“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”
I’m not sure there is a better, or more important, example of someone not giving a damn than the late Gore Vidal, who died two years ago this summer. As a public voice for seventy years, Vidal unforgettably ruffled many feathers, not just as a provocateur, but as an intellectual whose opinions often came well before society was ready to hear them. Vidal was the man who warned about the five-percenters well before they became the one-percent; who stated that “homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality;” and warned of the “corporate grip on opinion.”
He was the controversial author, and more controversial public speaker. Vidal was the man who sparred with Joe Pesci in With Honors, lent his pen to some of Hollywood’s most iconic and notorious films, was close with icons from the Kennedys to wonder-couple Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and was even interviewed by Ali G.
Now he’s the subject of Nicholas Wrathall’s new documentary, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, and it’s a perfect time to take seven peeks into his legacy.
7. Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
There is no way a brief documentary can completely tell the story of a man who was a prolific public voice for seventy years. Wrathall, however, does a commendable job outlining Vidal’s chronology as a political commentator and essayist with a mix of intimate interviews with the man himself and clips that span his childhood to his final years. Though his work ranged from the daringly sexual to the completely historical, the film tends to focus on the latter, framing Vidal’s life through the evolution of his country.
Though nephew Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) is a producer on the film, it thankfully avoids the tabloid drama that he and his mother released to the New York Times in November.
6. Gore Vidal’s Feuds
These days, a controversial interview or exchange tends to be a one-sided affair of ignorance, or the random addicted celebrity or author who masks their fiction as memoir. But Vidal’s barbs with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley Jr. remind us of a time when intellectuals, politicians, and celebrities would meet, argue and battle rather than simply aid in the latest viral sensation or partake in a blandly rehearsed debate.
One of Vidal’s biggest “feuds” was with fellow writer Mailer, though Vidal later said it was “nothing much.” On The Dick Cavett Show, Vidal trades barbs with a drunk Mailer, who in turn sets off fellow writer and guest Janet Flanner and host Cavett.
Vidal’s feud with William F. Buckley Jr. was more palpable. Though the Mailer exchange saw Vidal refuse to engage with an angry Mailer, Buckley and Vidal’s debates during the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention were more heated, culminating in the exchange at ten minutes, where the debate escalated to Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley calling Vidal a queer and threatening him, as the writer looked on with amusement.
5. Myra Breckinridge
I’ll never forget the first time I heard of Gore Vidal, picking up a copy of “Myra Breckinridge” at the book store, opening it to the first page that was empty, save for one paragraph that began: “I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess.” It was this line that popped into Gore Vidal’s head and prompted him to write one of his most famous novels.
It also became a ridiculous pulp film starring Raquel Welch, Mae West, and more. The movie couldn’t hold a candle to its source material, and Vidal called it an “awful joke” and the fact that its director, Michael Sarne, never worked in films again: “proof that there is a God and, in nature, perfect symmetry.” Nevertheless, it retains a pulpy progressiveness and a symbol of another time that was, in some ways, more daring. A studio – Twentieth Century Fox – actually invested money in a camp classic about a sex change when today, no studio would dare.
4. Trailer for the Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula
Myra Breckinridge wasn’t the most notorious movie Vidal was involved with. He wrote the script for Caligula, before leaving and getting his name taken off the project after sparring with the director, and watching it shift towards pornography – turning into the infamous film he would later call a “Copenhagen sex show.”
Vidal, however, would return to the material for Francesco Vezzoli’s 2005 short film, Trailer for the Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula – an exercise which once again teamed Vidal’s name with the title. The wonderfully absurd short includes everyone from Courtney Love to Gerard Butler, and sees Helen Mirren return to the material, giving up Caesonia to play a gender-bent Tiberius, a role once played by Peter O’Toole.
3. Bob Roberts
Vidal boasted a handful of uncredited appearances in films – from Suddenly, Last Summer, which he wrote, to Headmaster in Steers’ Igby – but in the ‘90s he also played some pivotal roles, most notably in his first major gig, Senator Brickley Paiste, the old liberal candidate in Bob Roberts.
With Vidal’s involvement, the film acts, in part, like an extension of his political critiques. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, Bob Roberts is about a time “when decent American values were replaced by the cold cynicism of management experts.” It’s a look at the superficiality in politics, though in it, Vidal plays the unwitting victim, arguing that politics is about “reality, not image.”
2. Fellini’s Roma
In 1972, Gore Vidal appeared as himself in Federico Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film. It alternates between Fellini’s own story as a young man in Rome during the ‘30s and ‘40s, and that of a crew seeking to make a film about Rome. The author’s involvement stemmed from Vidal’s presence in the city, where he lived for three decades in a villa overlooking the Amalfi Coast.
Filming Roma was something different for the author. As he recounted: “all hell seemed to break loose behind us … I suddenly realized that it didn’t matter what I said … I was part of [Fellini’s] composition.”
Finally, there’s Ben-Hur. Gore Vidal was one of the many contributing screenwriters to the film, and in the documentary The Celluloid Closet, Vidal offered the doc’s most buzzed about anecdote. The writer revealed that he had spiced up the relationship between Ben-Hur and Massala, adding homosexual subtext to the affair to explain their evolution from friends to enemies.
This, unsurprisingly, infuriated a very Conservative Charlton Heston.