Graeme Robertson continues his series looking at directors who damaged their careers; next up is Michael Sarne (read the first part on Richard Kelly here, the second part on Michael Cimino here, and the third part on George Lucas here)…
It’s probably likely that a good number of you reading this will have never heard of Michael Sarne, and there is a good reason for that. That reason you ask? The reason is Myra Breckinridge (1970), a warning that you really should not give a onetime pop star complete creative control over a film when they haven’t the faintest idea how to make one.
Based on the best-selling novel by controversial writer Gore Vidal, Myra Breckenridge tells the story of a young attractive woman who heads to Hollywood to inherit the fortune of her late husband Myron’s uncle, all the while pushing various sexual and social boundaries, that would give the average Daily Mail reader several heart attacks.
Starring 60s sex symbol Raquel Welch, actor turned eventual film critic Rex Reed, 30s and 40s screen icon Mae West and the film director John Huston, the film was intended to be as controversial and scandalous as the novel it was based on – it even advertised itself as such.
But with the studio giving free reign to director Michael Sarne, who had only directed one film previously, disaster struck as this former pop star (seriously) quickly revealed himself as a controlling, incompetent, and borderline insane craftsman who made truly bizarre directing choices.
Like insisting that his actors should bicker with each other, making his cast and crews spend hours doing nothing while he went away to “think”… maybe he was thinking “how can I make this film even more unbearably bad”.
Sarne also loved to spend hours filming tables of food, even though said food would only feature in the particular scene for a few seconds, or how he generally seemed to jettison the core meaning behind Vidal’s novel, instead seemingly aiming to make the most incoherent and scandalous film of the decade.
Like when Sarne thought it would bea good idea to edit in old footage of 1930s/40s stars like Shirley Temple into various scenes, including one where a man is raped by Myra in the film’s climax.
Of course, the film when released was a complete disaster and is now regarded as one of the worst films ever made, with some scathing critiques such this comment for TIME magazine which said the film “is about as funny as a child molester. It is an insult to intelligence, an affront to sensibility and an abomination to the eye”.
So what became of the film’s director? Well you can be certain that he was never allowed near a major film again, although the rumour that he was seen working as a waiter, to which original author Gore Vidal said proved that God existed, is unproven and really should be viewed as another one of Vidal’s many witty comments.
The case of Michael Sarne is, to my mind at least, a perfect story of career suicide in Hollywood history. Here you have this up and coming director, given a widely read and discussed novel to turn into a major motion picture with major stars and is given complete control over everything. Then he completely fucks it up, instead of actually attempting to make a good film, he instead decides to indulge in every egotistical whim he has floating around his head.
Say what you will about the directors I have discussed previously, but at least they managed to recover to a certain extent. George Lucas still enjoys the billions that Star Wars made him, Richard Kelly still has a chance to mount a comeback, heck even Michael Cimino, who bankrupted a film studio and brought an end a director driven era of Hollywood, even he was able to get his career back up and running to a certain extent.
Michael Sarne on the other hand , he would have been lucky to direct traffic after this film, instead, he’s been relegated to making minor acting appearances from big films like Les Miserables (2012), to appearing in daytime soapy crap like BBC One’s Doctors.
Don’t expect him to make a directorial comeback anytime soon, not unless the ground opens up and hell comes spewing out in all its fiery glory, and pigs suddenly begin to demand voting rights.