Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Siren of Myron

Another Thanksgiving Thursday has come and gone, this year coinciding with my birthday; sandwiches of leftover turkey will continue to be my meals for a couple days to come. Yesterday, I followed a day of overindulgence with yet another shameless vice: watching a bad movie. Not any bad movie. Most bad movies are no fun at all. There is a particular sort of bad movie that is fun to watch. The necessary element that makes a bad film a viewing pleasure is “camp,” which is notoriously hard to define but unmistakable when you see it. Not everyone experiences pleasure in camp – at least not readily; many (perhaps most) can’t get past the badness even so. But for the rest of us, such acknowledged classics as Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and The Philadelphia Story are very nearly matched on the fun scale by I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Wild Women of Wongo, and Chopping Mall. Sometimes the camp in these films is intentional (e.g. Killer Klowns from Outer Space) and sometimes it apparently is not (Showgirls). I find pleasure in films that are very bad indeed. I enjoyed the abysmally reviewed Sucker Punch. I enjoyed Lindsay Lohan in I Know Who Killed Me.

The legendarily bad movie I chose yesterday came to mind thanks to an appearance by director Quentin Tarantino on The Tonight Show several days earlier. Tarantino does not make bad movies: he pulls off the neat trick of making flicks that are both campy and very good. His violent and abrasive fare is not everyone’s cup of tea, but his movies are well regarded by critics and always do good box office. What struck me as odd, however, was Quentin’s story to Jay Leno about fist fights he had in NYC. He seemed rather proud of them in an old-fashioned masculine way reminiscent of Hemingway – not Hemingway the writer, but Hemingway the man. Following the peculiar paths by which our minds link one memory to another, the story also reminded me of a very different masculine vision in a novel by Gore Vidal: Myra Breckinridge.

After The Tonight Show, I pulled the novel from my shelf. It was a 1968 edition hardcover that probably was the very one I read in 1968 while in prep school – it was a recreational read at the time, not a school assignment. Parents would have gone ballistic had this book been assigned as schoolwork; some had objections enough to Ovid.

The gist: the protagonist, once Myron Breckinridge, thanks to the good surgeons of Copenhagen, had become Myra. She doesn’t reveal her other-gendered past when she takes a teaching position at an actors school in LA. Myra is a classic film aficionado who argues that no insignificant film was made between 1935 and 1945. The book is rife with references to these films. She asserts that every culture has a mythology from which it derives an identity, and the movies of 1935-45 form the American mythology; the actors of the era are the gods and goddesses of our myths. They define our sense of ethics, our world view, and our ideals of masculinity and femininity. She believes the sex roles embodied in these films were all very well for building a nation and fighting Nazis, but are inappropriate to a 1968 world facing overpopulation and nuclear weaponry. She wants to remold our mythology by means of the movies. She wants to create an America and (to the extent Hollywood movies have global reach) a world that is more bisexual and less dominated by traditional masculine bluster. The birthrate thus will fall and pressure will be eased on the nuclear trigger. A school for actors is as good a place to start as any.

The traditional gender types reflective of ’35-45 are embodied by two students at the film school who plan to marry. Rusty is handsome, swaggering, and a bit of an ass. His wholesomely pretty and somewhat air-headed girlfriend Mary-Ann wants nothing more than a white picket fence and four children with Rusty. Myra sets out to remold them by sexually humiliating Rusty and seducing Mary-Ann. She considers it a great success when the shattered Rusty shouts he is “sick of women.” He then acts so hostile to Mary-Ann that she announces, “I’ll never marry! I hate men!” Both are now better able to bring Myra’s vision to their future screen roles. Bisexuality is a double-edge sword, however, and Myra’s plans are endangered when she finds herself (the part of her still Myron) falling for Mary-Ann.

This book was made into a movie in 1970. Raquel Welch and Rex Reed are Myra/Myron. Also in the movie are a 77-year-old Mae West, a young Tom Selleck, and an even younger Farah Fawcett. The film bombed at the box office so badly that sales of the novel (previously a best-seller) nearly stopped. The vast majority of critics hated it, despised it, reviled it. Even the favorable review in The New York Times warned of the need for “a strong stomach.” It is listed in Harry Medved’s book The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time. Despite this, the film always has had a cult following. It seemed perfect for Friday viewing.

The film proved to be an ideal pick. It was bad in all the right places, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Fair warning: the majority of viewers surely still will hate this movie. (A quick peek at Rotten Tomatoes shows that they do.) There is likely to be some distaste even among some of the cadre normally as easily pleased by camp as I. Yet, Myra in many ways was far in advance of its time. The film looks good, too, which counts for something. Though some critics complained about them, the clips of classic films inserted into the movie work well in my opinion at setting the tone. While I’ll not contend that this is a misunderstood good movie, my only real personal complaint with Myra is the deviation from the ironic ending of the book, in which (*spoiler*) Mary-Ann is married to a surgically re-altered Myron; the movie (big *spoiler*) tells us at the end that Myron's adventures as Myra were just a dream. The movie ending is just not very satisfying.

I suppose one could argue that, despite being fictional, Myra succeeded. The marriage and birth rates indeed have fallen since 1970 to all-time lows, and perhaps ongoing changes (to which she contributed) in sex roles are a reason. Traditional hetero attitudes sound increasingly quaint when not actually politically incorrect. Gender roles have lost definition. Quentin seems out of step. Come to think of it, maybe omitting the marriage of Myron and Mary-Ann was the correct decision for the movie after all.


  1. Ok that trailer is intriguing. I've heard of the film and book, but never delved into either. I might have to change that. :)

    1. As a movie buff, you are a better audience than most to appreciate and enjoy the book and the movie. Vidal (especially in the book, of course) actually offers some pretty thoughtful analysis of the Golden Age of film, amid the other goings-on.