queen, a 1967 documentary about drag pageants. Rachel Harlow is now a well-known club owner in Philadelphia.
Although Myra Breckenridge is not a progressive film by modern standards, it is interesting to note that on April 26, 1970, a TV Guide newspaper insert used the term ‘transgendered’ to describe the title character; and as an anti-patriarchal character, gender-nonconfirming theorist Kate Bornstein asserted that “Vidal positions the character of Myra as the agent of doom for the traditional American male” (1995).
There are grace notes in the original novel, for those fishing for a trans-positive reading, in utterances of Myra’s such as, “I too want a world and mean to have it.” On the other hand, cultural historian Marjorie Garber’s reading of Myra as a “reified figure for blurred gender” and “the emblem of fear and desire – the fear and desire of the borderline”, dating from 1995, looks out of step with the more inclusive motions towards transgender identities as part of the ‘new normal’ rather than deliberately provocative. By the same token, perhaps Myra can retain his/her identity as a gender warrior (think the latterday Genesis P. Orridge).
Gore Vidal never watched the film of his book, although he stated, “I do know that despite the iconic presences of Raquel Welch and Mae West, the film was so bad that the book stopped selling for a decade”! Perhaps in an attempt to redress the balance, Vidal wrote a sequel in 1975, Myron. Both books are available in a single volume (published by Abacus in the UK and Penguin in the USA), and the film was expurgated onto DVD in 2004.
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