AR at Sundance
THE ILLUMINATED EDUCATION OF GORE VIDAL
by Adrian Maher
American Reporter Correspondent
Park City, Utah
PARK CITY, Utah -- As a dramatist, novelist, actor, social satirist, public debater and troublemaker extraordinaire, Gore Vidal, for the past 50 years has skewered those in power with outrageous monologues and America's sharpest pen. He is a national literary treasure whose witty barbs and deeply researched and reflective historical novels have shed light on politics, sex, art and philosophy.
A new 90-minute original film, "The Education of Gore Vidal" recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and depicts the rich complexity of America's shrewdest social commentator. The movie captures the literary lion in his den, in this case, Vidal's cliff-side villa in the Italian town of Ravello, his home for more than 30 years. The filmmakers culled hours of interviews with their provocative subject, who leads viewers through a maze of subjects including American history, international culture, philosophical thought and above all, himself. A fascinating part of the film is the wide cast of interviewees who shed light on Vidal's work, his life, and his intricate and contrarians personality.
Author George Plimpton has many insightful comments on Vidal's views, his innumerable "celebrity feuds" and the at-times, edgy nature of his companionship. "To meet Gore is always to be on your toes," Plimpton says in film. "He always has some comment to make. Very often, it's not all that comfortable, you know, he loves that sort of thing with you, so it's like a game." But beyond the witty word-play, the film illustrates Vidal's fascination with power and politics and his lifelong and unique vantage point of those who truly pull the levers in America. Vidal grew up the privileged and pampered son of a dynastic family, and spent much of his childhood in the company of his grandfather, T.P. Gore, a U.S. senator. Vidal would often read the Congressional Record aloud to the elderly gentleman, who was blind. From his lofty social perch, the young Vidal was given access to the high and mighty, often witnessing events that "intersected with history itself." He watched Franklin Delano Roosevelt drive down Pennsylvania Avenue after his inauguration, saw Mussolini in the audience at the Italian Opera, and listened on the radio when Neville Chamberlain declared war. But all was not smoothness and comfort. Vidal's father divorced his alcoholic mother when he was nine, and the young scribe turned his emotional pain inward. "If you are a natural storyteller and you are living in a story that you don't enjoy, which was life with mother, you do tend to rely upon the narratives that you tell yourself," Vidal says. Though Vidal was raised to be a politician, he felt compelled to write, especially on issues of government and power, subjects to which he brought the unique perspective of an insider. "You can't do both - a writer must always tell the truth - and a politician must never give the game away," says Vidal in the film. "My family helped found this country and I have a personal, familial feeling about it. I hate what has been done to it." As Vidal grew into adulthood, the conservative views inherent in his lofty social standing gave way to an outsider's rage against injustice. Being a homosexual in American society at the dawn of the Cold War may have played a part. Despite the social tenor of the times, Vidal refused to trim his sails. By age 19, Vidal published his first novel, "Willawaw," an army tale from World War II, drawing on his own experiences as a young soldier. Then, in a great act of personal courage, Vidal wrote what he describes as "the first unapologetic, openly homosexual novel in America" - The City and the Pillar. Following its 1948 publication, The New York Times, Time and Newsweek allegedly boycotted reviews of Vidal's books. Luckily, there was television. Vidal parlayed his rapier tongue into the golden age of live tv as a means to propagate his political views and literary ideas. The film shows priceless archival footage of Vidal sparring with Norman Mailer, Dick Cavett and offering color commentary at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
One Vidal moment was unforgettable: William F. Buckley threatening Vidal with physical violence and calling him a "screaming fruit," after Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi." In the film, some critics like Adam Goodheart compare Vidal to a "bitchy iconoclast," for whom provocation is everything. "All of the signs are there - his taste for irony, his gleeful wickedness, his sense of jealousy, his desire to annihilate other writers and other powerful figures - his desire to be both the guest of honor and the gate-crasher at every dinner party," says Goodheart. "He wants to have it all." "The Education of Gore Vidal," follows Vidal from his home in Italy to America for the 40th anniversary revival of his most successful play, "The Best Man," and captures the highlights of a publicity tour for the final novel in his "American Chronicles," series. The cameras trail him as he pays a visit to the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, where he aims a series of acerbic comments and caveats at what is now America's minority political party. In the film, Vidal seems almost a political and social Zelig - popping up in photos talking with his close friends the Kennedy's, joking with Johnny Carson, working as a political commentator. But the documentary also details Vidal's massive body of literary work - his epic historical novels, "Lincoln," "1876," "Burr," among others, that have secured his reputation as one of America's great chroniclers of political power and persuasion. The film employs some of Vidal's close friends - Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Eli Wallach, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon - to read excerpts from his trove of superb narrative works. "Words translate and transmute raw life, make bearable the unbearable," says Woodward, reading from Vidal's novel 1876. "So at the end, as in the beginning, there is only The Word." It is a curious twist, as Vidal, the great truthsayer reverts to fiction to get at America's historical authenticity. Near the end of the film, in a clip of a televised interview with Vidal, a questioner notes that Tolstoy once said that "the problem with history, is it's never true." Vidal responds, "That's why I'm a novelist: to get at the truth." The documentary is an illuminating account of a fascinating figure that sheds light on a wide arc of American history, especially on our last five, tumultuous decades. That Vidal is one of the sharpest and most hilarious wits on the cultural scene only makes the film more enjoyable.
"The Education of Gore Vidal," is part of the "American Masters" series produced by Thirteen/WNET New York and will air in June of 2003 on PBS.
Correspondent Adrian Maher attended the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, for The American Reporter. A former Los Angeles Times reporter and a longtime contributor to the LA Weekly and other papers, he is currently at work on documentaries for television.