Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gore Vidal, R.I.P.

I wouldn't consider myself particularly a fan of Gore Vidal. I’ve only read one novel of his, seen one movie based on a play of his, and watched one teleplay he wrote.

But the one novel was Lincoln, which I thought was brilliant, so much so that when reading biographies of Lincoln, I often felt that I’d read about the events and personalities before. And I had – from Vidal.

The one movie was The Best Man, which was as prescient an analysis of the future of politics as you could get in the early 60s. The Best Man was satire, black humor, but it came mostly from the portrayals, especially that of Cliff Robertson as the over-the-top conservative candidate. Sure, Henry Fonda was as sanctimonious as ever as Robertson’s sensitive, indecisive opponent, but that was as much a satire on Fonda’s own reputation as anything else. Reading the actual play, the black humor is much more evident, but whichever version one prefers, they were both terrific.

The teleplay was “Summer Pavilion,” which he wrote for the Golden Age anthology Studio One, and it had a disturbing, psychological quality that made it a cut above many of the episodes released in the DVD box set from a couple of years ago. A common misnomer is that all TV from the Golden Age was Golden – well, it wasn’t, and a lot of it was poorly written, at least in retrospect. Vidal’s work was as strong today as it was back then.

So Gore Vidal had talent. Gore Vidal could write good stuff.

But he also wrote crap, like Myra Breckenridge and Caligula and virtually all of his political nonfiction. His suggestion that he inserted a homosexual subtext into his work on the screenplay for Ben-Hur is stretching it (although it does produce one of the better Hollywood quotes, as William Wyler said to Vidal, “Don’t tell Chuck {Heston}, he’ll crack up.”) His essays, such as the one he wrote after longtime antagonist William F. Buckley Jr’s death (“RIP WFB – in Hell”) were usually execrable. About his personal life, the less said the better.

I think the most enjoyment I got from Vidal was from his debates with Buckley during ABC’s coverage of the Republican and Democrat conventions in 1968. Vidal provoked Buckley into a rare loss of his celebrated cool. (At one point Buckley called Vidal a “pink faggot” and threatened to “sock” him, “and you’ll stay socked.”) Personally, I loved Buckley’s response, but I can understand how he might have regretted losing control.

Subjective opinion: Gore Vidal wasted the God-given talent he had, which could have been even greater had it been used in the right manner. He might well have hated me for saying that.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth is credited with having said, “If you can’t say something good about someone, have a seat next to me.” Gore Vidal died today at the age of 86, and I have said something good about him - several things in fact. However, I also subscribe to the idea that we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, and in that spirit I think I’ll just leave well-enough alone.
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