If America hadn’t produced Gore Vidal, we’d probably have had to import him.
Novelist and playwright, wit and patrician-voiced politician, gadfly and scold, we might have been able to buy him at a British sale of surplus public intellectuals from the U.K. when they were selling off the rest of Britain after the war.
But as the delightfully flattering new documentary “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia” reminds us, the late author of “Burr,” “The Best Man” and “Myra Breckinridge” was home-grown to the core, as passionately American as any public figure the republic has yet produced.
Nicholas Wrathall interviewed Vidal, traveled with him as he gave a few last talks, visited his cemetery plot in Washington, D.C. and closed up his Italian villa, winding down his life to his death in the summer of 2012. And thanks to a generous helping of archival footage, we’re treated to a nearly complete life, from his privileged Washington childhood to his emergence as a writer and his scandalous status as one of the first public homosexuals in American history. It’s almost a hagiography, and Vidal would have demanded no less.
He famously quipped, “I never miss the chance to have sex, or appear on television,” a line that says as much about American culture today as any prophesy in our history.
He cracked that “The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country, and we haven’t seen them since.”
Wrathall’s film is both a Vidal’s Greatest Hits — his political campaigns, his memorable political debates with the equally patrician William F. Buckley Jr., his put-downs of Jerry Brown and Reagan, Nixon, Carter and “Junior” (George W. Bush). It captures a hint of the feuds, the pettiness and the contradictions of the man, as well, but only hints.
Yes, he subscribed to “the Conspiracy Theory” of American history, which made him a cynic. His ready command of facts was daunting. Did anybody ever fact-check him? His self-mocking demeanor — “Greed and vanity,” he said, “drives my character.” — masked the way every anecdote or impersonation ended with him, in some way, coming out on top.
An expert witness interviewed here who positions Vidal midway between the humorist/novelist Mark Twain and the literary stylist Henry James might have been right. But there’s a lot of self-promotion, the fabulist about him, a touch of the showman. He was literature’s Orson Welles, a Hollywood peer who also never missed the chance to appear on television during that era.
His books may live on, or be forgotten. But the “Gore Vidal” focuses more on the bright star he was in the culture at large. Friends with Newman and Woodward, the Kennedys, Tim Robbins (in the film) and Gorbachev (likewise), Vidal lived a long life as a bon vivant and a Jeremiah, warning Americans about the National Security State we have built and the threats, from within, to our freedoms from “the ruling class,” which he was born into but rejected.
That he managed so much of this during decades of living abroad — in Italy — should come as little surprise. We didn’t have to import him. He turned out to be our cleverest export.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with profanity
Cast: Gore Vidal, Dick Cavett, Joanne Woodward, Christopher Hitchens, Tim Robbins
Credits: Written and directed by Nicholas Wrathall. A Sundance/IFC Release.
Running time: 1:24