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Mae West, Raquel Welch, And 'Myra Breckinridge:' Facts And Trivia About The '70s Bomb

Entertainment | August 17, 2020

Left: Raquel Welch as Mya Breckinridge in a promotional photo for the film of the same name Right: Mae West as Letitia Van Allen. Sources: Bettmann / Getty Images; IMDB

In 1970 20th Century Fox thought it had a hit on its hands with Myra Breckinridge, an X-Rated sex comedy starring Raquel Welch and Mae West adapted from a novel by Gore Vidal. If that sounds absolutely bonkers to you then you don’t know the half of it. The film follows Myra Breckinridge, a transgender woman who, after undergoing gender confirmation surgery, attempts to destroy Hollywood from the inside out. Through a series of fantastical songs, dream sequences, and a lot of um… “seduction” Myra accomplishes absolutely nothing and the whole thing turns out to be a dream sequence. As bad as that sounds, behind the scenes things were even worse. 

The director was kind of a sociopath

source: 20th Century Fox

Director Michael Sarne is probably most well known for singing the 1962 novelty hit “Come Outside,” but throughout the ‘60s he appeared in British dramas like A Place to Go and Invasion Quartet. After directing the somewhat successful film Joanna in 1968 he was offered the job of directing Myra Breckinridge simply because he told the executives at 20th Century Fox that he knew how to film it correctly.

For Sarne, that meant lording over the production like a tyrant. He threw out the Gore Vidal approved script because he thought it was “too gay,” and wrote his own version of the story. By all accounts Sarne’s contract allowed him to do whatever he wanted, regardless of what the studio said and he took full advantage of this ability.

He kept the cast and crew waiting around for hours while he was “thinking,” he spent days filming cakes for a sequence that took up seconds of the actual film, and he was particularly abusive to Raquel Welch. According to the film’s star, Sarne referred to her as an “old raccoon,” and she spent much of her downtime crying in her trailer.

Mae West came out of retirement and was a total diva

source: 20th Century Fox

To cast the role of Hollywood agent Letitia Van Allen, 20th Century Fox reached out to a few different stars from the golden age of Hollywood, but their efforts were undercut when Michael Sarne offered the role to Mae West, claiming that he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to offer major parts to actors willy nilly.

West took the meeting after her psychic advisor gave her the go ahead, and after a meeting with 20th Century Fox she worked out a pretty sweet deal for herself. On top of earning $350,000 for the role, she got script approval and top billing, she was allowed to write her own lines, and she was given permission to sing two songs in the movie.

That kind of thing isn’t just out of the ordinary, it never happens. Retired stars aren’t brought back to work and given everything they want for a campy b-movie, and they definitely aren’t given script approval. No one’s ever copped to giving in to West’s demands, but it’s clear that someone at Fox thought that she was make or break for the picture.

The presence of Raquel Welch, one of the biggest sex symbols of the '70s couldn't save it

source: 20th Century Fox

Raquel Welch was hot off of One Million B.C. when she was cast to play the titular role in Myra Breckinridge. She hoped that the film would finally establish her as a real actor, someone who could handle intense thematic stories, and in someone else’s hands this movie could have been her breakthrough. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case.

Aside from the fact that Sarne turned a fairly serious book into a anti-Hollywood sex farce, he was just straight up mean to Welch throughout the production. He told her that he cast her as a joke, he berated her in front of the cast and crew, and he rewrote her scenes every single day.

Welch didn’t have anyone to turn to on the set. She looked for a friendly face in Mae West, but the aging actress had a vendetta against Welch. Mae West decided that only she was allowed to wear black or white in the film, so all of Welch’s costume had to be remade. The two were so icy to one another that even though they share scenes with one another they’re never actually in the same frame. West wasn’t just awful to Welch, she bullied a young Farrah Fawcett so much that she ended up in tears. Welch told Out Magazine:

Farrah was like Alice in Wonderland: She’d just dropped into this scene! And they kept changing the color of her hair all the time. She came to my dressing room in tears and said, ‘They’ve dyed my hair three different times, and now they’re dying it again!’ Well, Mae didn’t like the color of her hair!

The White House insisted a scene be removed

source: 20th Century Fox

One of the things that Sarne wanted to do with the movie is show the way that big budget Hollywood films are inherently sexist. To do this, he inserted snippets of films into the movie, including a few shots from Heidi where a young Shirley Temple is milking a goat. Not only was Temple deeply conservative, but at the time she was working as an ambassador to the United States. Following previews of the film the White House insisted that the footage be removed from the film immediately.

What was John Huston doing in this fiasco?

source: 20th Century Fox

By 1970 John Huston was one of the most revered directors in Hollywood. The guy made at least three legit classics (take your pick) and he had a best supporting actor nomination. So what was he doing here? It’s most likely that Huston was looking for cash. While he was picky with his directing work he didn’t seem choosy when it came to the films where he appeared on screen.

The story goes that before filming commenced that director Michael Sarne called Huston a “decrepit old hack,” which didn’t exactly endear him to Huston. Rather than quit outright, Huston showed up on set for his required number of days and as soon as his contract was up he left regardless of the fact that the film was still in production.

The rest of the supporting actors are just as wild. You’ve got Jim Backus from Rebel Without a Cause and Gilligan’s Island doing who knows what, and film critic Rex Reed plays Myron - the pre-op version of Myra. On top of that you’ve got a young Tom Selleck and Farrah Fawcett in her second film role. Somehow this movie didn’t completely ruin their careers, even though it kept Welch from gaining the respect she yearned for.

The ending of the film was cobbled together at the last minute

source: 20th Century Fox

With all of his control over the production, Michael Sarne didn’t account for the ballooning of the budget, scheduling, or anything important like that. As the cost of the production spun out of control the producers finally decided that enough was enough and shut the picture down. 20th Century Fox told Sarne to edit an ending together and call it a day. Rex Reed explained the chaos to Out Magazine:

Christmas was coming, and everyone kept asking me, ‘Are we a wrap?’ And I said, ‘No, we can’t be! We still have all this to film.’ And so I went back to New York, and then I got a call saying, ‘Don’t come back.’ They were going to edit together whatever they had. We hadn’t even filmed half my scenes!

The final ending showed that everything the audience had witnessed was a dream and that Myra (at this point Myron) had never received gender confirmation surgery. Woof. The film did big numbers on its opening weekend, but after word of mouth the box office died a fast death. The film has taken on cult status in recent years, but it’s still a doozy to watch.

Tags: Mae West | Movies In The 1970s | Myra Breckinridge | Raquel Welch | X-rated Movies

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.