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.

What a drag, Part II

In Part I, a history of drag up through the 90s. Now, an explanation on why your author does not relate to this world.

Act IV

Basically, I enjoy being a man. Okay, I’m not the butchest knife in the drawer, but I do tend to be one of those “Surprise Fags” to people who only know me casually and, yes, say one of the other things you should never say to gay people. “Really? But you seem so straight.”

“Really? And you seemed like so not an asshole.”

And as a more masculine-presenting example of gayness, this is kind of where I start to resent drag, because it sets a weird bar that we have to deal with. Put that big ol’ public face of “Yo, fags in dresses, all y’all!” then it really screws with people’s heads when they run across, y’know… “fags who can change your oil, do your taxes, and fix your plumbing, all y’all.”

So I’m in this really ambivalent position. For most of our history, it’s been the drag queens and transgender people doing the heavy lifting. But when it comes to the gay cis-men who are obsessed with drag… honey, I don’t fucking get you, and I don’t feel like I’m on your team at all.

Way back when I was a baby gay in the late 90s, I went to a place in Studio City called “The Queen Mary” to see a drag show, and my main reaction was, basically, sadness. The whole atmosphere — at a time when celebs were coming out right and left — felt like an intentional throwback to a closeted era and, in fact, other than myself and the two friends who’d talked me into going, everyone else in the place was clearly a straight tourist couple from somewhere in the Midwest.

So… there was an awkward nod-nod wink-wink to the “Hey, maybe they’re gay!” thing, almost immediately undercut by some sort of “Does his wife know he does this?” comment, i.e., instant erasure. “Hey, ladies, you think his girlfriend taught him how to do his make-up?”

Oh, please.

It was like being slingshot into the ‘50s, and it sucked. In fact, I can’t think of very many shows that have made me so angry, but this one did and, ironically, it did it by being an allegedly gay show that really wasn’t.

Oh, it was apparently groundbreaking in being the first drag club to open in L.A. back in the early 60s, although the place was founded by straight people and the front room appealed more to the “let’s gawk at the freaks” tourist crowd even then. To their credit, the back room (“The King’s Den”) was a safe haven for gay men. Still, the atmosphere of the show never came out of the closet despite the world around it doing so.

Eventually, that back room became a safe haven for transvestites and transgender people, especially “non-passing” transwomen, which maybe redeemed it a little, but the place abruptly shut down without explanation in 2017, and I don’t think that a single gay man under 50 would have missed it.

Act V

I’ve done drag exactly once, and it was mostly as an experiment because I was given the opportunity. I discuss the event where it occured in Chapter Five of the book that was the impetus for this website, although it doesn’t come up in that extract. Basically, after my whole flirtation with mortality, I wound up going to a weekend men’s camp up in the woods near Big Bear in California, and one of the events was a Saturday night drag dance party.

So I thought, okay. I’ve never done this before, let’s give it a shot, and actually managed to pull something together fairly cheaply via two thrift shops (clothes and accessories), a local party store (wig), the drugstore (nail polish and make-up), and Amazon (shoes). The shoes were actually the hardest part to find because the necessary size-adjustment from men’s to women’s means that finding those size 15s limits the options.

While I didn’t go terribly campy, the end result worked, although the heels on the boots I’d bought made me NBA pro height, somewhere around 6’7”. But other people at the party said that I looked like a lesbian English teacher at a liberal arts college in a small town.

I take that as a complement. I suppose, ultimately, I landed more in Dame Edna territory than I did in RuPaul. I named the character Betty Duzzet, trotted her out one time only, and while the schmatta and all is still hanging in my closet, I doubt that I’ll bring her back unless it’s Halloween.

What I did find educational about the experience was this. Women’s clothes suck, especially for women. They’re thin and generally unlined, they do nothing to stop the cold (especially skirts and dresses); they have hardly any pockets, necessitating those cumbersome purses that are only good for putting down somewhere and hoping they don’t get stolen or foisting on the BF/husband; make-up and nails take for-fucking ever; and walking in heels without falling over or breaking your ankles is an Olympics-worthy challenge — bad enough on pavement or floors, but particularly difficult on uneven ground. And don’t even bring up dancing in them, although I actually managed to do that without killing myself.

I didn’t even strap anything onto my chest or stuff my top, so I missed out on what it’s like to haul around a couple of funbags that can wind up weighing a lot, with or without support, constantly worried that one of them may do a Janet Jackson, or that the underwire and bra strap are really, really going to hurt. And, obviously, I didn’t have to worry about paying exorbitant prices for tampons or pads or worry about the need to use them.

My one experience with drag, I think, made me a better man, because it made me take a step back and think, “Whoa. This is what women have to deal with every single day? And why?”

When I get up in the morning, all I basically have to do is shower, maybe shave depending on how scruffy I am that morning, brush my teeth, and throw on clothes. I don’t have to worry about make-up, I don’t have to deal with extra wardrobe decisions — like bra or no, hose or not, dress or separates, etc. — and my hair takes a lot less time because it’s short enough that it generally dries into what it needs to be by the time I get to the office.

And I realize that the entire reason women have to do all of this is in order to make the men happy, and it’s such a conditioned thing. But here’s an idea. What if… give up the make-up and nails and the trying to dress to impress, and go utilitarian, at least in your daily working life. You shouldn’t be trying to impress anyone there with your looks, right? Only your abilities. Save the fancy stuff for Tinder dates and the like. But, even then, think of this.

If you showed up without make-up and dressed in your casual comfort stuff and the guy didn’t seem to mind, what would that tell you? I think that the word “keeper” is quite appropriate.

Anyone who’d say no to the real you is a shallow bastard not worth pursuing.

And now we’ve come full circle, from me bitching about men doing camp drag in order to… whatever… to me offering advice to straight women on how to plain up in order to find Mr.  Right. Yeah. I think there was some kind of symmetry there, but I’m not sure.

All I’m really sure of is that sex, gender, and orientation are social constructs and labels we really might not need anymore. But really campy drag still annoys me and feels like a relic we don’t need to keep trotting out anymore.

Epilogue

If this blog post has offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but misread here
What was written by this queer
Just a weak and idle meme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, I will mend:
And, as I am an honest fuck,
If I have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
I will make amends ere long;
Else this fuck a liar call;
So, good day unto you all.
Comment below, if we be friends,
And thus I  shall restore amends.

(With apologies to William Shakespeare.)