The Raquel Welch film Myra Breckinridge is considered to this day to be one of the most awful movies in cinematic history. Based on a book by Gore Vidal, it tells the story of a man who becomes a woman. Unfortunately, though, the film didn’t do this very well. And over the years, the cast and crew have spoken up about the absolute madness that took place behind the scenes.
20. Welch did the film because she wanted to be taken seriously
Before Myra Breckinridge, Welch was most famous for being the bikini-clad sex symbol of One Million Years B.C., not a part that particularly required acting chops. Welch wanted a more challenging role, and she thought Myra Breckinridge might be it. The actress explained her reasoning to the magazine Vanity Fair in 2001.
Welch said she’d believed the role would be “a great opportunity to do lots of amazing things as an actress” and that she’d been “attuned to the fact that I really needed to do something that showed that I had more ability than I was given credit for at that time – that I wasn’t just a body and a face.” But, of course, the film bombed completely.
19. A transgender woman wanted to play Myra
These days, it’s generally accepted that it’s preferable for transgender people to play transgender roles. And a transgender person did in fact audition for the part of Myra Breckinridge. Candy Darling, a friend of famous artist Andy Warhol, badly wanted the role. But she didn’t succeed, something that she always lamented.
In Warhol’s 1980 memoir POPism – the Warhol 60s, he wrote of his friend, “Candy suffered a big disappointment in ’69. In fact, she never got over it… Poor Candy wrote [to the casting directors] begging them to please, please reconsider. She knew that if there was ever going to be a role in Hollywood, for a drag queen, this was it.”
18. There were a lot of firings on set
As the movie was being filmed, the media soon picked up on how chaotic the set was. In October 1969 the Los Angeles Times spoke to Fox’s then head of production Dick Zanuck. “I don’t think there’s anyone on this movie who hasn’t been fired or quit three times,” he confessed. “Including me.”
“Raquel is always nervous during a film,” Zanuck continued. “Rex [Reed] isn’t exactly easy. And Sarne is rough.” In fact, director Michael Sarne came in for a particular kicking. Screenwriter David Giler bluntly declared to the newspaper, “I don’t understand it. Bobby Kennedy and Jack Kennedy, they were assassinated. But no one touches Sarne.”
17. Mae West made countless demands
The producers of Myra Breckinridge were determined to get Hollywood icon Mae West on board. She agreed to do the role – for a salary of $350,000 – but West had some demands that needed to be met as well. One of them was that she had to be allowed to script the dialogue for her character Leticia Van Allen.
In fact, West even required that the movie’s final script had “Mae West – Written by Herself” right on the front page. Unfortunately, it’s generally agreed that West’s dialogue was a particularly terrible part of an already terrible movie. And her co-stars apparently made disparaging remarks about the aging actress when her back was turned.
16. Rex Reed publicly stated his distaste for the plot before the film was even out
Rex Reed played Myron, the male version of Myra. And he made sure to tell the world the following in an August 1970 edition of Playboy: “I knew I was likely to be murdered when the reviews came out, so I wouldn’t agree to do the movie unless the studio let me approve my part of the script before filming.” The film hadn’t even hit cinemas at that point.
“Under no circumstances was I interested in playing a homosexual who has an operation to make him into a woman,” Reed added. That was, however, what the film was about – so he presumably must have been interested at some point. Reed also slammed the higher-ups at Fox, calling them “gray little people who… never make a commitment to anything.”
15. Welch actually liked the original book
In 2012 Welch spoke to Out magazine and mentioned that she never felt that Myra Breckinridge lived up to the original novel. Welch added that although “the making of the movie was fun, in a kind of a way,” she’d wanted it to be much more like the Gore Vidal book, which she said was “extraordinary.”
“The book wasn’t utilized to its full potential. Not to be negative about it, I just thought the book was so extraordinary,” Welch continued. “And I didn’t think that the way [Michael Sarne] told his story and the way he developed his premise was clever and witty and entertaining. I felt like the movie looked really interesting but never really lifted off.”
14. A famous murder hung over the set
Just before shooting started on Myra Breckinridge, Sarne’s friend Roman Polanski lost his wife Sharon Tate in the infamous Charles Manson killings. Polanski subsequently went to live with Sarne, accompanied by a group of FBI operatives. The murderers hadn’t yet been identified, and the atmosphere in Sarne’s neighborhood was tense to say the least.
“Between the time that Sharon was murdered and the time they caught Manson, a big anti-foreigner thing kicked in, you know,” Sarne told Vanity Fair in 2001. “There was a cool wind through California. So suddenly I wasn’t so funny anymore. Myra Breckinridge wasn’t so funny anymore. It wasn’t the Love Generation anymore.”
13. Farrah Fawcett made a claim about Welch
Future icon of the 1970s Farrah Fawcett had a part in Myra Breckinridge, and a romantic scene with Welch, no less. But Fawcett apparently wasn’t too impressed with how the more established actress behaved on set. In 1982 she told the magazine Texas Monthly, “On Myra Breckenridge we had to wait hours for Raquel.”
“I wasn’t anybody, so I stood around the set and I heard what the crew said about her,” Fawcett continued. “I decided I didn’t want them saying those things about me.” The exact nature of what was said, though, Fawcett kept to herself. And she notably turned down an opportunity to speak with Vanity Fair about the movie in 2001.
12. Sarne wanted the movie to go in a different direction
At first, Sarne planned that the central character of Myra Breckinridge would actually be played by a male actor who’d later act as a woman. He arranged for several prospects to audition for the role, with an unknown named Stanley Glick apparently coming close. However, Sarne then came to the conclusion that it would be better to cast a woman.
Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2001, Sarne said he cast Welch because “she has a marvelously artificial way of acting. And you could totally believe that she was a sex-change in a mad sort of way… To me she fitted kind of stylistically into my pop-art gallery.” But that wasn’t enough to save the movie.
11. Gore Vidal disowned the film
When Gore Vidal first published the novel Myra Breckinridge, such was the controversy over it that the book was an immediate hit. Fox quickly arranged a movie deal. Vidal would be paid almost $1 million and would pen the script. However, the studio later felt that his screenplay wasn’t up to scratch.
Fox then brought on Sarne as the director, and Vidal decided to walk. He’d hated Sarne’s previous movie Joanna and didn’t think the Englishman was suitable. Nonetheless, the film was marketed in America as Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, although by all accounts Vidal never even watched the finished product.
10. Mae West made a curious demand
Mae West was in her mid-70s when she was cast in Myra Breckridge, and she appeared to have some qualms about her age. “I said something about how maybe her character could have known the John Huston character 30 years ago, or something like that,” screenwriter David Giler told Vanity Fair in 2001. And West took exception.
“An icy chill comes over the room,” Giler recalled. “Mae leans over and pats me on the hand and says, ‘Mae West never plays a character over 26.’” And things didn’t get much better from there. In 2012 Welch told Out magazine, “I don’t think she was very happy on that set. You know that was her first color film?”
9. Reed refused to say one line
Rex Reed wasn’t even really an actor when he was cast as Myron in Myra Breckinridge – he was a movie reviewer. So, naturally, he didn’t hold back once the unfinished film appeared to be spinning out of anyone’s control. And he also refused, at first, to say one of Myron’s lines.
At the end of the movie, Myron was supposed to come round in a hospital bed and enquire “where are my t**s?” but Reed wasn’t having it. In the end, Fox executive David Brown told him that if he didn’t say it, someone else would – and it would be louder. As a result, Reed was forced to deliver the less than tasteful line.
8. Welch was reduced to tears at one point
During rehearsals, Welch was handed yet another version of the film’s terrible script and just couldn’t take it anymore. “I went into the bathroom and had myself a cry,” she told Vanity Fair. “And when I came out, John Huston was standing there. I had red eyes and everything, and he said, ‘My darling, what’s the matter?’”
Welch replied to her co-star, “Mr. Huston, I’m just so scared, I don’t know what to think. They keep rewriting this script, and I think it’s getting worse – is it getting worse or is it getting better? Couldn’t you help?” According to her, Huston gave a simple answer: “Darling, don’t you worry about a thing. It’s just a movie.”
7. Vidal always loathed Michael Sarne
Gore Vidal didn’t want Michael Sarne directing the film and wasn’t afraid to say so in the harshest terms. “My last act as co-producer was to tell [Zanuck and Brown] that Sarne, no more a writer than a director, could never handle so complex a job,” he informed Vanity Fair.
Moreover, the grudge between Vidal and Sarne continued long after Myra Breckinridge was completed. “Michael Sarne never worked in films after Myra Breckinridge,” the author was quoted as saying in Conversations with Gore Vidal. “I believe he’s working as a waiter in a pub in London, where they put on shows in the afternoon. That is proof that there is a God.”
6. Shirley Temple and an American president raised objections
At one point during Myra Breckinridge, a clip of Shirley Temple having milk squirted in her face was going to be edited in for a laugh. However, according to Sarne in his Vanity Fair interview, Zanuck then informed him that Temple herself was angry about the idea and that she happened to have friends in high places.
Sarne said Zanuck told him that none other than President Richard Nixon had gotten in contact with his father to “[tell] him that shot has to go, because Shirley Temple, who’s a delegate to the United Nations, has heard about it and she’s furious and that it’s got to go.” Zanuck, for his part, has said that he can’t recall this incident.
5. There was a lot of pot on set
Mae West was by all accounts an incredibly demanding person on the set of Myra Breckinridge. And one of her many stipulations was that nobody smoke around her. However, it seems this rule was broken pretty sharpish. According to executive David Brown, a lot of people on the set smoked marijuana.
Brown told Vanity Fair, “The aroma or stench of pot seemed to be rising off the Fox lot while we were making the movie. Pot is a felony in California. And the haze could not have emanated from one person.” Sarne apparently blamed the cast of the film being made in the neighboring lot: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
4. The premiere of the film was chaotic
When Myra Breckinridge premiered at the Criterion Theater, the situation quickly spun out of control. Indeed, The New York Times reported that people fought with police, broke windows and were arrested. There were apparently at least a couple of thousand people present, which made them a hard crowd to control. Welch wasn’t immune from the madness, either.
Mae West caused unexpected problems on the red carpet. According to Welch, “Two men grabbed me by the arms and pushed me through a side door.” It transpired West didn’t want the younger actress potentially upstaging her. And after all that, once the movie finally played, nobody laughed.
3. Huston and Sarne hated each other
Michael Sarne wanted Mickey Rooney to play the role of Buck Loner in Myra Breckinridge, but then John Huston requested it. “I can’t even describe to you now how threatened I felt,” Sarne admitted. “He’s f***in’ John Huston, for Chrissake!” And both men appear to have disliked each other right from the beginning.
Sarne apparently said some less-than-complimentary things about Huston’s acting ability, and matters went thoroughly downhill from there, with Huston eventually not bothering to follow the director’s guidance. “He was a threat. I didn’t want him on my set,” Sarne told The Independent in 1993. “Besides, I always wanted Mickey Rooney.”
2. The film was absolutely savaged by critics
Once Myra Breckinridge hit cinemas, the press immediately panned it. Time magazine called the movie “an insult to intelligence, an affront to sensibility and an abomination to the eye… an incoherent tale of sodomy, emasculation, autoeroticism and plain bad taste.” Gene Siskel wrote in the Chicago Tribune that Welch was “physically perfect but incapable of showing anger” in what was a “horrendous adaptation” of the best-selling novel.
Herb Kelly, writing in The Miami News, went even further. He labeled it “the worst film ever made” and added: “I have searched my memory, skimmed over 34 pages of movie titles in Film Daily’s Year Book trying to recall whether anything I’ve ever seen can be rottener than this piece of garbage now on local screens. Nothing can touch it for tastelessness and boredom.”
1. Welch hopes there might be a remake
In her 2012 interview with Out magazine, Welch said, “It wasn’t like the book, where you kind of understood that there was a female side to this personality and therefore when they had the operation and Myron became Myra, there was another side to her that was all the time speaking to her and arguing. There was all of that.”
Welch had hopes that someone would do the book justice in the future. “I’m so very glad I made it because I think it means that someday, someone somewhere will have the cajones to come along and really do it the way Gore intended it,” she added. “And make it the funny erudite movie it really should be.”