Episode 132: Myra Breckinridge (1970)

Special Guests: Jay Parini, Nicholas D. Wrathall
Guest Co-Host: Juniper Moore


One of the most infamous films of the '70s, Myra Breckinridge (1970) was based on a novel by Gore Vidal about Myron, a young man trying to make it in Hollywood who becomes a gorgeous young woman. See change into and spar with , , and more.

We're joined by Metro Detroit jam entrepreneur, Juniper Moore.

Links:
Join the Trans Jam Revolution
Send our co-host, Juniper Moore, to Mars
Visit the official Jay Parini website
Visit the Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia website
Visit the official Michael Sarne website
Buy Myra Breckinridge/Myron
Buy Myra Breckinridge on DVD
Buy the Myra Breckinridge Cookbook

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3 comments:

  1. Fascinating episode, but you missed the point.

    You asked what the producers were thinking. Simple. They wanted a hot and risqué movie. Movie negotiations were in the works long before the novel was published, and Bud Yorkin was Gore Vidal's choice for director. WB and National General both bid on the project, but they were outbid by Fox. Richard Zanuck was Executive Vice President in Charge of Production, and he was concentrating on getting "controversial" projects. Producer Robert Fryer read the book during a business flight and immediately brought it to RZ's attention. Myra fit right in with RZ's goals, and so RZ purchased it immediately for $225,000 plus a $150,000 fee for Gore's script with a sales-escalation clause of up to $500,000. Altogether Fox's initial outlay was close to $750,000. Gore would sign a contract only on condition that he could exercise control over the production. Fox agreed to this term, making Gore coproducer with Fryer.

    Despite what Jay Parini remembers, Gore was indeed most interested in writing the script, and he made sure that the contract would guarantee that he have first crack at converting the book into a screenplay. I read his first draft (Jun 21, 1968), which is hilarious, much different and much funnier than the novel. But RZ and his partner David Brown rejected it as too tame. The Myra novel was wildly sexual, but the script would raise no eyebrows. Fox also rejected Yorkin, fearing that he would be as tame as Gore's script. Fox approached George Cukor, Herbert Ross, Wm Friedkin, and Lindsay Anderson, who all turned it down. Gore submitted a second draft (Sep 28, 1968, which I have not yet had a chance to read), and RZ and Brown rejected this as well.

    Fryer saw a new Fox movie by Mike Sarne called "Joanna" at a private screening and was overwhelmed. He recommended Sarne for Myra. RZ and Brown asked Gore to a screening. Gore thought it one of the worst movies he had ever seen - it "looked like fifty-two Salem commercials run back to back." RZ & DB proudly told Gore that Sarne would write and direct Myra. Gore was horrified.

    Sarne despised Gore's book and wanted nothing to do with it. But he was flat broke and RZ made him an offer he couldn't refuse: $100,000. The novelist and director met only once and Sarne immediately started insulting him. Gore turned to RZ and DB to say, "This time next year Twentieth Century-Fox will be in the hands of the receivers." He was right.

    Sarne wrote an unshootable script (Jul 13, 1969), which I attempted to read but couldn't. There's no denying that Sarne had talent, but he was entirely out of his depth with Myra. Gore, ever the gentleman, dutifully submitted changes, which Sarne in turn would change again. The back-and-forth went on until Gore could take no more.

    Fryer discovered a young scenarist named David Giler and was impressed with his work. They had a meeting and Fryer offered Giler a chance to write a new Myra script. Giler was floored. He loved Vidal's works and Myra was his favorite book. He turned in a brand-new screenplay (Sep 4, 1969), which Gore thought was splendid, much better than his original. Gore and Giler quickly became fast friends.

    Still, though, RZ would not budge, insisting that Sarne have his own way, and Sarne had no more fondness for Giler's script than he had for Gore's novel.

    Gore and Fryer tried to buy off Sarne, to pay him his entire $100,000 salary out of their own pockets to go away and leave the project. RZ would not budge. Fryer offered to pay the overage to shut down the production while they searched for a new director. RZ would not budge.

    (Continued...)

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  2. (Continued from above.) The reason for this intransigence was simple: Boxoffice revenues had vanished and the studio was in deficit. The Stanford Research Institute was brought in to examine the accounting and was appalled at the corruption at the top level. With the recent flop of "Hello Dolly" Fox was now $100,000,000 in the red, and the stockholders demanded a regime change. They wanted RZ and his dad Daryl Zanuck out on their ears. Fearing for their positions, DZ and RZ started attacking one another. DZ affected to be outraged by Myra and he demanded that it be shut down as a scandalous public disgrace. RZ dared not give in an inch, and that is why he would not listen to reason. His career was on the line. Gore felt that Sarne was a "nobody" who was being "totally manipulated by Daryl Zanuck.... It was just being deliberately wrecked for personal reasons...."

    Gore's coproducer credit was now meaningless, as there was nothing he could do to reign in a film that had spun out of control. He resigned his position and refused to watch the film. To the end of his days he found the topic overbearingly painful.

    Sarne, resentful at being stuck with Myra, alienated everyone with an unending series of personal insults, which destroyed all morale on set. The production ran about three months over schedule and $2,000,000 over budget. Fox finally halted the shooting even though parts of the script had not yet been filmed. To make up for the gaps in the story, Fryer and Sarne added narration. In its first run, Myra lost $2,675,000, which was peanuts compared to the losses of some of Fox's other films of 1970. The stockholders wreaked their vengeance. They made DZ "honorary chairman," a position of no authority whatsoever, and they ousted RZ and Brown.

    Juniper's comments were fascinating. I had never thought of Myra - the book or the film - as dealing with transgender issues. To me it's no more a story of transsexualism than it is an ode to James Craig. It's a story of power, and Myra is a symbol of rebellion - deluded, raging, unfocused rebellion - a glassy-eyed movie-struck fan in awe of the mythic aspect of Hollywood trash, without an original thought in her head, but possessed of an overriding frustration with, as Gore would say, "the heterosexual dictatorship in the United States."

    I also suggest that Juniper break down and watch "Rocky Horror." Again, it's not "about" transsexualism or transvestism. It's an initiation rite, in which a bland cardboard-cut-out couple are dropped into a mythic world of human archetypes and are transformed/matured/devastated by the experience. Transvestism is used ironically as a symbol representing the underlying basis of human identity, à la Plato's primordial androgyne, and the word "transsexual" is used only for euphony. For good measure, there are also subtle hints of "demon est deus inversus" and Styx ("the river of night's dreaming") and so forth. Critics across the board failed to understand the story and many dismissed the movie as "camp." And it didn't help that for the first 20 years or so of its US release, Fox entirely killed the point of the story by deleting the final scene. To see "Rocky Horror" as a comment on trans people or transgender issues is to completely misinterpret it. A great movie adapted from a great musical play that was unfortunately coöpted by teenyboppers and that unfortunately has never been released in its original form.

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    Replies
    1. This is great information. Wish we had had this going in to our discussion!

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