Gore Vidal died yesterday, and though he appeared as an actor in a few movies—he played a professor in With Honors, an evil futuristic fellow in Gattaca and, most memorably, as Tim Robbins' lefty opponent in Bob Roberts—he'll be remembered, in a movie sense, as the guy responsible for Myra Breckinridge.
This is extremely unfair: Vidal had nothing to do with Myra Breckinridge other than having written the satirical novel the movie was ostensibly based on. Vidal claimed he'd never seen the film. It is difficult to blame him. The movie is considered one of the worst films ever made; if Vidal actually did see it, he'd have been loath to admit it.
I saw the film (or most of it) once, in college, because I'd heard how horrible it was and because I spent much of my freshmen year in the basement of the undergraduate library watching all the laserdiscs I'd never had access to before. I hope no one walked by the 18-year-old kid with the center part wearing big puffy headphones staring at Raquel Welch wearing an American flag bikini while raping a shirtless man named Rusty. (I probably didn't have as much fun in college as I should have.)
I barely remember the movie and am fairly certain I didn't finish it: I'm pretty sure I must have decided life was too short to spend time watching horrible movies on purpose and put Husbands and Wives back in again. I didn't think about it again until Vidal died yesterday.
It is amazing that the film exists. Made in 1970 by 20th Century Fox—a major studio!—it clearly is a byproduct of that brief New Hollywood, post-Easy Rider, pre-Raging Bull period in which studios were embracing and financing absurdly risky projects. And what was absurdly risky about Myra Breckinridge was that it was batshit insane.
I am not going to go back and watch this movie again, because I value life and joy. But I will list the 10 craziest things I discovered about it playing around on the Internet this morning.
1. For reasons only Fox will ever know, the studio gave final cut to director Michael Sarne, a Brit who had only directed one film before and wouldn't direct another one for more than 30 years. According to reports at the time, he would hold up filming for six hours because he needed to sit in a silent room and think. And one point, he spent a whole day on the set filming a table full of food for a shot that didn't even end up in the film.
2. As in Vidal's novel, apparently, the title character begins the film as Myron Beckinridge. Myron is played, by reasons that have never been adequately understood, by film critic Rex Reed. Yes, that loon from the New York Observer. Here he is moaning while Farrah Fawcett spells the names of various foods.
3. After Myron has a sex change, he suddenly looks like Raquel Welch.
4. The movie misspells its own title before the opening credits.
5. In the aforementioned scene, Raquel Welch rapes some guy while riding him like a cowgirl in a American flag bikini and honestly I have no idea what's going on. You will also notice in that clip lots of old movies inexplicably spliced into the "action." Sarne does that throughout the film and I haven't the foggiest idea why.
6. Actually dialogue exchange before Myron's surgery:
Doctor (played by John Carradine, smoking a cigarette): "You realize, once we cut it off, it won't grow back. I mean, it isn't like hair, or fingernails, or toenails, you know. How about circumcision? It'd be cheaper."
Myron: "Myra's waiting!"
Doctor: "Cleaver! I mean, scalpel! Wish me luck!"
7. John Carradine is one of a ton of famous actors in the film out of nowhere. Check out this cast: Mae West (who came out of retirement for this movie!), John Huston, Farrah Fawcett, Jim Backus (Thurston Howell III from "Gilligan's Island") and Tom Selleck in his movie debut. Selleck looks like this.
8. Oh, and Mae West looks like this. She went back into retirement after the film.
9. At one point, in the middle of a scene, for no reason, Rex Reed just randomly puts on an oversized foam cowboy hat. As Turd Ferguson explained, it's a big hat. It's funny.
10. Raquel Welch, being a good sport about the whole thing, actually recorded a DVD commentary track for the film. Signature quote: "Man, I can't believe I was in this."
In some circles, Myra Breckinridge has become a gay camp classic; Vidal absolutely hated that. Gore Vidal was an important American writer and this is probably the worst possible way to remember him the day after his death. Now I feel bad. Sorry, Gore.
(Thanks a ton to The Agony Booth for watching this movie so I didn't have to. Gold star.)