A Delicate Operation

I considered following up VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET with BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, since Orangey the cat who plays Cat (typecasting) in that film has appeared in two of our sci-fi season (in the important roles of Butch and Josephine) but in the end I opted for a Gore Vidal farrago theme and we ran MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. This seemed apt as we had just watched THE DANISH GIRL. Of the two, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE probably is the more sensitive and accurate portrayal of the trans experience.

That’s not quite true or fair. THE DANISH GIRL has pretty design and is deadly dull as drama. We didn’t believe real people lived in these rooms and we didn’t meet any real people. Alicia Vikander comes closest to human life. Fiona had read both the novel and, not satisfied with that, the source memoir. I guess the movie wanted to tell an inspirational trans story, and so omitted the highly dysfunctional, dependant relationship Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe had with her surgeon (in reality, more than one doctor, combined into one characterless cypher in the film). We aren’t told that the doctor was attempting to implant ovaries and a uterus, something that could never have worked and wasn’t particularly sensible or necessary anyway. It WAS the first sex change op, so they didn’t know what they were doing. But had nobody already discovered that you couldn’t chop bits off one person and stick them on another and expect it to work?

The movie invents a scene where Lili is beaten up by transphobes, a desperate attempt to create some tension. That’s a terrible bit of writing, because it not only didn’t happen, it doesn’t lead anywhere. It’s just a cheap attempt to upset us. Fiona remembers a much stronger and more nuanced scene in the memoir where Lili meets a businesswoman who is horrified by her simpering mannerisms and scolds her for thinking this is how women are. The first TERF? Eddie Redmayne, accurately I suppose, IS really simpering, and such a scene would have been immensely liberating for those of us tired of his one-note performance.

MYRA BRECKINRIDGE is so farcical it mainly deserves a free pass on all its inaccuracies and insensitivities. It’s pretty far removed from reality and it’s being deliberately crass — a defense that might work for James Gunn — sick humour depends on our shared recognition that something is beyond the pale. If you accept that, where you draw the line becomes a very delicate operation, depending on what you take the joker’s attitude to be. Most of Gunn’s jokes were really unfunny, which doesn’t help his cause. But you can see he’s trying to shock, albeit for no particular reason. Contrast with the joke that sank, or more or less sank, Milo Iannopolis, which merely confirmed that he doesn’t care about anything he says. It probably offended the squarer part of his rightwing base, who had liked the idea of having a gay ally so they could claim they weren’t homophobic, just because it explicitly referred to same-sex sex acts. These guys do not like to think about those things. The fact that it was a joke about child abuse was more or less an alibi for their disgust.

MYRA’s big set-piece is the rape of a straight man, something I’m a bit uncomfortable with. It IS a reversal of the norm and it IS subverting patriarchal assumptions, but men getting raped has quite often been treated as comedic (can I back that up? WHERE’S POPPA? and TRADING PLACES, with its randy gorilla, come to mind) which is about men distancing themselves from it, “proving” it can’t happen to them because it only happens to ridiculous comedy men. That’s surely not what Gore Vidal had in mind, but I think Michael Sarne, the film’s adapter/director, did not have such a nuanced worldview.

Sarne, a decent actor, had made the appalling JOANNA in 1968, one of the worst things that ever happened, and then pitched MYRA to 20th Century Fox, claiming he’d had the perfect idea of how to film the unfilmable. This idea was, basically, It Was All A Dream. This plays out in a somewhat intriguing way in the movie, but is nevertheless pretty lame. I don’t blame Sarne, but I do blame Richard Zanuck for being impressed at all. This is 1970, where all the major studios knew was that they didn’t know what the young audience wanted. The same year they made BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. One obvious connection being the involvement of film critics: Roger Ebert as co-writer on the Russ Meyer phantasmagoria, Rex Reed as co-star in MYRA.

The idea of Myra’s male self, Myron (Reed) following her around as a vision only she can see (like the faux-Bogart in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM), sometimes taking her place for a moment (like Jason Miller in EXORCIST III) is quite a good and cinematic one — would that THE DANISH GIRL had a single narrative idea to lift it from the mundane. And Reed, though a little lacking in variety in his distant, acidulous manner, is fairly effective. The real stars are of course Raquel Welch, who has some stunning moments of campery; top-billed Mae West, who isn’t embarrassing at all (unlike in SEXTETTE), proving that there ARE third acts in American lives, and they’re like the first and second acts only dirtier and a little slower; and Calvin Lockhart, who’s swishy turn gets many of the best laughs in the first and best half, but who unaccountably vanishes from the story midway like King Lear’s Fool or VERTIGO’s Midge.

Mae, who once dressed as the Statue of Liberty, here puts me in mind of the end of PLANET OF THE APES: a magnificent ruin. Her once-great blues voice is now a husky croak, but she can still sell a song by sheer force of personality. Cinematographer Richard Moore, acquired by Huston for a couple of late follies, is unable to get light into those lacquered eyes, so it’s not always clear if Mae is really in there or phoning it in from some spangly pre-code afterlife, but she still, on some level, has it.

All the casting is good, and all of it is almost cruelly apt. John Huston seems perfectly happy to emphasise his physical grotesquerie — his cowboy walk, as “Buck Loner,” is hilarious. As a silicone construct, Raquel is absurdly apt, and the Brad & Janet figures she corrupts, Roger Herren and Farah Fawcett, project precisely the required vapidity (Raquel’s regal delivery of “She is mentally retarded,” marks her as some kind of comedy genius). I’ll give Sarne credit for some of this because he’s an actor, though more of the kitchen sink school himself. The performances in JOANNA are appalling, and the better tha actor the worse they are, with Donald Sutherland soaring far, far beneath the rest.

Clearly somebody decided the film was in need of rescuing and editor Danford B. Greene, fresh from MASH, is the one who played Galahad, reshuffling scenes for pace rather than narrative logic and splicing in snippets from Fox’s back catalogue to rupture the flow with celebrity cameos and joke Freudian symbolism. Given Myra’s cinephilia, that may always have been part of Sarne’s scheme — it works like gangbusters, until you stop being surprised, and finds the only acceptable use for Laurel & Hardy’s dispiriting Fox features.

Also featuring Harry Mudd, Mr. Magoo, Og Oggilby, Baron Latos, Phoebe Dinsmore and Magnum, P.I.

And 36 views of the Chateau Marmont.

Sarne didn’t direct again for twenty-three years, and when he did, he adapted a punk novel, The Punk, written in 1977 by a fourteen-year-old. In 1993, this must have seemed not exactly up-to-the-minute stuff. Did Sarne realise he was making a period piece?

As for Vidal, he argued strongly that the writer is the true creative force on a film. When William Boyd made the same case, someone rather unkindly pointed out that with his credits, a safer argument would be that the writer was entirely blameless, a minor component in an infernal machine. But Vidal wasn’t in any sense in charge here, and his vision wasn’t being faithfully followed (though Sarne probably hewed closer to the trail than any Hollywood hack at the time would’ve).

What can we learn from MYRA? “Don’t try to be Fellini when you’re an idiot” seems like a good general principle. On the other hand, Sarne’s ludicrous ambition resulted in probably the best film he ever made, and it’s never not highly watchable. It’s the kind of farrago I’m glad exists, like the even more shapeless and obnoxious CANDY.

18 Responses to “A Delicate Operation”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    The film of MYRA BRECKINRIDGE is far closer to the novel than Gore Vidal would ever admit. In fact, it is remarkably faithful – far more so than David O Selznick’s ‘classic’ adaptations of Dickens or Tolstoy. Had the film been a critical or commercial success, I wonder if Vidal would have been so keen to distance himself from it?

  2. I disagree. First of all Eugene wanted Anne Bancroft to play Myra. Just think about that for a minute. Already a different film with a different atmosphere. Raquel is game girl but the role just doesn’t fit her. Mae West comes off best. As Pauline Kael said of Francoise Hardy in “Grand Prix,” “She seems to have wandered in from another movie hat was more fun.”

    The Rape of the “Straight’ male is central to Eugene’s project. It’s his revenge on all those boys who wanted a blow-job from him and nothing more topped with “I ain’t no FAG!!!” The sequel “Myron” goes into all of this a lot more as our hero/heroine merges with Maria Montez on the set of “Siren of Atlantis”

  3. As for Alicia Vikaner —

  4. It’s amazing that nobody tried to film Vidal’s historical books. There’s a miniseries on LINCOLN, but BURR is even more cinematic (and is worth reviving today what with hagiographic musical on his rather uncouth victim circling around). My favorites are JULIAN, which should have been made in the ’70s before Last Temptation of Christ’s controversy killed the idea for any critical view on Christianity having a place in the mainstream. CREATION should ideally be done today as one of those fancy miniseries, and it would be a huge refutation to the homophobia and right-wing populism of 300. That book is my favorite, and it was a touchstone to my interest in comparative history and literature and the humanism of that book is truly inspiring. The Confucius episode is unforgettable.

    I feel that if Vidal were more open to auteurism he might have found directors with his sensibility. Like Robert Altman for instance (Vidal did like Short Cuts a lot). But fundamentally there’s a reality to Vidal and his critique of American society that is opposed to the commercial industry and consumerist society. Maybe if his works were adapted by European film-makers it might have been different.

  5. True. He appears amusingly in “Fellini’s Roma” But as for Hollywood he knew that most directors knew nothing of the movies they were assigned to until they arrived on the set. Moreover there was the power of the producer — which in the case of “Ben-Hur” was Sam Zimbalist.

  6. But Zimbalist died before that movie was complete and Wyler became its producer…

    “Gore Vidal always wanted me to do the books I didn’t want to do,” complained Richard Lester to me. Vidal apparently typed Lester as the right man for Myra, whereas he wanted very much to option Lincoln. He was critical of the Spielberg film, feeling it didn’t show enough interest in the supporting cast, towering figures in history and in Vidal’s novel (though I found all those actors fun in Spielberg’s movie.

  7. There were plans for Hal Ashby to make a movie of “Kalki” — Eugene’s prophetic suicide cult story which ends with the end of the world “Unfortunately,” he told me “Hal wanted to stuff all the cocaine in the world up his nose.

  8. chris schneider Says:

    I never did see the MYRA movie. There’s one name that’s missing from your discussion, though: screenwriter David Giler. I remember reading, once, that the Giler screenplay for MYRA BRECKINRIDGE was supposed to’ve been really good, and that a crucial problem was Zanuck’s standing behind director Sarne rather than writer Giler. Now, of course, this is all conjecture. I do realize, too, that a script that reads well (see the Hecht script for ANGELS OVER BROADWAY) doesn’t necessarily make for a good film. But I thought I’d put the name forward. I’ll note, too, that Giler was associated with ALIENS and SOUTHERN COMFORT and THE PARALLAX VIEW. That might lend a bit of credence.

  9. Giler is intriguing. With Walter Hill he rewrote Alien, inventing little but making Ripley a woman (his second sex change, ha!) for which we’re all grateful.

    From Facebook discussion: “Mike Sarne was about as good a critic as he was a director.” “Oh, that’s a bit harsh.”

  10. david melville wingrove Says:

    I simply cannot imagine Anne Bancroft playing Myra. She was a fine actress, but utterly lacking in the exaggerated female allure that the role demands. Remember that scene in THE TURNING POINT, where she’s meant to be playing a legendary ballerina a la Margot Fonteyn, but stomps across the screen like a butch lady truck driver. Truly and utterly horrendous!

    A woman who plays Myra has to be the sort of woman that a man in drag might actually want to look like. Raquel was perfect in that regard. Jayne Mansfield or Ursula Andress could have done it – or maybe Tina Aumont, the lovely real-life daughter of the Cobra Woman herself.

    But has any drag queen ever set out to ‘be’ Anne Bancroft? Perhaps she was a good friend of Vidal’s and needed the work.

  11. Perhaps he admired the way she dominated Dustin in The Graduate. Not so much the look as the attitude.

  12. david wingrove Says:

    The problem in THE GRADUATE is that she and Dustin Hoffmann look (and are) approximately the same age. That’s a major credibility gap and the film never gets over it.

  13. Never bothered me: he’s so odd-looking it’s not obvious to me what age he is, and Bancroft irl looked approximately the same twenty years later. I’ve shown the seduction scene to students and they never remark on the lack of an age gap.

    Of course, the casting softens the taboo aspect, which is arguably a cop-out.

  14. Here’s Anne Bancroft at her greatest

  15. And here she is with Mel

  16. Re Sarne : Last and Least —

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