Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Make Way for Myra

1970 was the first and only year that an X-rated film won the Academy Award for Best Picture. (No, not this one...that was Midnight Cowboy.) But America’s then-reigning sex symbol and the top box office blonde of yesteryear appeared together in an X-rated film in 1970 too.

Myra Breckinridge (1970) will go down in history as one of the weirdest films ever made. An ignominious flop when it was first released—and rightly so!—its lethal brand of camp and unforgettable imagery and performances have elevated it to cult status, where we hope it will remain in perpetuity. This outrageous tale of a transsexual anti-heroine is a product of its era, the height of the so-called sexual revolution, but its flamboyant bad taste and balls-out bravado are astonishing even today. 

Raquel Welch in the title role
Based upon the novel by the prolific and famously bisexual writer Gore Vidal (who also wrote those page-turners of historical fiction 1876, Lincoln and Burr), the film version of Myra plays upon the worst fears of every right-wing conspiracy regarding the sexual revolution and the so-called gay agenda. Everything that scares people about homosexuality (and any other sexuality, for that matter) is exaggerated and lampooned with perverse democracy.

If you’ve never read the book of Myra (or Myron, its equally entertaining sequel), it may be hard to discern in the film version that mild-mannered Myron, played by Rex Reed in his first and only acting role, undergoes a sex-change operation and becomes his alter-ego and evil twin, the gorgeous Myra, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Raquel Welch, then Hollywood’s top glamour girl. At the end of the film, it all makes sense though—spoiler alert—it was all a dream. Myron never had his you-know-what chopped off, after all…

Rex Reed as Myron: "Where are my t*ts?"

Helmed by hippie British director Michael Sarne (Joanna) who freely admitted to sneaking off the set to smoke the occasional joint between takes, the movie is a strange melange, episodic and tangential,  with a hard-to-follow storyline that makes very little sense, but does it really need to, with all that gratuitous nudity and debauchery? Here’s the theme in a nutshell, in the heroine’s own words: “I am Myra Breckinridge, who no man will ever possess...my goal is the destruction of the American male in all his particulars.” And how!

Punctuating the narrative for satiric effect, and probably further confusing the situation, are numerous clips from classic Fox films, as stars like Jack Benny, Dietrich (in drag, of course), Laurel & Hardy, Judy Garland and Alice Faye (singing “America, I Love You”) pop into the action for editorial effect. Republican Shirley Temple Black, then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was incensed by the film’s use of her classic numbers  “You’ve Got to S-M-I-L-E” and “On the Good Ship Lollypop.” Temple sued, as did Loretta Young. 

Huston, Welch, West and Reed
Myra marked the return to the screen of the legendary Mae West after a 26-year absence. In the supporting role of Tinseltown super-agent (and recording artist!) Leticia Van Allen, West nevertheless received top billing. Despite her mummified and waxen appearance, the legendary superstar still displays glimmers of her iconic wit in her few brief scenes, mostly as Leticia interviews much-younger would-be clients and potential bedmates. “Forget about the 6 feet...let’s talk about the 7 inches…” she purrs to a tall and strapping wannabe actor. Referring to a pair of handsome identical twins, she tosses her head and declares, “I’m the only one who knows the difference.” As Leticia, Mae has only one goal: to add to her “stable of studs” and create a “boy bank” since the “gay boys are taking over the business.” 

Mae West as Leticia Van Allen: "Male Clients Only"
“You Gotta Taste All the Fruit” is Mae’s obligatory musical number, performed by Leticia in salmon silk and sequins, carried onto the stage on a Cleopatra-like litter. Later, after another Edith Head costume change, Mae caterwauls her way to the big finish surrounded by a bevy of tuxedoed black men doing a frantic frug (with an assist from a clip of Carmen Miranda and her giant bananas and Tutti-Frutti hat!). It truly has to be seen to be believed.

Film critic Rex Reed is surprisingly photogenic and affable as Myron, especially when singing a song called “My Secret Place” by the Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips, and when grabbing his chest and exclaiming “Where are my tits?” in his inimitable southern drawl.

Myra and Mary Ann (Farrah Fawcett)
The film also jump-started the careers of two soon-to-be TV icons. A young Tom Selleck, sans moustache, makes a brief appearance as one of Leticia Van Allen’s victims--er, clients. Farrah Fawcett, six years before she became an Angel, is adorably virginal as one of acting teacher Myra’s star students. 

Myra and Rusty (Roger Herren)

Roger Herren is perfect as the dumb-as-a-post Rusty, the unfortunate Midnight Cowboy-type forced to submit to the will of unstoppable man-hating rapist Myra. John Huston, better known as director of classics including The Maltese Falcon and The African Queen, is amusing in one of his few onscreen turns as the former Western star who now runs an acting school.

But the film really belongs to its titular (sorry, I couldn’t resist) star. As the transsexual alter ego of Myron Breckinridge, Raquel Welch walks away with the film, displaying a brilliant flair for dark comedy. Myra's serious-as-a-heart-attack militant feminism is brought to hilarious life by the skilled Welch, who keeps her tongue planted firmly in her cheek in her quest of “preparing humanity for its next phase”... the emasculination of America, of course.

Whether teaching a class on 1940s film acting, boogy-woogying to “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” seducing both Fawcett and her alter-ego Reed, or riding poor Rusty hard and putting him away wet (while poured into that revealing red, white and blue swimsuit), a confident Welch dominates in every scene. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!

Myra prepares to spill her "t"

No wonder that Mae West refused to appear in a two-shot with the young and energetic Welch. In the finished film, the pair have only one scene together. The encounter precipitated the only hint of a feud between the two female stars, a black-and-white war of sorts, with Welch in a Theodora Van Runkle black suit, trimmed with white ruffles, vs. West in an all-white Edith Head ensemble pierced by a black veil. West thought she had vetoed Welch’s wardrobe, commandeering the non-colors for herself, but Welch pulled rank and refused to do the scene unless she wore black and white as well. They filmed the sequence without incident, but never appeared in the same frame. (A couple of years later, West was asked how it was to work with Welch. “She was nice,” purred Mae, but her famous eye roll gave her away and her audience exploded into knowing laughter.)

How anyone thought this mess of a film would be a commercial success is one of those unsolved Hollywood mysteries. It truly fell between the chairs in its appeal for 1970 audiences. The older generation who might have appreciated all the classic film references were shocked and appalled, and younger, hip moviegoers were totally uninterested.  It is, to be sure, an acquired taste…nostalgic gay camp with an edgy undercurrent, drug-fueled and a little cockeyed.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

A Longtime Gay Classic

In the 1980s, the rise of the independent film gave us a window on the world largely unseen in mainstream entertainment and storytelling. Gay-themed stories were being told brilliantly and poignantly in films like Maurice, Parting Glances, My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears. Longtime Companion (1989) is one of the very best of that period.

The film is among the very first to deal head-on with the onset of the AIDS epidemic; Longtime Companion chronicles its devastating effects on a group of NYC friends and acquaintances, many in the entertainment industry. Without pulling any punches, it illustrates how the horrifying mystery illness began its deadly toll on young urban men, forcing the gay community to stand up and be counted. Visibility of gay people in American life was an important first step in gaining support for combating the AIDS crisis, and would prove to be just as important for the LGBT rights movement overall. 

Willy (Campbell Scott) and Fuzzy (Stephen Caffrey)
Longtime Companion is set among these beginnings of awareness and political activism, but is mostly an intimate story about love and loss and friendship and hope, educating heterosexual viewers of the late 1980s that their gay brothers and sisters are truly a part of one human family. (Indeed, one slogan appearing on many of the movie posters was “a motion picture for everyone.”) The original screenplay by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Dying Gaul) is moving, funny and heartbreaking, and brought to life by an ensemble of masterful actors.

Like its counterpart The Normal Heart (the play by Larry Kramer written in the 1980s but not made into a film until 2014), the narrative begins in Fire Island on July 3, 1981, the day the New York Times published its first article about the cancer affecting the gay community. 

Fuzzy and Lisa (Mary-Louise Parker)
Indeed, the HBO film of The Normal Heart pays homage to Longtime Companion’s opening sequence, which depicts the sexy, risqué fun and decadence of a Fire Island summer set to the tune of Blondie’s “The Tide is High.” But flesh and frivolity gives way to serious concern and ultimate tragedy as one by one, friends and loved ones are felled by the dread disease. 

The cast is first-rate, particularly Bruce Davison (Short Eyes, Mame), who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrait of a stalwart caregiver who encourages his partner (Mark Lamos) to let go of the pain and agony at a bedside death vigil. And Campbell Scott’s halting eulogy to the Bruce Davison character later in the film is equally moving, eliciting both tears and laughter.

Bob (Brian Cousins) and Michael (Michael Schoeffling)
Patrick Cassidy as Howard

As the first member of the circle of friends to fall ill with the mystery disease, succumbing to pneumonia,  Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding) is at first young, adorable and full of lively humor, then devastatingly heartbreaking, struggling to breathe in a tense emergency room scene, underlining the disease’s relentless attack on young men in the prime of life. 

Dermot Mulroney as John
Michael Schoeffling (Sixteen Candles) and Brian Cousins are charming as the young couple who turn to New Age positive thinking, vitamin supplements and naturopathic remedies to help their ailing friends and keep their own personal fears and terrors at bay. 

David (Bruce Davison) urges Sean (Mark Lamos) to let go...

Patrick Cassidy (brother of Shawn and and half-brother of David) is effective as the hunky soap opera actor who watches his lover (John Dossett) die while struggling to live and work under the stigma of HIV. The soap opera scene, where everyone gathers in front of the TV to see the first gay kiss on daytime television (which was not to occur in real life for a decade or more), shows us how hungry gay people were to be represented and accepted in popular entertainment media. (Hard to believe now that to be gay before the 1980s was to be practically invisible in mainstream media.)

A very special episode of the daytime drama "Other People"

Mary Louise Parker, before Angels in America and Weeds, adds refreshing humor and fierce humanity to her role as devoted friend and—pardon the expression—fag hag to Fuzzy (Stephen Caffrey ), an entertainment lawyer, and his new lover Willy (Campbell Scott). Together, they devote themselves to easing the pain of others through volunteering for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

The closing of the film, which brings us back to the beach as the protagonists imagine the joyful day the cure for AIDS is found, is memorable and still sob-inducing for those who lived through these troubled times. 

The ending always makes me cry
Establishment cinema, always slow to catch up with the indie film’s finger on the pulse of collective consciousness, would have to wait a few years before the subject of AIDS became the focus of a major motion picture. It was not until Oscar graced the film Philadelphia (1994) and its star Tom Hanks (our generation’s Spencer Tracy?) that an open discourse on the subject of AIDS and its effect on the fabric of everyone’s lives went mainstream.

Since June is traditionally Gay Pride month, today I’m inspired to share my passion for one of my all-time favorite gay-themed films. If you’ve never seen it, it is definitely worth a look.