On-Set Details That Show Why Myra Breckinridge Is One Of The Wildest Movies Ever Made

Myra Breckinridge is widely considered to be one of the worst movies in cinematic history. Based on a book by Gore Vidal, it tells the story of a man who becomes a woman. Unfortunately, though, critics didn’t think the film did this very well. And over the years, the cast and crew have spoken up about the chaos that took place behind the scenes. Looking back at star Raquel Welch’s life following her death in February 2023, this strange and almost career-ruining movie becomes all the more interesting.

1. Raquel Welch wanted to be taken seriously

Before <em>Myra Breckinridgeem>, Raquel Welch was most famous as the bikini-clad sex symbol of <em>One Million Years B.C. But the former weather girl and beauty queen wanted to be taken more seriously as an actress, and she was looking for a more challenging role in which to do this. Then along came <em>Myra Breckinridgeem>. And given the movie’s serious subject matter, Welch thought this could be the role that would change her career path.

“I wasn’t just a body and a face”

Welch explained to Vanity Fair in 2001 why she thought playing Myra Breckinridge was going to be perfect. “I thought if I played an erudite, articulate person who was multifaceted and who was struggling between the masculine and the feminine sides of his/her nature that this was a great opportunity to do lots of amazing things as an actress,” she said. “I was really 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.” Unfortunately, the film bombed.

2. A transgender woman wanted to play Myra

A transgender woman auditioned for the part of Myra Breckinridge, but ultimately she lost out to Welch. Candy Darling, a friend of famous artist Andy Warhol, badly wanted the role. But she didn’t succeed, something that she always lamented. Perhaps if the movie was being made today, things would have turned out differently.

The one that got away

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.”

3. Lots of people were fired

While the movie was being filmed, the media picked up on how chaotic things were on set. 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”

“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.”

4. 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 she 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.

“Mae West – Written by Herself”

In fact, West even required that the movie’s final script had “Mae West – Written by Herself” right on the front page. Unfortunately, West’s dialogue wasn’t well received, and her co-stars apparently made disparaging remarks about the aging actress when her back was turned.

5. Rex Reed wasn’t shy about his feelings

Rex Reed, who played Myron, the male version of Myra, did not feel good about the movie. Apparently in an August 1970 edition of Playboy, he made sure to tell the world exactly what he thought of it. He reportedly said, “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.”

Blunt words

“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. Reed also slammed the higher-ups at Fox, calling them “gray little people who… never make a commitment to anything.”

6. Welch 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”

“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.”

7. 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.

“Myra Breckinridge wasn’t so funny anymore.”

“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.”

8. 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 decided I didn’t want them saying those things about me”

“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.

9. Sarne originally wanted a male lead

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.

Not enough

Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2001, Sarne explained, “I’m quite happy with Raquel doing it because she has a marvelously artificial way of acting... To me, she fitted kind of stylistically into my pop-art gallery.” But sadly, that wasn’t enough to save the movie in the critics’ eyes.

10. 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.

A different direction

Fox then brought on Sarne as the director, and Vidal decided to walk. Apparently he didn’t like 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.

11. The screenwriter felt tension with Mae West

Mae West was in her mid-70s when she was cast in Myra Breckridge, and she appeared to have some qualms about her age. Screenwriter David Giler told Vanity Fair in 2001, “I said something about how maybe [West’s] character could have known the John Huston character 30 years ago, or something like that.” And apparently, the actress took exception.

“Mae West never plays a character over 26”

“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?”

12. Rex 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. And in true critic style, he didn’t hold back on his opinions once the unfinished film appeared to be spinning out of control. He also refused, at first, to say one of Myron’s lines.

Reed lost the battle

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.

13. The script reduced Welch to tears

Apparently during rehearsals, Welch was given another version of the film’s 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?’”

“I’m just so scared”

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.”

14. Gore Vidal didn’t like 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.

Harsh words

But the grudge between Vidal and Sarne continued long after Myra Breckinridge was completed. “Michael Sarne never worked in films after Myra Breckinridge,” Gore 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.”

15. 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, Dick Zanuck, head of production at Fox, subsequently informed him that Temple herself was angry about the idea and that she happened to have friends in high places.

“It’s got to go”

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 couldn’t recall this incident.

16. There was a lot of pot on set

According to multiple accounts, Mae West had quite a few demands on the set of Myra Breckinridge. And one of her alleged stipulations was that nobody could smoke around her. However, it seems this rule was broken pretty quickly. According to executive David Brown, a lot of people on the set were smoking marijuana.

Who was to blame?

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.

17. The premiere of the film was chaotic

When Myra Breckinridge premiered at the Criterion Theater, the situation quickly spun out of control. The New York Times reported that people fought with police, broke windows, and were even arrested. There were apparently at least a couple of thousand people present, which made it a hard crowd to control. Welch wasn’t immune from the madness, either.

Awkward moments

Apparently, 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 that West didn’t want the younger actress potentially upstaging her. And after all that, when the movie finally played, apparently nobody laughed.

18. Michael Sarne didn’t want John Huston in the movie

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.

“He was a threat”

Sarne apparently said some less-than-complimentary things about Huston’s acting abilities, 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.”

19. The film was slammed 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.

“Tastelessness and boredom”

Herb Kelly, writing in The Miami News, went even further. He labeled it “the worst film ever made” and said, “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.”

20. Welch hoped there might be a remake

In a 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.”

Hopes for the future

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 said. “And make it the funny erudite movie it really should be.”