In 1970, one of the most notorious movies in film history was released: Myra Breckenridge. Gore Vidal’s novel is about a film critic, Myron, who undergoes a sex change to become the Amazonian Myra. Myra wants to level the differences between the sexes while turning her Uncle Buck’s acting and modeling academy upside down.
The cast included Mae West, who was 76 at the time and hadn’t made a movie in 20 years. Playing Myron/Myra’s Uncle Buck was legendary director John Huston. A young Farrah Fawcett (before the flip hairdo and Lee Majors) is Mary-Ann Pringle, a naïve acting student. The part of Myron/Myra was played by real-life movie critic Rex Reed and the ‘sex-goddess’ Raquel Welch.
Director Michael Sarne was under siege during the whole film, fighting with producers and juggling recalcitrant stars. Mae West and Raquel Welch were feuding. And when the film was finally released, it was panned by every critic on the planet. But it’s a fascinating film, and one that you can’t watch just once. Ahead of it’s time, Sarne uses clips from classic films to underscore dramatic moments. It fits, because Myron/Myra has an encyclopedic knowledge of film, constantly quoting and analyzing films of the 30’s, and 40’s. Theodora Van Runkle was the costume designer, and she takes Raquel Welch and turns her into an iconic screen presence.
Myra’s costumes are always dramatic, and heavily accessorized. She swirls into rooms, all capes and flowing skirts, wearing one dramatic hat after another. Raquel’s heavy head of 70’s waves is manipulated into a new and startling shape with every costume change. The effect is riotous. Myra is a big, outspoken character with a sharp intelligence. The costumes reflect her vision of herself as a film star, someone who commands attention. My favorite costume is the suit and blouse in which she meets Leticia Van Allen (Mae West) at Buck Loner’s acting school. A short jacket with long sleeves and high waisted pencil skirt in what looks like velvet are the backdrop for a blouse that just blooms from Raquel’s body – a white blouse with a collar of crimped and pleated fabric that frames her face, neck, and décolletage. You could wear that blouse with a pair of cigarette cut Hudson jeans and strappy sandals, and look completely fetching.
While the film isn’t overtly about fashion, it is about appearance. Everyone in the film is conscious of how they look and how their looks affect those around them. Myra doesn’t use her stunning looks and body to seduce, but rather, as a billboard for her outsized ideas. Her clothing expresses her essence. She is more than she appears, and the clothing is a way of stunning people into subservience. Her ideas may be revolutionary, and her torrents of words may be over the heads of many, but she’s so perfectly turned out that all you can do is say ‘Yes, Myra’.