The first image we see in Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, a handsome new documentary by Nicholas 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, which is 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 buttocks.
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.