Sometimes, it’s possible for a work of art to be so damn far ahead of its time that no one gets it until years later, and I was reminded of this recently when random events led me to take another look at the 1970 film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s infamous novel Myra Breckinridge. At the time it came out, the movie was hyped with the tag line, “From the book that couldn’t be written comes the motion picture that couldn’t be made!”
Now, I’ll admit up-front that I’ve always liked the movie and the book because they are both transgressive, and I’m also a huge fan of everything Vidal ever wrote. The novel is epistolary in structure, meaning it appears as a series of letters and memos, alternating between the voices of the titular Myra and her uncle Buck Loner, owner of the acting school she wants to take over. It’s actually not at all an uncommon style. One of the most famous examples is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. A more recent example is World War Z, which itself was directly influenced by Stud Terkel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. The epistolary form is a very interesting and compelling story structure. In fact, it’s sort of a lynch-pin of a lot of modern gaming, whether text or action based.
But the main point is that Vidal’s original put us in the heads of the protagonist and antagonist and made us understand them both, although Buck’s recorded memos are decidedly colder and more self-serving, not to mention that he likes to lie about shit, while Myra lays it all out to explain what she’s up to. And, in retrospect, the movie does a good job at nodding to that while not sticking in it because, honestly, nothing would be more boring than a film in which we just watch two people write letters. But we do open with an actual view of the words Myra writes, and we have several scenes in which we see Buck record his memos, so the hat tip to the original is there.
What’s really interesting about the film is that the decidedly X-rated Myra (when that rating was still a thing), premiered two months after Midnight Cowboy became the first and only X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar. It seemed like movie-going audiences were ready for adult fare and, indeed, Midnight Cowboy grossed $44.8 million on a budget of $3.2 million or, adjusted for inflation, the film cost $21 million to make, but brought back just under $293 million.
The real problem was that while the MPAA trademarked all of its other ratings, they did not do so for X, and suddenly producers of exploitation and pornographic films started to slap the X on them in hopes of getting the same legitimacy as Hollywood fare like Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, I Am Curious (Yellow), If…, and Last Tango in Paris, all of which were originally rated X.
Side note: What was considered “adult” back then would barely raise eyebrows today. Any single episode of any made-for-cable or streaming show now would have given the censors of the ‘60s and ‘70s total aneurysms despite the expanded sexual freedom as the Hays Code got kicked to the curb. It’s arguable that the only reason that Cowboy did get the X-rating is because of two scenes which imply but don’t show oral sex and anal rape, both acts involving only men.
The other weird thing about Myra is that the book was critically acclaimed while the movie was lambasted. The novel was also the first to depict a transgender character, not to mention that she was also the narrator and protagonist. Above all, it is a satire on gender roles and how they are artificially constructed, particularly via mass media.
The film was universally panned and it flopped, making only $4 million on a budget of $5.4 million, or, adjusted for inflation, taking in only $26.2 million on a budget of $37.3. And this was with an all-star cast of its era — Raquel Welch, Mae West, John Huston, Jim Backus, and John Carradine. It was the film that introduced both Farah Fawcett and Tom Selleck, and gave then well-known critic and gossip columnist Rex Reed his film debut (asshole in real life, but actually kind of hot here) — playing the pre-transition version of Raquel’s character to boot. Hell, even Toni Basil, of 80s pop music fame, turns up in a small role.
So I had a re-watch of the film a couple of days ago and, again, while the movie has always been one of my guilty pleasures, I put it in that “so bad it’s good category,” except that now, for some reason on this re-watch, my reaction was, “OMG. This move is really, really good.”
What stuck out, first of all, is that the A-List stars in this thing really, really got it. Nothing was supposed to have been taken seriously because everything was satire and parody. And it’s satire on so many levels. First of all, the film takes a major stab at the illusion that Hollywood is a fantasy factory that will make any rube who wanders in from the sticks instantly famous just because they’re pretty, but in reality makes it a habit to suck them dry of their money while doing nothing to help them improve their talent or make real connections. One character pretty much just says it outright: Students enroll in Buck Loner’s acting school, but none of them ever seem to graduate. And what happens to Rusty and Mary Ann is the literal embodiment of what the industry figuratively does to the naïfs who come here.
Second is how the film explodes the self-importance of those who have made it. John Huston’s character, Buck Loner, is the archetypal Hollywood cowboy star of the 1930s through 1950s. His students adore him, but he is clearly a walking parody from his first entrance. As played by Huston, Loner is clearly too stupid to get this. The only reason his students love him is because he might know people who know people, but the second that façade falls, they would run away.
And then there’s Myra, whose character thinks that the last important American motion picture was made in 1945. In case that date seems arbitrary, keep this in mind: That was the year that the U.S. nuked Japan and yes, we filmed it, so it’s entirely possible that this was the movie she was referring to. (There’s even stock footage of a nuclear bomb test that punctuates a pivotal moment in the film.) She also likes to dress like film starlets of the 1940s, and at one point appears in a uniform that looks very much like U.S. Navy dress white. And when you think about that, it’s a bit of a double gender-bender: a transwoman intentionally becoming a drag king, so basically a woman born in a man’s body who has become a woman through gender confirmation surgery, but then dresses like a man.
On top of all that, the movie is sprinkled with clips from classic American films made before 1945, and the filmmakers were promptly sued over several of them because certain actors didn’t want their work associated with something they saw as pornographic.
Yeah, they entirely missed the point, too.
If Myra were given a re-release today, I have no doubt that it would find an audience and become an instant classic. I’m pretty sure that Millennials would get it immediately. Why? Because it’s a movie that skewers pretension and the artificiality of gender roles, as well as inverts privilege and power. It repurposes pop culture of its era, further tweaking the self-importance of the mass media power structure, and it’s heroine is a very strong woman who knows what she wants and goes out to get it.
It also brings up a really good question. While remakes generally suck, this just might be one movie that merits one today, but updated. Hm. Forty years after… If it comes out next year and we keep the relative timing, that means that modern Myra would think that the last great American movie came out in 1995. If all of the clips reference films made between that year and 1965, when the Hays Code ended, it would give us a hell of an assortment, covering everything from the Getaway and the original Myra to game-changer blockbusters like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, and Star Wars, among many others.
Casting? Well… Rhys Ernst as Myron, Rain Valdez as Myra. (Double switch, because they’re both transgendered.) Clint Eastwood would be a mega-score as Buck Loner but, short of him… Arnold Schwarzenegger? And for total stunt casting, who do we get for the Mae West Part? Um… Raquel, of course, because she’s now of that age, and I’m sure that she’d love the karmatic revenge, since Mae was so awful to her. Hell, they could be the subject of a future episode of Feud. And if Ms. Welch demurred, then the next logical choice, again for reasons of symmetry, would be Anjelica Huston who, while she’s a decade younger than West was then and Welch is now, she’s also the daughter of the original Buck Loner.
For the Carradine and Backus cameos, I’d cast Martin Sheen and Seth MacFarlane, respectively, again because of the echoes of the originals — a famous actor father with famous acting sons, and a perennial and beloved TV and voiceover star.
But there’s one more step. See, Vidal wrote a sequel, Myron, which continued the story but which was also a total satire of the Nixon years with television as the medium instead of film. In a nutshell, Myra is back to being Myron, who is now living a straight, masculine, cis-gender life, married to Mary Ann — Fawcett’s character — but then he literally gets sucked into an imaginary 1948 Maria Montez movie Siren of Babylon while watching it on the late-night movie on TV (Maria did make a film in 1949 called Siren of Atlantis, though, but note the year of both the real and fictional movies. Neither one of them could have been any good according to Myra.)
Once Myron is in the movie, he’s stuck in the narrative while it’s airing but able to wander around the lot during commercials, and then Myra starts to re-emerge and tries to take over, much to Myron’s chagrin.
But… Myra/Myron as a limited run series with each book still set in its original era would get even more meta as we moved from the first book into the second. And the wrap-around meta to that maybe? The whole thing is told from the POV of a modern-day grad student majoring in social media and minoring in gender studies who is watching the movie or reading the books in order to write their thesis, except that maybe they get sucked into them, too, and the grad student is the kind of non-binary, gender-queer, and self-accepting person that people from the age of Myra or Myron couldn’t ever possibly even conceive of existing but which they have always subconsciously hoped to become. Maybe the character could be called Myrum —if you got that, you really know your Latin — or Myrex, which is actually probably better on about five hundred levels, and if you get that one, you really know your Latin@.
Hm. Myra/Myron/Myrex. Hey, FX… are you listening? Nine episodes, great ratings. Easy peasy, pan comido.