‘A Lady Is A Lady, After All’
At the WORN office the other day we were talking movies, like we do, and the much-maligned ‘Sex and the City 2’ came up.
“It is literally the worst movie ever made,” one of the Wornettes claimed.
“No,” I sighed. “It is not literally the worst movie ever made.”
My objection came less from loyalty to Carrie and company and more from my problem with the continued watering down of the word ‘literally’. It does not mean ‘really’. ‘Literally’ literally means literally. That’s all.
Sure, you may balk at ‘Sex and the City 2’s materialism, it’s stiletto-heel-thin plot line and its treatment of an Arab country as an exotic backdrop for frothy fun, but are the shadows of the camera men visible? Does the story, unbelievable as it may be, at least make logical sense? You may not be laughing at the jokes, but at least you’re not laughing at the serious dialogue.
There are hundreds of films worse than ‘Sex and the City 2’.
Two movies, both alike in indignity, in Fair Hollywood where we lay our scene: ‘Glen or Glenda’ (1953) or ‘Myra Breckinridge’ (1970).
On the surface, the pair would seem to have little in common: one was a low-budget exploitation flick to titillate drive-in audiences in the conservative fifties; the other, a would-be blockbuster from a major studio, based on a best-selling book, staring a sex symbol and a couple of fossilized Hollywood legends.
But the two films, which both deal with cross-dressing and gender confusion (albeit, making opposite points), have more in common than just their inanity. ‘Glen or Glenda’ and ‘Myra Breckinridge’ redefine what it means to be bad. And the stories of how they were made are as interesting as what ended up on screen.
In the early 1950’s, inspired by the public’s interest in Christine Jorgensen, the first person to make news for having sex reassignment surgery, B-movie producers rushed to get sex change movies into the theatres while the story was still hot. Ed Wood, the unknown scriptwriter with no previous film directing experience, pushed his way in to direct what was then called ‘I Changed My Sex’. Along with wanting to be a legitimate director, Wood had a secret motivation: he was a secret cross-dresser and wanted to show the world that that was no great sin.
The resulting film, which is one part preachy public service announcement and one part coked-out nightmare of devils, vampires and sadomasochistic porno, must be seen to be believed. Wood stars as a regular, all-American guy named Glen (the narration makes a big deal that his character is heterosexual) who happens to feel comfortable in women’s clothing. Playing his oblivious fiancé was Dolores Fuller, Wood’s real life girlfriend who, in an incredible bit of art imitating life, didn’t know about Wood’s cross dressing while making the film.
In Tim Burton’s loving tribute movie ‘Ed Wood’ (1994) she is played by Sarah Jessica Parker, a reminder that she once had a successful film career.
Hovering above the action is Bella Lugosi, the original Dracula, who by this point was a drug addict and un-hirable. Wood befriended him and gave him the part of ‘The Scientist’, a would-be narrator who doesn’t narrate so much as sit in an armchair and yell, through his Hungarian accent, insane things like “Pull the strings!” and “Beware of the big, green dragon that sits on your doorstep. He eats little boys, puppy dog tails and big, fat snails.”
At the end of the movie, Glen confesses to his fiancé that he enjoys wearing women’s clothing and she, after a pregnant pause, (spoiler alert!) hands over her angora sweater. One can only imagine all the thoughts which went through the producers’ heads when Wood dropped off the film roll, but we know at least two complaints: the film was too short and featured no sex change operation. They had ordered a movie to cash in on people’s interested in (what was then considered) a freakish operation. Wood had given them the opposite: a movie about a normal guy who just happens to like angora sweaters.
“Glen is not a homosexual,” the narrator intones. “Glen is a transvestite, but he is not a homosexual.” This line is delivered as the viewer is shown shady men, presumably gays, lighting cigarettes for each other under street lights. One of the greatest ironies of ‘Glen or Glenda’ is that, fifty years later, homosexuals are winning the PR war, while straight men who cross-dress (not transgendered people) are as little talked about and understood as they were in the 1950’s.
To fill up the rest of the movie, they tacked on a second plot (‘Alan or Anne’) which featured a sex change operation, and an extended fantasy sequence with women writhing around on sofas in their underwear. By the time Bella Lugosi’s is cross-cut, supposedly reacting to the sexy ladies with arched upside-down ‘V’ eyebrows and pursed lips, my friend Jeremy and I were laughing so much we had pause the DVD.
Which leads to an interesting conundrum: the movie is undoubtedly horrible, but if you get so much pleasure from it that you are practically crying with laughter, should it really be considered bad?
‘Glen or Glenda’, though bizarre, is watchable. ‘Myra Breckinridge’ is not.
Based on the slim but engrossing novel by Gore Vidal, ‘Myra’ was 20th Century Fox’s attempt to tape into the Swinging Sixties youth market. But by 1970, when the film came out, the killings at Altamont and the Charles Manson murders had cost the flower children some of their bloom. But that was only the beginning of problems for this cursed production.
The book told the story of Myra, a knock-out beauty who is obsessed with old movies (she alleges that the entire range of human emotions was filmed by Hollywood between 1935 and 1945) and who is on a mission to exterminate the traditional male. She claims to be the widow of an effeminate man named Myron and blackmails his uncle, a former cowboy film star, into hiring her as a teacher at his mediocre acting school. Myra takes an interest in a hunky student named Rusty, graphically penetrating him in the climax scene. By the end (spoiler alert!) we discover the beautiful Myra is actually Myron after a sex change.
It seemed to everyone that the plot was unfilmable, but one of the most frustrating things about the making of ‘Myra Breckinridge’ is the movie that could have been. Gore Vidal wrote the first toned-down screen treatment, which was promptly rejected by the studio for being too conservative. Vidal disassociated himself from the production and has said bitchy things about it ever since.
There was also talk of getting legendary director George Cukor (who, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, made the type of movies the character Myra cherishes). Instead, Fox hired Michael Sarne, a novelty song-writer and occasional actor from England with one film credit to his name. Fox wanted a director who wouldn’t follow established rules; Sarne wouldn’t even follow the elementary rules of movie making.
Until you submit yourself to ‘Myra’, in which entire scenes are incomprehensible and seemingly pointless, you don’t know bad movies.
Although he auditioned drag queens and transgendered actors for the lead, Sarne eventually approached sex symbol Raquel Welch, who was eager to be taken seriously as an actor. Although I admire her chutzpah, why Welch ever thought playing a former-man who rattles on about Tarzan films and rapes people would make her a legitimate actor God only knows.
Wearing brightly-coloured, 1940’s inspired outfits with matching hats (looking like some whacked-out drag version of Joan Crawford), Welch digs into the role with energetic gusto. You can sense her desperation for this to be a good picture just below the surface, and hers is the only performance which matches the cartoony camp-ness of the film.
In a smaller part, Sarne coaxed Mae West, queen of the suggestive double entrendre, out of retirement. West, of famous lines like “Is that a rifle in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”, was the original Samantha Jones. In her seventies and blanketed in black and white Edith Head gowns and a high-piled blonde wig, West delivers her dirty jokes in the exact way she did in her twenties (in the ‘20s!). She was fanatically jealous of Welch, and legends abound of her stealing her costumes and refusing to share a scene with her.
Everybody on set was on edge. Nobody trusted anyone. They began shooting before the script was finished and Welch ran to her dressing room in tears, perhaps sensing the train wreck she had attached her career too. Sarne would spend hours tinkering with the props for unimportant scenes, or would disappear to “think” about his next step. A heavy haze of marijuana smoke engulfed the lot.
Sarne became convinced that the studio was going to take the film away from him. Remarkably, they didn’t, even though they probably should have.
Fox even allowed the director full access to their archives, so to punctuate certain scenes Sarne inserted old clips of Laurel and Hardy, Mareline Dietrich and Judy Garland. At the climax of a scene featuring a blow job, he placed a clip of little Shirely Temple milking a cow and getting sprayed in the face. This clip got an especially warm reception from the test screening in San Francisco, but a letter was sent from the White House on behalf of Ms. Temple (who was an ambassador) and the scene was pulled.
One wonders what the character of Myra would have thought of Sarne sullying classic movie clips and Old Hollywood actors by using them to make dirty visual puns.
Obliviously buoyed by the good reception in San Francisco (studio execs had not yet realized that the taste of gay men wasn’t always the same as the taste of the mainstream), the film makers began to think that, despite all the drama that had gone into its making, they might remarkably have a hit on their hands.
“About as funny as a child molester,” cried the most famous review. Although curiosity spurred some early attendees, ticket sales plummeted soon after ‘Myra’ opened, and took purchases of the book down with them. Everyone involved allowed Sarne to take the blame and, having become a leper in Hollywood, he went back to England.
I’m most sympathetic towards Welch, who wanted so much from this movie and got so little. Her career survived (although she never became the acclaimed actor she wanted to be), but she did get to do a duet with Miss Piggy. Interviewed for the DVD release, looking remarkably similar to have she did in the 1970’s, Welch is candid and self-effacing about the disaster which was ‘Myra’.
Interestingly, ‘Glen or Glenda’, made during the red-baiting early 1950’s, is the film which argues that people who cross dress are just like everyone else. Although a satire, the cross-dressing character in ‘Myra Breckinridge’ is as large a threat to tradition, normalcy and the manhood of everyday blokes as conservatives would fear. Glen may wear angora because he likes the feel, but Myra pulls on pumps to start revolution.
You could claim that certain aspects of ‘Myra Breckinridge’ were ahead of its time, like the recycling of old movie clips and the movie’s proto-post-modern editing. Its mixture of the elevation of the frivolous (Myra’s love of old movies and retro fashions) with its questioning of the traditional male foretold the creation of Queer Studies, which would combine these disparate ideas. ‘Myra’, of course, has garnered a cult following. For a movie as bizarre as this one, it would be surprising if it didn’t.
But ‘Myra’ is bad. It’s a bad film. While ‘Glen or Glenda’ is unintentionally hilarious and ‘Myra’ is a terrible movie.
Remember it next time you’re ready to judge Kim Cattrall purring “Lawrence of my labia” in the desert.