The first image we see in Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, a handsome new
documentary byNicholas D. Wrathall, is
of Vidal at the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C., standing over what will
soon be his own tomb.He’s heavier than
we remember, leaning on a cane for balance. He recalls a few friends who are
already buried nearby, mentions his “pathological hatred of death,” and ambles
away. This is the titan at midnight, crumbling at the edges,still formidable.
The movie’s cryptic opening segues into a respectful,
occasionally moving, look back at Vidal’s life. It’s more a tribute than a
full-blown biography, for Wrathall presents Vidal as a kind of intellectual
colossus, utterly devoid of faults, a near perfect thinker, and the last lion
of America’s golden age of liberalism.The movie stops short of hagiography, but just barely.What keeps it interesting is Vidal, a born
entertainer who, even in his final years, could still spin a tale, drop a name,
or do an impression of JFK.
Vidal seems a natural subject for a documentary - there
have been several already, including a 2004 episode of the PBS American Masters
series - for his life was very much like a long, American novel of the 1920s.
His mother was a ditzy alcoholic. His father was an aeronautics instructor at
West Point, had an affair with Amelia Earhart, and wanted to be the Henry Ford
of aviation. The job of raising Vidal was left to his blind grandfather, the
fiery Senator T.P. Gore of Oklahoma.When
Vidal reminisces about the senator, the respect and awe is palpable.T.P. passed on to Vidal not just his liberal
politics, but also a love of literature, and a fearsome oratory skill.
After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, Vidal
went on to become a scandalous novelist, a playwright, a screenwriter, a
television dramatist during TV’s golden age; he was a self-described member of
the ruling class who struggled to escape it; he never referred to himself as
‘gay,’ but wrote books and essays defending bisexual and homosexual lifestyles;
he was deeply involved in politics, and later, was a TV gadfly, appearing on
The Tonight Show a dozen times, as well as many other programs, even lending
his voice to The Simpsons and Family Guy.
Wrathall taps most of those aspects of Vidal’s past
(not, alas, the cartoon work), but focuses mainly on Vidal the political
commentator, the weary traveler who sees America as a series of shams and
failures, the gruff grumbler. Indeed, the movie shows Vidal holding court at
various speaking engagements; all he has to do is call George Bush “a fool,”
and the walls of the joint practically come down.If the movie has a glaring fault, it’s that
we see Vidal go from being a young author of gay themed novels to a
socio-politico bon vivant, with very little in between to illustrate his
journey. Instead, Wrathall relies on nameless, faceless narrators to offer such
bromides as “Gore was everywhere, like a shape shifter.”
The cornerstone of any documentary about Vidal will be
his televised 1968 debates with William F. Buckley. Wrathall includes a hearty
helping of them here, and they still bristle nearly 50 years after their first
airing on ABC. Buckley is especially fascinating – he’s so effete he doesn’t
even know how to show anger. He bites his lip and cranes his neck like a man
having a fit.Vidal doesn’t come off
well either. He and Buckley were both trying so hard to be witty, and so unable
to conceal their hatred of each other, that whatever topic was on the table
grew cold quickly.
Much of the footage comes from late in Vidal’s life,
when he was bothered by physical problems and needed help getting around.
Hence, we see Vidal being helped up stairs, helped across bridges, helped up
hills, helped onto a stage at the 2005 Pen awards, and carted around in a
wheelchair.These scenes are interwoven
with a sort of “greatest hits” collection from Vidal’s past, where the great
pundit railed at this and that, his words rolling over his enemies like a
tank.The effect is entertaining enough,
and if Wrathall intended to depict Vidal as a fallen hero, he sort of succeeds.
Still, a more thorough and less deferential documentary might have considered
some of Vidal’s resounding flops. Remember Caligula?
Vidal’s long life, which included friendships with
Tennessee Williams, Paul Newman, and other bright lights of our popular
culture, can’t be jammed into a 90 minute documentary. For instance, Truman
Capote is barely mentioned, whichis
akin to leaving Joe Frazier out of a movie about Muhammad Ali.The saucier aspects of Vidal’s life, such as
his affairs with women, are not mentioned here, either.His engagement to Newman’s future wife,
Joanne Woodward, is ignored, although there are several odd photos of the
Newmans with Vidal, including one of Vidal and Newman fondling a statue’s
Wrathall doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on Vidal’s
books, or the notion, held by many, that Vidal possessed a great facility with
words but could not quite write a masterpiece. Instead, Wrathall gets cute and
shoots close-ups of Vidal’s pithy quotes, including “Whenever a friend
succeeds, a little something in me dies.” And, “Never offend an enemy in a
small way.”Anyone who doesn't know
better might think Vidal composed blurbs for fortune cookies.
Where Wrathall succeeds grandly is in showing Vidal’s
soft side. It's touching to hear of Vidal's relationship with longtime
companion Howard Auster, and Wrathall is smart to let the camera linger when
Vidal turns melancholy. Watch how Vidal pauses when recalling a childhood
friend who died in WW2, or the way his eyes mist over when he recalls “school
boy’s stuff, at a boys’ school, long, long, long ago.”These moments, and the gorgeous scenery
surrounding Vidal’s Italian home, make the documentary worth seeing. Wrathall’s
movie is like one of Vidal’s novels in that it’s not great, but very good.
(The film has just opened theatrically in New York. Click here to view trailer.)