Gore Vidal in Nicholas Wrathall’s "Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia." Photo Credit:  © 2013 Amnesia LLC.  A Sundance Selects Release.

Gore Vidal in Nicholas Wrathall’s “Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia.” Photo Credit: © 2013 Amnesia LLC. A Sundance Selects Release.

Gore Vidal (October 3, 1925-July 31, 2012), the brilliant writer and essayist, said about America that “we forget everything.” In Nicholas Wrathall’s impassioned new documentary, Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia, he gives his subject through interviews and archival footage free rein to rant to his mind’s content. And given that Vidal was perhaps the most astute and articulate liberal of the 20th century, his mind is the issue. It just might be said he knew something about everything and forgot nothing.

Wrathall, an Australian director and producer who became enamored with the idea of documenting this giant figure of American letters, first met Gore through the writer’s nephew, Burr Steers. (Steers is one of the producers on the film.) Wrathall was inspired by Vidal’s courage to “speak truth to power.” In his director’s statement, he claims that critical thinking is a dying art and “people like Gore remind us of how important it is to be able to read between the lines and not take things on face value.” Throughout the piece, he makes it clear how he feels: “He was a unique and brilliant man with an eloquent and witty manner…our loss in Gore’s passing is one that can never be replaced.”

If all this sounds a bit like hero worship on the director’s part or simply that Vidal’s erudition is exaggerated, you’re probably right about the first part. If only this director had taken his own words to heart and looked a little deeper, he could have given us a more unbiased portrayal, even at the risk of showing the man in an occasionally unflattering light. Admittedly, we are treated to history-making confrontation clips with Norman Mailer and William Buckley, two of the brightest opponents whose paths crossed Vidal’s. In Buckley’s case, the effect is never short of patrician; in Mailer’s it’s downright pugnacious and at times below the belt. Vidal, generally, emerges the victor.

Is it too much to expect this filmmaker to be as objective and distanced as a totally honest appraisal of his subject should require? Vidal certainly collected as many enemies as friends. His grandly mellifluous tones can sound at times like the emperor on high — a trait that he carried with him from his first youthful encounters with the media to the last.

Clearly, it’s hard to doubt the director’s dedication to the task, supported no doubt by a working relationship with a member of Vidal’s family. But with enough material at his disposal to rival Gone with the Wind, Wrathall has set a high bar for himself. A younger audience may not be that familiar with the body of the man’s work nor of how often he courted controversy, in print and in person. We are given a generous share of his witty aphorisms, but if the objective of making the film is to bring a fuller appreciation, it would have given the undertaking more resonance if some quotes from the works themselves had been included. Nevertheless, here’s a sampling of a few bon mots, presented as pop-ups throughout:

  • “By the time a man gets to be presidential material, he’s been bought ten times over.”
  • “I am a born-again atheist.”
  • “When a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.”
  • “Love is the last refuge of scoundrels.”

Vidal’s followers are well-represented here but there are few naysayers. Perhaps Wrathall’s greatest strength is when he shows Vidal the man in various aspects of his temperament — pontificating, pausing and coming back with the final punch.

Why should we remember him? Vidal’s prodigious output as a novelist includes such early groundbreakers as The City and the Pillar (1948), one of the first explicitly gay novels in American fiction. When the publisher E.P. Dutton announced in the The New York Times that Vidal would “never be forgiven,” a less ambitious writer might have thrown in the towel. Not Vidal. He simply packed his bags for Hollywood, where he wrote such acclaimed screenplays as The Catered Affair and Suddenly, Last Summer (an adaptation for his friend Tennessee Williams). He may have been in it for the money but his efforts were hardly the work of a hack writer.

He also managed to befriend actors Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, who became lifelong friends. The Newmans were intimately acquainted with Vidal’s longtime partner, Howard Austen, and as Woodward recounts in the film, Vidal was incredibly lucky to find the “one person in your life who fulfills what you need.” Wrathell gives us a glimpse of these stars and others, which adds an obvious bit of glamour to the film. Tim Robbins and Sting are among those that put in a brief appearance.

The Judgement of Paris, Messiah, and Julian, among others, followed his foray into tinsel town intrigue. Myra Breckinridge, Vidal’s fictional transgender star from 1968, was wildly successful in print, and clips from the film with Raquel Welch, which Vidal didn’t have much faith in, are an amusing diversion. Though little about historical novels such as Burr and Lincoln or his essays is presented, such inclusions are better addressed in a PBS biography than a commercially-minded documentary.

Politics came second-nature to him — he ran for office twice, first upstate in Duchess County, New York in 1960 for the House of Representatives, and again in 1982 as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for California Senator. (Though he lost to Governor Jerry Brown, he came in second of nine candidates.) The truth is that he was an insider from birth.

His father, Eugene Luther Vidal, worked as director of air commerce for Roosevelt. He was as much in love with flying as supposedly Amelia Earhart was in love with him. It was Vidal’s maternal grandfather, Senator Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma, however, that played an inspirational role in his life. The early archival footage of father, grandfather and Vidal as a young aviation hopeful is a real treat. Vidal’s nascent charm is evident. And throughout, there are such surprising and welcome inclusions.

As for his mother, Vidal could be lacerating. During one of his last interviews, held at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, he was asked what the one thing in his life was that he would change if he could. With no hesitation, he replied, “My mother.” Then, “I’ll take Whistler’s,” he added, “Anyone else’s.” (That’s a reference to American-born painter James McNeill Whistler’s most famous painting of his seated mother in profile.) His comment brought down the house.

The judicious editing of this towering heap of material was assembled by three editors, including William Haugse, an Oscar and Emmy-nominated veteran, whose repertoire includes the documentaries Hoop Dreams, Stevie, and others. Wisely, they chose to avoid making this a purely chronological investigation. For instance, the choice to place Vidal reflecting at his tomb in Washington D.C.’s Rock Creek Cemetery in the opening sequence seems both apt and moving. He points around the grounds, recalling where his friend Jimmie Trimble from his boyhood (who died before the age of 19 at Iwo Jima) rests as well as other familiar figures. We sense he feels himself in good company.

Another touching moment is when Vidal is permanently departing from La Rondinaia, his beloved home on the Amalfi Coast for many years. We see the incapacitated man wobbling his way through the well-wishes of his staff and neighbors. Such footage could only have been achieved by gaining the trust of Vidal himself.

About his legacy, Vidal said he couldn’t care less. Wrathall obviously does, and feels strongly that people should leave the film wanting to read Vidal’s work and feeling motivated by his courage and beliefs.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

Video courtesy of IFC Films.

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