Gore Vidal was a queer national treasure whose life, work, and very last days are brilliantly and thoughtfully captured on film in Nicholas Wrathallâs documentary ãGore Vidal: The United States of American. For those who fondly remember Vidal as one of the few public intellectuals who would debate wars, politics, feminism and more on TV opposite conservatives, for those who are fans of his novels, essays, plays and screenplays, and for those who remember him as a queer force of nature, the film is a walk down memory line. For those post Baby Boomers listen up, Vidal was the real deal in almost too many ways to calculate and if you donât know whom he is. This documentary should be your starting point. It, for all intents and purposes, includes a summer reading list, must see TV, and a filmography.
Vidal was born wealth and privilege in 1925 to a soon to be absent father, who served in FDRâs administration, was an aviator, and who had an affair with Amelia Earhart and a nasty alcoholic Mother, who would marry into Jackie Kennedyâs family. Vidal was raised by his grandfather, the U.S. Senateâs only blind member who represented Oklahoma, and at his uncleâs side in D.C. Vidal became very interested in how our government works. At Phillips Exeter Academy, he fell in love with a follow student, Jimmie Trimble III, but the couple would have little time together, because they both were shipped off to serve in the military during World War II. Trimble was killed at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Vidal followed his grandfatherâs anti-war stance, certainly cemented by the loss of the man he would later refer to ass the love of his life.
After his return from the war, the 19-year-old Vidal thought he would try his hand at writing and the result was his first novel and it was both a best seller and critically acclaimed. His second book ãThe City and the Pillar,ä which also happened to include literatures first explicit gay love scene, was also a bestseller book, but would nevertheless put Vidalâs career as a novelist on hold. The year was 1946 and although enough readers were receptive to the subject matter, the book critic at the New York Times freaked out and refused to ever review another Vidal book. Vidal headed for a friendlier work environment and built a career while making buckets of money writer first teleplays, including ãThe Best Manä a political drama with Henry Fonda which was revived on Broadway last year, then screenplays like ãBen Hur,ä to which he added a gay crush unbeknownst to a clueless Charlton Heston, who played the object of desire.
In the 50s, Vidal met the man with whom he would spend the rest of his life, Howard Austen, and the two would entertain Hollywoodâs cream of the crop at the Malibu cottage they shared, including Paul Newman, who would become a life-long friend. After the coupleâs move to Edgewater, New York, Vidal decided to run for congress. Neighbor Eleanor Roosevelt campaigned for him. Although friends with JFK and Jackie, Vidal, a virulent liberal, was very critical about the presidentâs involvement in Vietnam. During a 1968 debate and the war, just after the deadly altercation between protesters and police in Chicago, with arch rival William F. Buckley, Vidal so flummoxed Buckley that the conservative called Vidal ãqueerâ right there on a major network.
Vidal would show the world queer when his novel was published later that year. He would also show the world, through his delightfully campy, but always engaging satirical novel ãMyra Breckenridge.ä Because the novelâs main character was transgender this for years would be one those naughty books, moms whispered about, most dads found appalling and LGBT teenagers read on the sly, relishing characters who were of their ilk. Vidal and his partner moved to Rovello, a gorgeous village on Italyâs Amalfi Coast, where Vidal would write, on an electric typewriter the remaining of his 22 novels, mostly historical fiction, and countless essays, many blasting Republican presidents, including Reagan, who Vidal deplored. In fact the state of the union at the hands of the former actor, inspired Vidal to run for the U.S. Senate seat in California against none other than Governor Jerry Brown. Vidal lost as did Brown to the homophobic Pete Wilson.
ãGore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,ä through interviews with Vidalâs adoring friends, rivals, a biographer, and others who were in the know, illustrates just how important Vidalâs views, usually in the minority, were concerning American life, from politics to consumerism to sexuality and all points in between. Eighty-six astounding years are expertly detailed, without missing a beat, in the 90-minute film. This lovely doc stands out as one of the best biographical docs this critic has seen in years. Anchored by archival footage that is really an impressive exploration of televised intellectuals getting down and dirty pondering the signs of the time, director Wrathall was thankfully on hand to film Vidal in his final days and sharp as ever. This footage is a virtual goldmine of insight, emotion, and one gay manâs internal and external struggles. Gore Vidalâs place in queer history is as secure as it ever was.
ãGore Vidal: The United States of Amnesiaä will be shown Wednesday, June 26 at 2 p.m. at the Castro Theater in San Francisco as part of Frameline37 San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, which happens June 20 ö 30. For more information go to: www.frameline.org.