Scan the Internet Movie Database for Michael Sarne’s Myra Breckinridge, based on the infamous book by Gore Vidal, and you’ll find among the plot keywords “Non Statutory Female On Male Anal Rape.” Which makes one wonder if that category was coined solely for the groundbreaking Miss Myra herself, exquisitely brought to life by the underrated Raquel Welch.
Miss Myra is a male-to-female transsexual who poses as the widow of her former self Myron (played with panache by film critic Rex Reed, who trashed the film during its production) and leaves the Big Apple for Tinseltown to collect on an inheritance owed by her uncle Buck Loner (John Huston). She’s also a symbol of 70s do-it-yourself feminism and gender transcendence rolled into one. The plot that culminates in the notorious scene in which Myra, having conned her way into becoming a teacher at Buck Loner’s star-wannabe school, straps on a dildo and goes at her dumb-bunny student, Rusty (Roger Herron, touchingly convincing), is the least shocking part of the production.
As in a Brechtian drama, the actors comment on their characters by virtue of who they are/were in real life. Huston’s faintly John Wayne-like performance as Buck Loner—a former TV star played by a Hollywood stalwart—embodies the town itself, a dream machine manufacturing false promises. Reed, a gay man and well-known film critic, plays the pre-op version of the heroine, a failed film critic named Myron. Welch, a straight, curvaceous biological female and a pin-up fantasy, plays Myron’s transsexual incarnation. Mae West, returning to the screen after a 37-year absence, plays the stud-collecting talent agent Leticia Van Allen, who has some wonderfully winking musical numbers (“You Gotta Taste All The Fruit”).
Sarne’s casting seems ludicrous on its face, but within the context of Myra Breckinridge, which turns every assumption about gender and sexuality on its head, it seems quite sensible. Myron/Myra was a man who felt like a woman inside, so why shouldn’t the pre-op version of the character be played by a gay man, and the post-op version by a “real” (and straight) woman? West, whose character embodies stereotypes of the predatory male agent (straight or gay) was a “real” woman, though her soul didn’t quite buy it, preferring to camp it up drag queen-style, onstage and off. She was, in a sense, the first transgender superstar—a gay man in a woman’s body who “bitch-slapped” anyone who got in her way (including the young Welch, unfortunately, who was forced to wear her own dress after Miss West absconded with the one from wardrobe that would have clashed with what the diva herself would be wearing in the scene). The pretzel-logic casting aids the pretzel-logic script in which Myra seduces and Myron marries Rusty’s girlfriend, Mary Ann (an adorably innocent Farrah Fawcett) after an accident that leads Myra back to being male, but straight. Classic movie clips interspersed throughout function as a knowing Greek chorus. Is Myra Breckinridge messy and nonsensical at times? Sure. So is life.
When everything comes crashing down, as it always does in lives manufactured rather than lived, what are you left with, to whom do you turn? Throughout the film Myron and Myra often are seen together in the same frame, the male and female halves warring for control of the Breckinridge soul. It’s only in the end that the two sides turn towards each other to make peace, integrate and become one, tenderly visualized in the last scene of Raquel and Rex as Myra and Myron, dancing as seamlessly together as Astaire and Rogers. The answer to every critic’s (including Reed’s own) pan is if you can’t move beyond surface appearance, can’t dig any deeper into the gorgeous metaphor that is “Myra Breckinridge,” then you’ve no business commenting on the film. Or as the transgender heroine herself so eloquently puts it, “Myra Breckinridge is a dish, and never forget it, you motherfuckers, as the children say nowadays.”