Upon their initial release, Michael Sarne’s early films were the scourge of the critics yet today have achieved something of a cult status. In 1970, The Times described MYRA BRECKINRIDGE as “about as funny as a child molester”, author Gore Vidal called it the second worst he had ever seen, and it appears at number twenty-eight on Medved and Dreyfuss’s list of the Fifty Worst Movies of all Time. However, time has been kind to Sarne’s bewildering take on Vidal’s satirical attack on the traditional roles regarding gender and sexuality in society, and today MYRA BRECKINRIDGE is a popular choice on the midnight movie circuit.
Two years previously, Londoner Sarne employed the skills garnered via former careers as a director of commercials, fashion photographer and actor to make JOANNA. The film is loosely based on the exploits of an ex-girlfriend of Sarne’s called Joanne who would regale him with tales of her real-life adventures concerning a stream of lovers and shoplifting sprees in Saint Tropez. Fascinated by her story, Sarne switched the setting to London, renamed her Joanna, and pitched the finished script (originally conceived as a production for Basil de Ferranti) to Twentieth Century-Fox as “the female ALFIE”. Buoyed by the profits generated from Sarne’s 1966 short-film debut, ROAD TO SAINT TROPEZ, secured as a double-bill back-up to Gordon Douglas’s spy-caper IN LIKE FLINT (1967), Fox granted Sarne a million-dollar budget and teamed him with American producer Michael S. Laughlin (THE WHISPERERS, 1967) in order to bring his vision to the big screen, casting 19-year old catwalk model Genevieve Waite in the title role.
JOANNA opens with a montage of monochrome images of King’s Cross Station, reminiscent of those depicting Waterloo in Schlesinger’s TERMINUS (1961), as a train comes to the end of its journey. The carriage doors open and the scene switches to colour accompanied by an up-beat jazz number as we encounter waif-like, red-head Joanna, dressed in white and red PVC and carrying two huge bright red suitcases. The back of her jacket is emblazoned with her name in bright red letters. The film’s opening credits appear large in red Broadway typeface. Here is an ostentatious, confident young woman who proudly stands out from the crowd."
Joanna takes up residence in the London home of her more conservatively minded grandmother (Marda Vanne) having enrolled on a university art course where she befriends youthful, smooth-talking tutor Hendrik Casson (Christian Doermer). Hendrik shares Joanna’s freethinking moral vision but whilst he does not believe in marriage, Joanna secretly wants to settle down. She is in love with well-heeled lover Bruce (Anthony Ainley) but despite her own views regarding open relationships is somewhat upset when she learns that he is sleeping with Angela (Jane Bradbury) so packs her cases. Hanging out with Hendrik has its advantages, his art attracts interest amongst the affluent London set and it’s not long before Joanna is hopping in and out of the bed-sheets with a number of other wealthy swinging Londoners.
She meets Sierra Leonean Beryl (Glenna Forster-Jones), sister of nightclub owner Gordon (Calvin Lockhart) and lover of English aristocrat Lord Peter Sanderson (Donald Sutherland) and the four share a hedonistic holiday in Morocco during which sardonic Lord Peter ruminates on life and death as he slowly succumbs to disease. Realising that life passes by all too swiftly, Joanna decides to marry Gordon, but trouble lurks around the corner.
Sarne displays much creativity with JOANNA and the film benefits highly from Walter Lassally’s cinematography with its European inquisitiveness that finds beauty in London architecture and artifacts that a British cinematographer’s eye might dismiss due to it being commonplace.
Lassaly has fun with the iconography used to reflect Joanna’s decision to give up a life free of responsibility. A recurring focus on clocks indicate that time will not stand still for love; that in spite of the swinging, hedonistic lifestyle Joanna yearns for true love and monogamy. “Why don’t you grow up?” she shouts at a statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. A final dalliance with her inner-child has Joanna dances amongst flowers, row a boat in the Serpentine, and climb the Albert Memorial. The camera captures the sight of her flimsy dress blowing around her in the wind, granting her fairy-like wings echoed by the Silver Lady mascot on her lover’s Rolls Royce and via a statue of a winged chariot. It is possibly no coincidence that winged chariots are traditionally associated as a metaphor for the expediative passage of time.
The director enhances the opposing duality of her promiscuity with the contrasting colour schemes of Joanna’s clothing, props and set design that largely consist of reds and whites. She drinks from red coffee mugs that contrast against white walls; wears read and white skirts; talks to lovers on a red phone; red shelving stands on white walls that house white sheeted beds; red flowers grace white poolside terraces where Joanna is draped in a white towel and presses a red rose to her pale, white skin.
Sarne’s passion for film is evident and visual nods to cinematic icons and influences grace the screen. A large photo of Marilyn Monroe fills a wall in Bruce’s apartment and the shabby-chic clothes emporium where Joanna buys her clothing is ‘Bus Stop’. Look out, too, for a visual tribute to the influential French film magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma.
Editor Norman Wanstall employs fast-cutting techniques and editing styles reminiscent of Fellini and Alain Resnais that insert events from past and future events in the present that sometimes serves to confuse the viewer. Nevertheless, this technique works in the film’s favour since the overall effect diverts audience attention away from the film’s thin plotline. The storyline is secondary here, and the film is primarily concerned with contrasting the mindset of the 60s London avant-garde crowd with the old-fashioned attitudes and values of British society. Of interest, too, is the film’s use of non-diegetic sound effects to convey inner thoughts and mood: a cash register ring denotes a person’s obsession with money; heartbeats are overplayed when characters feel a sense of urgency; the sound of a boiling kettle used to accompany inner frustration.
JOANNA met with a critical bashing upon its original release, perhaps slated by stuffy reviewers who found much of the film’s politics reactionary and visuals unexciting. Indeed, there is not much to get excited by and I cannot fathom why the film, today has received an 18 rating from the BBFC. There are several minor scenes of violence, a little course language, and one or flashes of breasts and buttocks but nothing you can’t find today in a standard PG. Modern viewers today are more likely to take umbrage at several references towards black characters as “spades”, a term generally considered acceptable in 1968.
Donald Sutherland brings a sense of humility and audience sympathy to his role as the doomed Peter Sanderson despite obvious voice dubbing, but the rest of the cast are decidedly flat. Despite being signed up by Fox for a seven year contract, Genevieve Waite’s star failed to materialize and following a couple of forgettable walk-ons in Hiram Jaffe’s MOVE (1970) and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE and minor work as a soundtrack recording artist she settled down for family life with former singer-songwriter John Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas. Glenna Foster-Jones managed to eke out a living playing bit-parts in British TV dramas and exploitation fare such as ROSIE DIXON – NIGHT NURSE (1978) and THE HUMAN FACTOR (1979) whilst cult movie buffs might spot her fleetingly as one of the Sand Girls in FLASH GORDON (1980). As far Calvin Lockhart he would find some success as Jonathan Lake in the 80s TV series DYNASTY amid walk-ons in the likes of COMING TO AMERICA (1988), WILD AT HEART (1990), PREDATOR 2 (1990) and TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992), though he might prefer to forget running around in black spandex and rubber boots chasing werewolves in the 1974 Amicus clunker THE BEAST MUST DIE.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Michael Sarne
English language with optional subtitles for the hard of hearing
Studio: BFI Flipside
Presented in both Hi Definition and Standard Defitiion