Reconsidering Myra

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.

Rusty, who gets pegged by Myra? Zack Efron. As for Rusty’s girlfriend and Mae’s stud? Yeah, let’s toss those roles to two lucky unknowns, just like the original.

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.

Photo: Gore Vidal, 1948, by Carl Van Vechten.

Sunday Nibble #22: Summer camping — sort of

Recently, Amazon Prime recommended something called The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, which aired on ABC in 1976, and it is… beyond surreal.

Basically, it was a make-good on a contract with ABC after two star-vehicles created for him failed. These were The Paul Lynde Show and Temperatures Rising, although in the case of the latter Lynde was brought in to replace the original lead, James Whitmore, of a failing series — never a good sign — and it was rechristened The New Temperatures Rising Show.

It’s no secret now — hell, it wasn’t even really a secret then except to Middle American audiences — that Lynde was as gay as Christmas on Fire Island. He hardly did anything to hide it, and even when he was supposed to be playing straight, married men he would camp it the hell up.

Somehow, he endeared himself to audiences, though, particularly as the put-upon father in the film version of Bye-Bye Birdie, and especially as the extremely flamboyant Uncle Arthur in the TV series Bewitched.

He sealed the deal when he became center square on The Hollywood Squares beginning in 1968 — and all of his best answers were so campy and over-the-top that someone had to be absolutely blind to not figure out how gay he really was.

Although, who knows? Maybe it was the idea that he was the wacky bachelor uncle who was too funny to have sex, so he was “safe.” Although if you look at a lot of his answers on Hollywood Squares, it’s hard to really believe that.

I mean, come on. He’s not even trying to hide it — and these are just six minutes out of hours of stuff.

By the way, the audience’s reaction and Paul’s response to the last question, at about 5:34, says it all. At least in some circles, they knew, and he didn’t even try to hide it.

This brings us to his Halloween Special, which is a bizarre combination of over-the-top camp combined with Lynde, playing himself, continually being cast in scenarios where he’s basically competing for female attention.

By the way, one of the principal writers on the special was Bruce Vilanch. If you don’t know who he is, the short version is that he is one of the funniest writers in Hollywood who has put humorous words into the mouths of everyone, since forever.

He punched up the jokes for the Oscars for years, and was the subject of the 1999 documentary Get Bruce! He also used to be the head writer for… The Hollywood Squares, and he was also loudly and proudly gay, although behind the scenes.

So we wind up with this bizarre mish-mash in which Paul Lynde is whisked away by his maid (Margaret Hamilton) to visit her sister (Billie Hayes). This is when he discovers that they are both witches, which is somewhat meta because the two of them played, respectively, The Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz and Witchiepoo in the 1960s TV series H.R. Pufnstuf. They resurrect those characters here, and at least one of them is a gay camp icon.

The rest of the special involves the witches granting Lynde wishes, and in the first two he wishes to be a trucker and then a Sheikh — the first to seduce a diner waitress (Roz Kelly) and the second to seduce proper British Lady Cecily Westinghouse (Florence Henderson). He gives the witches the last wish, and they decide to go to a disco.

Along the way, the band KISS shows up and performs a few numbers.

If ABC wonders why they couldn’t get shows with Lynde to take off, this is a prime example. He was a fixture on Hollywood Squares for years. His Halloween special was never even re-run until the days of streaming.

If you have the slightest clue about Lynde’s private life, every single instance of him trying to seduce a woman here comes across as either cringingly inauthentic or, less charitably, as acts of hidden misogyny — we’re going to play the “girls are icky” game, but from a macho position.

Hm. Camp gay man portraying toxic masculinity? How very 1970s of them.

The other thing that really stood out for me, though, was how absolutely fucking boring and corporate KISS were. Now, I was never even familiar with their music, having been lucky enough to have avoided exposure to it in its heyday, but I had heard things from older cousins about how Satanic and evil and scary they were, or whatever.

I do remember some brouhaha when they ditched the costumes and make-up in the 1980s, but in watching them in this special now, my main impression was that they didn’t look scary or evil or anything like that. They just looked ridiculous.

This was what happened when somebody threw some 50 year-old brand manager a stack of records by Ozzy Osbourne and David Bowie and Alice Cooper, along with concert footage of the same, and said, “Come up with a band like this.”

I know it wasn’t intentional, but while the aim was for ultra-macho and dangerous, what they really managed to create was four young straight guys trying to do drag, but chickening out before the wigs went on.

Maybe that was totally appropriate for this special because, in a way, KISS actually represented exactly what Lynde had been forced into doing by strapping down his sexuality and pretending to play a straight man. The only difference was that he sort of managed to walk out with his dignity somewhat intact because he never actually gave up his personality along the way.

If anything, this special is a nice time-capsule reminder of how much mainstream pop culture in the 1970s sucked royal donkey balls. Oh, that’s probably the case now, as well. We’re just a lot better at design, costumes, hair, and make-up.

You can view the whole special in good quality if you have Amazon Prime, or watch it here, if you must.

Christmas Countdown, Wednesday #2

Day 13

Wednesday is Famous Bands day, and here’s one of the more famous: John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Officially, it’s John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir and the song’s title is Happy Xmas (War Is Over). It was recorded in 1971, when the Vietnam war was decidedly not over, but not released in the UK until November, 1972. It grew out of Lennon and Ono’s anti-war activism and was sort of a culmination of their efforts, which had begun some time earlier with a series of twelve billboards in various cities that declared, “WAR IS OVER! If you want it — Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.”

Note that the video below was inspired by the billboard. There is an original video version put out at the time of the song, but it contains disturbing wartime footage of the era. You’re free to seek it out if you wish.

Check out the previous post or watch the next.