Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Nicholas Wrathall.
Gore Vidal, who died in 2012 aged 86, was towering figure on the American political and cultural landscape for over half a century. In this documentary we get a brief biographical sketch of Vidal, the son of a US senator, born into a life of wealth and privilege. His father had an affair with Amelia Earheart, and Vidal himself rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous.
An intellectual dilettante, he was an acerbic, outspoken, controversial writer and orator who was a thorn in the side of American politics with his candid opinions. Vidal was an acclaimed author whose many novels explored American politics and history. His 1948 novel The City And The Pillar was one of the first to openly deal with homosexual characters, and he also created the controversial Myra Breckinridge, which explored some taboo subject matter such as transexuals and bisexuality.
Vidal flirted with Hollywood for a period in the 50s and 60s, writing screenplays for films like The Left Handed Gun, which starred Paul Newman as Billy The Kid, Suddenly Last Summer, the adaptation of his own play The Best Man, and he even co-wrote the controversial Caligula. Vidal also worked in a homosexual subtext into a scene in the epic Ben Hur, which apparently upset the star Charlton Heston. And of course there were his fabulous parties and his friendship with Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Vidal enjoyed a long term relationship with Howard Austen, and they even shared a luxurious Italian villa overlooking the Mediterranean, but he refuses to discuss in detail his sexuality or his private life. Vidal was something of a regular guest on numerous television talk shows, where he often butted heads with the likes of the more conservative William F Buckley and Norman Mailer. He refused to suffer fools, spoke his mind about the parlous state of American politics, and he had nothing nice to say about any US President since FDR. He coined the phrase “the United States of Amnesia” when talking about how American politicians seem to have forgotten every important lesson they should have learned from the past.
While it is no hagiography, neither is this the definitive documentary about this complex, enigmatic and larger than life character. Vidal had a very colourful life, including an unsuccessful run for political office, but unfortunately this documentary from Nicholas Wrathall only scratches the surface. This is the first feature film from Wrathall, who got to spend some time with Vidal at his home in Ravello, Italy, before his death. Wrathall gained access to Vidal through the author’s nephew filmmaker Burr Speers, and he succeeds in getting Vidal to open up, albeit cautiously, on camera. Wrathall spent several months working on the film, and was able to access a wealth of research material and archival footage available featuring Vidal.
There are extensive interviews with the likes of academic Jay Parini; actor Tim Robbins, who was a close friend of Vidal; and the late British writer Christopher Hitchens, who offers a more jaundiced opinion. And Wrathall has interspersed a number of Vidal’s more colourful one-liners throughout the film in the form of intertitles.
But the film only skims the surface, touching on one aspect of his life before moving on, so that audiences do not get the indepth, detailed portrait that we were hoping for. Wrathall deftly skips over the thorny issue of Vidal’s sexuality, partly because Vidal himself refuses to discuss it on camera. There is no voice over narration to cohesively draw the many threads together and provide a strong focus for the material. The film is also a little self-indulgent.
Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia runs for a brisk 89 minutes, but it could easily have run for 120 minutes, which would have given Wrathall much more time to probe a little deeper and give us more insights into the life and times of this controversial figure. As it is though, we see the changing face of America in the twentieth century through Vidal’s critical gaze, and the film is as much about America’s history as it is about the man himself.
If nothing else though, the film may well have you visiting the local library or bookshop to find out more about the man himself and his works.