A film like Myra Breckinridge sets two traps for the intellectually lazy. The first is to accept its reputation as a train wreck and dismiss it contemptuously, probably without condescending to watch it. The second is to promote it perversely as a masterpiece, a film too daring and innovative for its original audience to understand.
My own feeling is that it is indeed an awful movie, but also an awfully interesting one, far more so than many conventional successes. Its audacious style is best understood as an act of desperation at a time when studios sanctioned just about anything if it might connect with the audience that had made surprise hits out of films like The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider. Gore Vidal’s best-selling novel, with its Hollywood subject, must have seemed to offer the perfect excuse to graft film-aware, post-French New Wave mannerisms on to a story that could also exploit the appeal of sex goddess Raquel Welch. The fact that the novel tells a blatantly gay story might have been seen as the perfect daring stroke, allowing the studio to exploit a bit of counter-cultural life that no one had mined commercially.
While Gore Vidal has repeatedly condemned the movie, it is disingenuous to suggest that it is nothing but a hatchet job. If the film is not exactly a “faithful” adaptation of the novel, neither is it a perversion of it. The movie may amplify some of the material that remains implicit in the book, but it is no more “unfaithful” than most adaptations. (It is precisely filmmakers’ general lack of reverence for The Word that irks Vidal, which doesn’t mean we have to endorse his special pleading. Could it not be that Myra Breckinridge is a lousy movie because it was based on a lousy book?)
What I object to is not the gay porn story, nor the waste of talents like Mae West and John Huston nor even the excerpts from “classic” Hollywood films that are used as a kind of oblique, celluloid chorus to comment on the action. Rather, it is the leering, smugly superior tone that leaves me cold. I enjoy anything that roasts Hollywood, but satire has to be intelligent to have bite. Intelligence is not on ample display in Myra Breckinridge, though there is plenty of preening would-be cleverness. Not that Hollywood and its defenders worry much about a lack of intelligence. Robert Altman, for one, made a career out of similarly cheap jokes. So the lack of real wit isn’t the problem with Myra. It may just be a shambles because no one ever stopped to ask whether mixing these ingredients would result in a tasty meal, or a total mess.
Ironically, the film’s infamous reputation may be the only thing that keeps the movie from falling off the radar. If Myra Breckinridge were more conventionally successful, people could recognize it as just more Hollywood hack work.
NB: This post was written before Gore Vidal’s death, thus the references to him in the present tense.