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02.01.14

When Hollywood Flirted with Porn: 1969, ‘Myra Breckinridge,’ ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,’ & 20th Century Fox

The story of how 20th Century Fox’s Richard Zanuck and David Brown led the doomed charge in sexually adventurous cinema with a pair of disastrous movies—in 1969.

Slowly, once again, the movies are edging toward respectable triple-X fare that features such porn staples as penetration, ejaculation, and erections along with superior screenplays, acting and direction. Of course, leave it to the French to push the boundaries, with Blue Is the Warmest Color and Stranger by the Lake.

Curiously, it was mainstream Hollywood, i.e. 20th Century Fox, which over 40 years ago led the way with sexually adventurous cinema—only to be felled by the head-to-head crash of Myra Breckinridge and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Here’s the story of that one step forward and many leaps backward.

In 1969, Gore Vidal had to endure the embarrassment and hardship of having Fox reject no fewer than two screen adaptations he’d written of his best-selling novel Myra Breckinridge. Over lunch at the Plaza hotel, Vidal let his displeasure known to Richard Zanuck and David Brown, as well as the film’s producer, Robert Fryer. “I am convinced by what I have read that the next thing I will hear is that Fox is in receivership!” the writer screamed at his lunch mates. To add insult to the humiliation, Fox had hired pop singer-turned-director Michael Sarne to both write and direct the movie. In Vidal’s opinion, Sarne’s debut movie, Joanna, was “forty commercials looking for a product.”

Frankly, Sarne wasn’t that keen on Myra Breckinridge. He didn’t think much of the novel. When a friend gave him a well-worn copy, the book automatically opened, he recalled, “in the middle at this well-thumbed page, where this sodomy scene is going on. And I’m reading about this dildo going into the backside of some young guy, and I’m thinking: Are the serious, the William Morris Agency, Twentieth Century Fox…?”

But Zanuck and Brown just loved Sarne’s concept for the film: Myra’s sex change is nothing more than Myron’s bad dream. Which could also describe the cast that Fox assembled for the picture.

Mae West, 67, came out of retirement to play the horny agent Leticia Van Allen, and in addition to the $350,000 Fox offered her, she could write her own lines in Myra Breckinridge. West’s first job as her own screenwriter was to change the name of her character from Leticia to Letitia. It was, she said, “too choice an opportunity to let it get away.”

Besides Candy Darling, at least half a dozen other transvestites were tested and rejected, and stars ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Angela Lansbury passed on the project. Which left it to Raquel Welch to accept and say things like, “I understand Myra thoroughly, I’ve always identified with her.” Sarne also embraced the casting of Rex Reed as Myron, because, even though he’d never acted in the movies, Reed did appear on TV “camping about, criticizing movies,” said Sarne.

Besides Candy Darling, at least half a dozen other transvestites were tested and rejected, and stars ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Angela Lansbury passed on the project.

Then Fox rejected Sarne’s script and instead went with one written by David Giler, who would go on to write the Alien franchise. Until those sci-fi hits arrived, it didn’t really make much difference which script was being used, because West was writing her own lines and Reed had script approval regarding his scenes. But much to Reed’s shock, there were limits to his script-approval power. When he refused to play the scene as written—he wakes up in surgery and screams, “Where are my tits?”—David Brown broke out the boxing gloves. “I’ll use another actor’s voice and have the offending words reverberate throughout the hospital corridors!” Brown ordered.

In addition to their rejecting his script, Sarne didn’t much enjoy his conversations with Brown and Zanuck, especially those talks that involved Zanuck asking, “How you going to shoot the rape scene? How do you show the dildo?”

“It was like a boys’ night out, you know, all the time,” Sarne recalled.

The women involved also weren’t happy. Mae West claimed never to have heard of Raquel Welch. And it didn’t help Raquel’s esteem that Mae got a larger dressing room or that her costumes, by Theadora Van Runkle, were red and blue and never the flashier chiaruscuro of her costar’s, designed by the legendary Edith Head, or that Sarne took to calling her “Old Raccoon,” or that David Giler told the producer, “She looks like a drag queen.” Indeed, Raquel despised Giler’s screenplay, which forced her to write memos to the producer. She thought the rape scene should begin with her wearing a gorilla costume, like Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus, and the rape should end, she wrote, with “a wild frenzy dance, symbolic of the orgiastic proportions Myra is experiencing at this time.” And she added, “We must be cognizant of the fact that today’s audiences have already seen [ I Am ]Curious Yellow and [ The Killing of ] Sister George and they are going into this film hoping to see something outrageous, which will satisfy them without being vulgar.”

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American actress and sex symbol Raquel Welch in bed with co-star Farrah Fawcett Majors in a scene from Myra Breckinridge. (Photo by Terry O'Neill/Getty Images) (Terry O'Neill/Getty)

Edith Head was much more worried about the vulgar part than the outrageous part. If the two female stars of Myra Breckinridge weren’t speaking to each other, their costume designers were. One day, Head asked her associate, “Thea, do you think we’re working on a dirty movie?”

“Yeah, I think we are,” replied Van Runkle.

That conversation took place on the day of the Orgy. The scene created such a stir on the Fox lot that Welch, who wasn’t scheduled to perform, went so far as to cancel her hair appointment so she could watch the shoot. West did more than watch; she wrote herself an entrance to the orgy: “Oh, this must be what’s called letting it all hang out!”

“The set was closed, but it was the hottest thing in Hollywood if you could get onto the Fox set that day,” Rex Reed later reported in Playboy. “There was one girl walking around, a suit drawn on her body, with four sequins pasted on for buttons. A man in an Indian hat had pinned an enormous fur contraption over his genitals. A singer named Choo Cho Collins wore nothing but a polka-dot bikini painted on her body. There was a man in a jockstrap with a fingerlike thing hanging down from his crotch. A group of nudes stood around a grand piano singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ and there was one man in a bra and panties and another in a half-slip.”

Visitors to the set that day included Robert Fryer, who hadn’t spoken to Sarne in weeks, telling Variety, “We just disagree on everything.” Fryer, who tried to have Sarne replaced by Hair director Tom O’Horgan, arrived at the orgy with two executives from Fox in tow, and as the three of them looked out over a sea of naked bodies, one of the suits remarked, “Well, it’s a today picture.”

“Bullshit!” Fryer harrumphed. “Midnight Cowboy didn’t have pubic hair and filth in it.”

Meanwhile, a little Scandanavian movie titled I Am Curious (Yellow) was well on its way to grossing $20 million in the America alone. Russ Meyer’s soft-core Vixen, made the year before for only $26,500, had already grossed $6 million. That phenomenal 40-to-1 return on investment was second only to Gone with the Wind’s success, which was good enough for 20th Century Fox, which had recently lost millions on Dr. Dolittle and Hello, Dolly!

As its Myra Breckinridge shoot wound down in December 1969—“Everyone has quit three or four times,” said Richard Zanuck. “I think I’ve quit once or twice myself as studio chief”—Fox geared up a sequel to its 1966 hit The Valley of the Dolls. Since King Leer, otherwise known as Russ Meyer, had performed the box-office miracle of Vixens, Zanuck and David Brown thought he could direct the sequel to The Valley of the Dolls.

Actually, it wasn’t a sequel. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was only a title. As Meyer was quick to point out, “The previous film didn’t leave us many characters to deal with. Two of the three leading women appeared to be killed off, though Patty Duke only collapsed on the street.”

A chubby twenty-seven-year-old film critic from Chicago had the honor of writing the script to the title, and his one-line synopsis summed up why he got the job. “It’s a camp sexploitation horror musical that ends in a quadruple ritual murder and a triple wedding,” Roger Ebert told Time magazine. It helped that Ebert also shared Meyer’s major passion in life, but with a twist.

“I’ve considered full and pendulous breasts the most appealing visual of the human anatomy,” Ebert revealed. “Russ saw them differently, somehow considering a woman’s breasts part of her musculature.”

Ebert’s script boasted no fewer than 11 principal characters and “18 couplings,” said Meyer. He especially liked the couplings. “20th is letting me film stronger sex stuff for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls than I’ve ever put in my movies,” he told reporters. “But I’m covering myself with plenty of cutaway shots on the bed scenes in case they chicken out later.”

The Fox execs didn’t chicken out.

As Meyer shot his movie, Sarne edited his on the Fox lot. Sarne was having problems with a scene in which Raquel Welch’s Myra had been assigned the task of performing oral sex on Rex Reed’s Myron. His solution was to insert a number of black-and-white vignettes from Fox’s old movies into the most colorful action of Myra Breckinridge. For the fellatio moment, Sarne found an old Fox movie in which the young Shirley Temple milks a goat and squirts herself in the face by mistake. He plugged that old gem into the Myra/Myron blowjob scene, and nearly laughed himself into a coma.

The scene was also a favorite for the preview audience of 3,000 gay men in San Francisco, where Fox chose to test Myra Breckinridge. According to Sarne, the screening was everything he, Brown, and Zanuck could have hoped for. Then little Shirley milked her goat.

“At that point the fucking theater exploded. It went, ‘Boom!’ like an atom bomb,” said Sarne. “Zanuck is holding his sides—he can hardly sit in his seat … the gays were loving it—everybody was loving it.”

A few days later, back in Los Angeles, Zanuck was no longer laughing. He told Sarne the entire blowjob scene had to be cut, because President Richard M. Nixon had personally phoned his father, Darryl Zanuck, to complain. It seemed that little Shirley Temple had grown up to be a delegate to the United Nations. “And that it’s got to go,” Zanuck demanded.

Sarne persevered, editing his sex-change opus right up to premiere night, June 24. It was a night that only poured salt in Raquel Welch’s wounded ego.  No sooner did she hit the red carpet at the Times Square theater than “two men grabbed me by the arms and pushed me through a side door,” the actress claimed. Mae West had demanded the evening’s last entrance, and her limo had been circling midtown Manhattan for at least an hour to guarantee her that spectacular bow.

At the opening-night party, Mart Crowley saw Mae West sitting alone, except for the company of two musclemen bodyguards. He quickly introduced himself to the screen legend. “I wrote The Boys in the Band,” he told her.

Mae West barely blinked. “I wrote that play 40 years ago,” she replied. “It was called Drag.”

Later, Mae complained to reporters about the “inexperience of the director,” but somehow found time to stroke her fan base. “The gay boys? It looks like they’re taking over,” she said, referring to New York City’s first gay-pride parade and festivities, of which her new movie’s premiere was an unofficial event.

Back in Hollywood, Myra Breckinridge turned into the worst kind of embarrassment for 20th Century Fox. It wasn’t only god-awful. It was a god-awful movie that lost money. Russ Meyer’s equally god-awful Beyond the Valley of the Dolls also opened that June, but took in $10 million on its $2 million budget (a profit that was later lost when Jacqueline Susann successfully sued the company for its use of her title).

The one-two punch of Myra Breckinridge and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls signaled the end for Richard Zanuck and David Brown at Fox. To hasten their demise, the prodigal father Darryl F. Zanuck staged a coup in one of the studio’s boardrooms where he brought up another questionable yet-to-be-filmed acquisition that had been greenlit for production by his son and partner in crime.

Brown recalled the scene: “Portnoy’s Complaint was derailed in the boardroom when Darryl F. Zanuck, in his quest for damning evidence of our cupidity, extracted every prurient word from the script and intoned them to his God-fearing, aging fellow board members.”

The elder Zanuck relished the sound of the script’s many dirty epithets: “Motherfucker!” “Cocksucker!”  “Shithead!” “Blow Job!”

He even went so far as to count the number of times some of these words appeared in the novel: “Cock,” 16 times; “shit,” 29 times; “tits,” 13 times.  “Shove it in me, big one,” Zanuck had to admit, appeared only once. No matter. It was more filth than the Fox bluenoses could handle, especially after the disgrace of Myra Breckinridge and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Brown also reported, “We expected right there and then a hand on our shoulder and a voice to say, ‘You’re fired!’”

Both men eventually heard that voice in 1970, if not felt a hand, at which time they took Philip Roth’s novel to Warner Bros., where it indeed became a worthy addition to their now complete X-rated triptych.

From the book Sexplosion. Copyright 2014 by Robert Hofler. Reprinted by permission of It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.