Image Credit: ‘Myra Breckenridge,’ 20th Century Films

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” 

As we approach the end of June, we continue our special Pride series in which we cover a movie highlighting a different letter of the LGBTQ+ acronym all month long. This week, we dive into the all-important “T” with 1970’s Myra Breckinridge, a controversial adaptation of a controversial novel that may not be the best example of positive representation for a community that has been starved of it for so long.

Week by week in this column we step back in time and look at various forms of queer representation throughout Hollywood history. And it’s very apparent that, while the entire queer umbrella has been consistently deprived of meaningful portrayals in media, the trans community has by far gotten the least, both in terms of quantity and in quality.

Although it’s not until relatively recently that there’s been consistent and accurate terminology developed around trans issues, trans characters have been present in mainstream film for a long time. It’s just that the way they’ve been historically depicted and talked about was filled with harmful stereotypes, wrong and dated assumptions, and dangerous correlations of behavior.

The Set-Up

This week we’ll be discussing the 1970 film Myra Breckindrige, based on the novel of the same name by famed gay writer Gore Vidal. It follows a trans woman (played by It Girl of the time, Raquel Welch) who, following her gender affirming surgery, takes on the mission to personally dismantle the all-American values of traditional gender roles and the patriarchy. She does this by taking over the acting school of her Uncle Buck (John Huston) and slowly corrupting two students, Mary Ann (Farrah Fawcett) and Rusty (Roger Herren).

The novel, although controversial, received some amount of critical success for its subversions of traditional values and the social order. This was not the case with the movie.

At the time of its release it was quickly considered one of the worst films ever made, and although it has amassed a cult following since, it remains highly polemic, mainly because of the explicit sex, depictions of sexual assault, and a broad (if not outright toxic) portrayal of its trans protagonist.

The All-American Girl

Image Credit: ‘Myra Breckenridge,’ 20th Century Films

Raquel Welch emanates charisma, sensuality, danger, and star power as the titular Myra Breckinridge. However, the essence of her character lies in her destructive nature: her scorched-earth policy to reshape the world.

Although the rage of her Myra does resonate and reflects the impotence of a community continuously struggling and begging to be acknowledged in the status quo, the movie equates her with sadism and savagery (at one point, in one of the film’s most controversial moments, she assaults Rusty with a strap-on as she wears a star-spangled bikini).

It also reduces her trans identity (both physically and emotionally) to the age-old, overly simplified, and harmful notion that she’s “a man that switched gender to become a woman.” Myra keeps envisioning her former “male form,” Myron, as her conscience and guiding light.

The climax of the movie shows Myra coming clean about her identity and showing her genitals to Uncle Buck, much to their dismay. The film’s shocking and schlocky final reveal turns out to be (spoiler alert) that Myron never transitioned, and it was all a medication-induced fantasy into which he projected his desires and fantasies. In many ways, this film depicts every dated or misinterpreted trope about trans people in one tight package.

Hollywood Plays Itself

Image Credit: ‘Myra Breckenridge,’ 20th Century Films

However, even with all of this at its core, the film still grapples with some interesting ideas, particularly around the role of Hollywood in shaping narratives and identities.

In what is perhaps its most distinctive stylistic and formal choice, its narrative is constantly interposed with scenes from classic Hollywood films that reflect or respond to the action of the film in some form, either in dialogue, in reaction of the actors, or as a visual metaphor. It feels like a prototype for academic video essays, adding a fascinating meta layer to the movie (which feels even more meta discussing it now in this context).

By overlaying these moments of the Golden Age of Hollywood (which, the movie textually argues, is the main source that dictates what culture perceives as the “correct” forms of gender presentation, sexuality, and behavior), the movie is making a direct comment at the power of entertainment to shape and influence the public’s views.

It’s almost ironic that Myra Breckindrige own portrayals of its lead character are so regressive and harmful. But there’s a distorted sense of empowerment hidden in there somewhere—it’s like the film is actively acknowledging the role of media in culture, while also making the conscious choice to not partake in that.

The Magnificent Miss West

We would also be remiss to not mention the small showcases of pure camp that exist in this movie, particularly legend Mae West (herself an icon of Old Hollywood) showing up as Leticia van Allen, a famed agent that seduces and beds the aspiring young actors that she finds attractive. West came out of a nearly three-decade retirement for this film, dressed in custom Edith Head and delivered a drag queen-worthy, scene-stealing performance in her short appearance.

A Wrecking Ball In Heels

Image Credit: ‘Myra Breckenridge,’ 20th Century Films

But all in all, Myra Breckindrige is a movie full of contradictions that cannot find its way out of them. Although arguably well-intentioned for its time—with an eye for bringing down the toxic systems of heteronormativity, and genuinely engaging formal and stylistic choices that are thematically relevant—the film also missteps greatly with the actions and depictions of its lead.

It would take many years for deeper, more meaningful trans representation to arrive, and not only stand on their own, but also dismantle the views that films like Myra Breckindrige implanted on viewers for decades.

Sometimes, in order to build something new, you have to destroy what came beforehand. And that is a sentiment that, weirdly, Myra Breckinridge herself would agree with.

Myra Breckenridge is not currently available to stream through any official channels, but physical copies can be purchased via Amazon and *hint, hint* a YouTube search may prove fruitful.

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