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UPI Arts & Entertainment - Scott's World

By VERNON SCOTT, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Oct. 3, 2001 at 6:15 PM   |   Comments

HOLLYWOOD, Oct. 3 (UPI) -- "Myra Breckinridge" is not the worst movie ever made.

It's too awful for that dubious distinction.

But American Movie Classics featured the film and advertised it as such in its half-hour AMC "Backstory" series recently.

Doubtless, worse movies have been made, but they're so inconsequential they've been forgotten, or they have become kitsch, that is to say so pretentiously dreadful they're beyond consideration.

In terms of money spent, importance of cast, publicity, major studio participation and chutzpah, "Myra Breckinridge" (1970) is in a class by itself as cinematic refuse.

The film is and always has been a terrible, miserable, obscene, unsanitary waste of celluloid by people who should know better.

Producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown thought it would be a sexy, daring comedy from which 20th Century-Fox would earn millions to refill studio coffers emptied seven years earlier by the "Cleopatra" disaster.

Instead, "Myra" plunged the studio into worse debt, nearly destroying Fox and ruining the careers of almost everyone involved.

Zanuck and Brown went on to make subsequent hits of "The Sting," "Jaws" and "Driving Miss Daisy."

"Myra," however, was the nadir of their careers and the definitive loser in Hollywood history.

It began when the producers paid acerbic novelist Gore Vidal $900,000 for screen rights to his novel, "Myra Breckinridge," which was their first mistake.

The book was a counter-culture, gender-bending story of a transsexual man who becomes a dazzlingly beautiful and sexy woman seeking power and stardom in movies.

Raquel Welch, reigning sex goddess of the era, was signed for the title role; she of little acclaim as an actress would be taxed to the max. The whole sordid story unfolds in the AMC "Backstory" half-hour show, which has become a video.

Transsexuality is an iffy subject for a comedy anyway, but it was pulled off splendidly by 20th Century-Fox in 1982 with "Victor/Victoria," a light-hearted comedy starring Julie Andrews, James Garner and Robert Preston.

"Victor/Victoria" triumphed because it was directed masterfully by Blake Edwards and was a good-natured spoof told with taste and humor.

"Myra," on the other hand, was a dark, vicious not-so-funny comedy about unlikable people. It was utterly tasteless, often disgusting.

For instance, there is one scene in which Welch, with her back to the camera, hoists her skirt and drops her panties to display a female version of the full monty to a gaping audience.

Two or three of the key figures involved in making "Myra Breckinridge" were homosexuals with axes to grind against the straight world, and it shows.

There is nothing gay about this sexual minority, making "Myra" more heavy and depressing than a comedy should well be.

To make matters worse, the "Backstory" tape reveals the back-biting, vicious discord of cast, director, producers and author Vidal.

Apparently no two people involved got along except the producers.

In addition to Welch, the cast includes columnist Rex Reed making his film debut, actor-director John Houston, Mae West, Andy Devine and newcomers Farrah Fawcett and Tom Selleck, still cutting their milk teeth.

During and after production the major off-camera story surrounding "Myra" was the feud between leading ladies Welch and West, who was 76 and making her first film in 26 years. She looks like a bad embalming job.

West refused to be seen in the same frame with the young, beautiful and buxom Welch, and who's to blame her?

But the divas' dislike (hatred?) for each other was symptomatic of the entire misbegotten project.

Houston, a superb director and so-so actor, hammed it up unashamedly and deeply resented English director Michael Sarne's assessment of him as a mediocre film director.

Sarne, who had made only one movie in England, was completely out of his depth and apparently had no clue except to complain about and rewrite the script.

He thought all the Americans were undermining his genius, especially Houston and author Vidal. He infuriated the cast, crew and producers and sent the budget soaring beyond reasonable limits.

He later characterized "Myra" as a "catalogue of errors and mistakes and misjudgments."

Sarne never directed another movie.

One newspaper headline accurately described "Myra" as "a sexual freak show."

Critic/author Leonard Maltin writes: "As bad as any movie ever made ... it tastelessly exploits many old Hollywood favorites through film clips." Among those old-timers were Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Loretta Young, Judy Garland, some of whom sued the studio and collected hefty sums.

On its release "Myra Breckinridge" was widely panned. Box offices were seized by anemia.

Ultimately, the picture was neither sexy nor funny.

"Myra Breckinridge" was finally written off as an artistic and commercial disaster.

Ironically and appropriately, "Back Story: Myra Breckinridge" was broadcast Sept. 24 via AMC in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack on America while

viewers were preoccupied by a genuine tragedy.

© 2001 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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