Arts: 'Mike Sarne? Mike Sarne? Why?': Mike Sarne was the British director all Hollywood was raving about. Until he decided to do some raving of his own. John Lyttle talks to the one-hit wonder (two, if you include 'Come Outside') about his comeback

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The Independent Culture
The voice that answers Gore Vidal's phone sounds genuinely aghast. Sure, he'll tell the writer about the call but he can't believe the topic. 'You're doing a profile of Mike Sarne? Mike Sarne? Why?'

Answer: 23 years after adapting and directing Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1970), possibly the most reviled movie in Hollywood history, Mike Sarne is back with The Punk. For Sarne it's cause for celebration: 'I'm a Phoenix rising from the ashes. I've reknitted my soul together.' He's entitled to a measure of hyperbole. After all, he optioned the book in the Seventies, mortgaged his home and finally incurred a personal debt of pounds 500,000 to secure financing for the project, a Romeo and Juliet with gobbing and a dash of drug culture. The gamble is paying off. Cannes took The Punk to its bosom. 'A raging success': Derek Malcolm. 'An impressive comeback': Variety. 'Should be compulsive viewing': The Guardian.

For others less enchanted, the very mention of his name heralds outbursts of bile. Says a former colleague from the Sixties: 'He stood out as a hustler and a name-dropper even then and the Sixties was the age of the hustler and name-dropper.

'When Joanna (Sarne's 1968 breakthrough film about an art student, Genevieve Waite, looking for love around London's swinging mod scene) was released, he was unbearable. And the critics hated it] He thought he had it cracked. British director, no, British artist makes good. He was going places. Do me a favour and ask him if he's still a hustler.'

Hey, Mike, listen, are you still a hustler? Sarne looks up from his lemon tea and laughs. 'Yeah. I'm a hustler. Definitely. I used to deny it when I was really hustling, but that's all over. Once upon a time it wasn't such a dishonourable profession.'

But that's all over . . . 'that' being Sarne's assault on the Major Leagues. LA. Beverly Hills. Malibu. The Studio System. And, ohmygod], Myra Breckinridge.

'One of the worst films ever made,' says Gore Vidal briskly of the adaptation of his bizarre fantasy in which a man changes sex to wage war on men on behalf of the women of America. 'A disaster. Myra was the most pre-publicised film since Gone with the Wind. It made the covers of Time and Newsweek. But you could tell it was going to be a disaster from reading Sarne's script.

'I met him just once, at Twentieth Century Fox. There was a meeting with Dick Zanuck and David Brown, who were running the studio. And he was there. As I left, I turned to Zanuck and Brown and said, 'This time next year Twentieth Century Fox will be in the hands of the receivers.' When I see them now they laugh and say, 'You were right. A year later Fox was in the hands of the receivers.' Hmm. I'd say Mike Sarne is a non-subject.'

'That's Gore,' says Sarne (not Vidal you understand, or even Gore Vidal, but Gore). 'We could have met a second time but when he turned up I had him thrown out of the studio. He did all the chat shows to help kill the picture and tell the world I was a werewolf.' Sarne is obviously happy to discuss Myra. Which is, well, odd. Decades later Vidal's tone is that of a man maintaining control. Sarne, on the other hand, couldn't be more expansive. Yet Vidal survived and moved on. Sarne didn't. From Great White Hope to spectacular self-destruct in one mov(i)e. It took Hugh Hudson Greystoke plus Revolution - and Hudson never trashed his actors the way Sarne did. Sarne's line on Raquel Welch is legendary, a thing for movie buffs to quote: 'She is useful only as a joke.' The critic Rex Reed, cast as the pre-sex change Myra, was merely 'dreadful'. True, Mae West was praised, but John Huston was dismissed as an 'old hack'.

'John (not Huston, not even John Huston, but John) called me worse. We all called each other names. The only reason the producer wanted him around was, if they sacked me, they had a director around. He was a threat. I didn't want him on my set. Besides, I always wanted Mickey Rooney.'

Sarne claims he wouldn't have minded being sacked. He only did it for the money. He was down to his last 20 cents when he sold David Brown on the idea that the book's pivotal moment occurred when the male Myra comes to after a car accident and shouts: 'Where are my tits? Where are my tits?' As in the best Hollywood fables, Zanuck agreed and immediatedly flew him out to the coast, where the production's original blueprint - 'Gore's two unfilmable scripts' - hit the wastepaper bin, along with his casting suggestions.

'Gore mentioned Anne Bancroft. He said Elizabeth Taylor was interested. Can you imagine Anne Bancroft waking up, looking down and saying, 'Where are my tits? Where are my tits?'?' Offered dollars 75,000 for a new screenplay, dollars 50,000 for two rewrites and an option to direct, Sarne agreed.

And here we segue to the wreckage of a hundred press leaks, a thousand publicity handouts: another British talent captured, tortured and slaughtered by the denizens of the Hollywood jungle - an early draft for the David Puttnam saga.

'The problem was I was the foreigner. And I was aggressive. From their point of view, I was difficult. By then I didn't want to do the stupid movie. I wished I'd never given them the idea.'

Sarne pauses. 'As you say, there were combustible personalities. Bobby Fryer, the producer, hated me. I'd say, 'No, I won't do Gore's scene, it's a pile of shit.' And I can remember Raquel bursting into the office crying because Mae wouldn't let her wear white costumes. Raquel thought she was the star and then Mae, a bigger star, arrived. Raquel sat there sobbing, 'I want to wear white, I want to wear white.' I told her Mae was an old broad, it was probably going to be her last film and to leave it alone. Poor Mae used to come to me and ask, 'Why does that girl hate me?' It was a catty female thing.'

Rifle through the clippings and you'll uncover no sweet words for Michael Sarne. Not even for his immortal Cockney ditty 'Come Outside', an early showbiz foray which took him to No 1 in May 1962. 'There was nothing nice said about me. That's true. Not one thing from beginning to end. Not one.'

Myra's colossal failure - Time described it as being 'about as funny as a child molester' - made Sarne a virtual untouchable. 'I couldn't work on major motion pictures for a very, very long time. I made two films in Brazil, worked on scripts for directors like Polanski. I worked on Tess. A few commercials. Divorced. Virtually retired.'

Today both Sarne's wallflowers, Joanna and Myra, have become cult beauties. And if Joanna's vision of youth culture got him in the door first time around, The Punk's updated version may grant him, at the age of 53, that elusive second chance.

Does he have any regrets? 'Well, I do remember Brigitte (not Bardot, not even Brigitte Bardot, but Brigitte) saying to me, 'Don't go to Hollywood. Don't work there. They eat people like you and me alive'.'

'Everyone hates him. He looks like a wolf with rabies.' Rex Reed, star of 'Myra Breckinridge'.

'There's this anti-American thing he has. He dresses all the baddies in red, white and blue. God, I hate him.' Robert Fryer, co-producer of 'Myra Breckinridge'.

'He made me cry until my stomach would feel like it was dropping out. I felt like I was going to faint dead away.' Raquel Welch, star of 'Myra Breckinridge'.

'The best director I ever had.' Raquel Welch.

'I don't understand it. Bobby and John Kennedy, they were assassinated. But no one touches Sarne. His script for Myra Breckinridge should be hermetically sealed.' David Giler, co-writer of 'Myra Breckinridge'.

'I hope to God we get rid of Sarne next week.' James Gresson, co-producer 'Myra Breckinridge'.

'I would never consciously do anything bad.' Mike Sarne, director of 'Myra Breckinridge'.

'Everything You've Heard About Myra Breckinridge is True]' The movie's notorious copy line.

Mike's (not Sarne's, not even Mike Sarne's, but Mike's) 'The Punk' plays the 17th Cambridge Film Festival today (0223 352001)

(Photograph omitted)