AUGUST 1, 2012
Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1948 (Library of Congress).
Gore Vidal died on Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in Los Angeles.
IN THE “BLACK WINTER” OF DECEMBER, 1953, novelist Gore Vidal checked his bank book and made a life-altering discovery. The novel, while not exactly dead, was killing him financially. “I had been a novelist for a decade,” he would later write. “I had been hailed as the peer of Voltaire, Henry James, Jack London, Ronald Firbank and James T. Farrell. My early, least satisfactory works had been best-sellers. Though not yet 30 years old, I was referred to in the past tense, as one of those novelists of the 1940s from whom so much had been expected.” He was also broke.
This was a bit of long-range fallout from a decision he’d made five years before to publish The City and the Pillar, a ground-breaking novel that provoked shock waves by taking the homosexual relationship of its two central characters in unjudging stride. Vidal’s grandfather, Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, urged him to bury it — he was preparing his grandson for a political career — but young Vidal opted to take the road less traveled and went public with his creation. The book became a bestseller but the furor it touched off was costly. Orville Prescott, critic and editor at The New York Times, told Vidal’s publisher he would never again read, much less review another book by Vidal. Time and Newsweek followed suit. In the years from 1948 to 1953 this amounted to a professional death warrant.
“Driven by necessity,” wrote Vidal, “I took the plunge into television, the very heart of darkness, and to my surprise found that I liked it.” He had a 10-year plan — a straightforward sacrifice of time with the goal of becoming financially independent for life before sitting down to his next novel. In 1954 alone, he was credited with 20 TV plays. (“And that’s not counting the 20 I wrote that year under other names,” he told a 1994 audience at the Museum of Television & Radio.) For his first TV play, Dark Possession, he was paid $750 — and this in a period when taxes took a bite of 90 percent.
He was in no mood to quarrel over figures; TV had become such a phenomenon that there were other, weirder rewards. “It was a miraculous time for the writer. A play would be done live for as many as 20 million, 40 million people — you’d be walking down the street the next day and overhear people at the corner, discussing your play. One knew what it was like to live in Athens in the time of Pericles.” (Unfolding this analogy 40 years later, Vidal stopped himself to chuckle; “Imagine me, erring on the side of optimism.”) This bright epoch came to an end several seasons later with the rise of quiz shows, “which were cheaper to produce — but for a time television was a writer’s medium. We created it.”
Hollywood became a logical destination. Vidal accepted a contract at MGM and in quick succession wrote two scripts for producer Sam Zimbalist, The Catered Affair and I Accuse, as well as one for British mogul Michael Balcon, The Scapegoat. He participated in the writing of Ben-Hur. Meanwhile, Visit to a Small Planet, which began life as a TV play, became a Broadway hit — “a successful play will earn its author a million or more dollars,” he observed in a 1976 essay about Tennessee Williams — and so his 10-year plan had by 1959 come to an early fruition.
He cleverly expanded a Williams play, Suddenly Last Summer (1959), subtly harmonizing with and preserving the playwright’s voice yet providing a stronger external structure, and magnifying the original like a rose in a ball of crystal. He wrote still another Broadway hit, The Best Man, a political shadow-play devised in part to help John F. Kennedy. “I thought it would be fun to do a play in which the sexually promiscuous man is politically the noblest man in the United States, whereas the All-American boy with the perfect marriage is a would-be Hitler.” (JFK suggested a line that went straight into the play: “When you want to slip the knife to a politician, tell him: ‘You always know where to reach me.’”) After a try at running for Congress himself, Vidal returned to the novel, and when Julian was published in 1964, none other than Orville Prescott was there to greet it, coming out of retirement to end the Times boycott.
Vidal didn’t care. Free to fail if need be, free to pursue whatever topics he pleased at his own pace, he created the body of work for which he is best known and will be remembered. His historical novels, especially Burr and Lincoln, have widely influenced how Americans view their own history. (The notion of Lincoln as a willful, steely genius — as opposed to the folksy demigod of Carl Sandburg — has gained enormous currency in the last three decades, and this is Vidal’s doing.) His “hyper-novels,” particularly Myra Breckinridge and Myron, infuse contemporary American life with an edge of dreamy, downright pagan farce. His essays are a body of work unto themselves — a lucid, often hilarious exploration of our political and cultural life. In the piece recalling his career as a dramatist, Vidal declares: “The novel is the more private and (to me) the more satisfying art. A novel is all one’s own, a world fashioned by a single intelligence, its reality in no way dependent on the collective excellence of others.”
And yet clearly Vidal benefited as a novelist from his time spent writing scripts. There is an almost violent difference in scale and power between the novels that preceded his career as a dramatist and those which come after. Conversations, exposition, all become sharper in Julian, and beyond; individual episodes become more concentrated. Despite the upholstered luxuries of their prose, a dramatist is quietly at work in the basements of Myra, Burr, and Lincoln, making sure things upstairs heat and cool on schedule. Size — the most obvious difference in Vidal books Before and After — is likewise no accident; the narrative energy delivering one’s attention across these Michener-like spans derives from a ruthless sense of necessity that operates in even the tiniest of scenes.
“I am not a naturalist playwright. In fact, I am not a playwright at all, though I seem to be turning into one,” he explained in 1966. “Primarily I am a prose writer with axes to grind, and the theatre is a good place to do the grinding in. I prefer comedy to ‘serious’ drama because I believe one can get the ax sharper on the comedic stone. […] When the mask is Comedy, the face beneath can be that of […] a hanging judge and the audience will not be alarmed; they will laugh and in the laughing listen, sometimes to good effect.”
Writing for the stage and screen continued to attract him, as a healthy diversion between books. For the quarter century that followed Julian he wrote a dozen film and TV scripts, some negligible: Is Paris Burning (1967); The Last of the Mobile Hotshots (1969). The former was a favor he did for producer Ray Stark, rewriting an earlier pass by Francis Coppola. The latter was a steamy gothic comedy spun from a Tennessee Williams one-act, The Seven Descents of Myrtle, for director Sidney Lumet. A “mistake,” was Vidal’s cheerful verdict years later, “as I was in demand after Suddenly Last Summer to adapt practically anything that Tennessee wrote.”
Most of Vidal’s dramatic work involves adaptation. His early teleplays include two highly effective distillations of William Faulkner (Smoke; Barn-Burning) as well as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, which he renders in six or seven scenes. Part of this preference was practical: “I dislike writing treatments,” he explained, “those pidgin-English outlines which are expected to record in detail the events of an unwritten play… Easier, I should think, to divine the nature of an unborn child.” What’s more – because sponsors and their advertising teams seemed compelled to interfere with original work – it was easier to accept an assignment on a story that was already approved. Yet he was enthused about adaptation for more energetic reasons.
“How is a novelist born?” he once asked, recollecting his boyhood: “Whenever I read something I liked, I had a tendency to start writing my own novel in competition.” Discussing Romulus, a 1966 Broadway production he adapted from a German original by Friederich Duerenmatt, he added: “In our ‘serious’ theater it is thought parasitic for a writer to adapt the work of another writer for the stage… Yet the Greeks, Romans and Elizabethans were primarily adapters. Shakespeare was the greatest adapter of them all… [He] used anything that came to hand; if anyone had a plot he fancied or a character he wanted to explore, he took it.”
The excitement of taking a ready-made story surely activates Vidal’s imagination the way writing about historical figures ignites his best novels. Dress Gray (1986), a movie for television based on the best-selling novel by Lucian Truscott IV, centers on a sexually tinged murder between cadets at West Point. This was right up Vidal’s alley on several grounds. He was born at the Point, where his father was an instructor; the frank treatment of homoeroticism in macho military disguise allowed him to amplify what he’d trail-blazed in The City and the Pillar, in more receptive times. The script had first been drafted in the late 1970s, originally for a theatrical release: I’d run across a copy then and was struck by the punchy brevity of the stage directions, very much in Vidal’s voice, which memorably specified a close shot of two cadets squaring off in profile nose-to-nose in attitudes which expressed both their war with each other and their attraction.
The Palermo Connection (1989) directed by Francesco Rosi is a cleanly delineated if too slowly paced drama of an idealistic American politician, cornered by the mob while on vacation in Sicily with his wife. The poet Tonino Guerra – who also wrote scripts for Antonioni, Fellini, Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos – made an earlier pass, based on the novel by Edmonde Charles-Roux. Vidal then rewrote it into American vernacular and the film’s dialogue is particularly sharp with his political savvy.
Perhaps we should define what we mean by “politics” here. Given that he’s been a loyal scourge of U.S. war policy from Vietnam through Iraq, not to mention the self-hypnoses of our mass-media and the countless disastrous choices of most of our Presidents, we might easily expect Vidal to thunder sermons in his imaginative work. He resists this. As a dramatist his politics are neither right nor left wing but instead center on movements and tradeoffs of power between matched adversaries at intimate range. These conflicts are so concentrated in turn that we are invited to think, and in thinking contemplate, a skeleton of moral sense beneath – one that richly suggests alignments and treacheries within society as a whole.
His characters are acerbic. Even his crudest, least articulate protagonists such as Billy the Kid express a forceful skepticism that energizes their actions as they attract both loyalists and killers. One woman asks Billy, after he’s killed so many men that his doom is inevitable: “Do you feel you been bad?”
“I don’t think about it.”
She persists. “It’s not right to kill.”
“It’s right to live,” he replies, “and I wouldn’t be living if some other people hadn’t died along the way.”
The Death of Billy the Kid (1955) was Vidal’s personal favorite of his many early teleplays. It was also the most severely criticized, for reasons he found wrong-headed. Some complained that the title gave away the ending. Others decried it for presenting us with a cold-blooded protagonist without explaining him psychologically. “I was aiming, no doubt inaccurately, at tragedy and I wanted a massive effect, a passionless inevitability which I believe, all things considered, the play’s production achieved.” The life of William Bonney and his fatal squaring off with his former friend Pat Garrett originally interested Vidal as the theme for a novel. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the legend, but Billy himself proved a considerable problem: How to show him? What, after all, could one say about a cold-blooded little killer who, in the words of a noted psychiatrist, was ‘an adenoidal moron?’ I could not in all honesty make him an introspective human being aware of the startling design he was creating … Billy was precocious, as the nation was, ruthless, as the nation was and still can be. Despite the cruelty of his ways there was something in him which struck fire in the imagination of others and those who knew him realized early in his progress that he was not ordinary, that he was meaningful in a way few men are; that the meaning was essentially dreadful was a problem only to the reflective man. His appeal was to those deeper emotions which he evoked by the mere fact of existing.”
Vidal managed to convey this mystery in ten or eleven highly effective scenes – 47 minutes of screen-time with the balance of the hour going to commercials – and he had the benefit of a lead performance by Paul Newman, who as he saw it “managed with discretion and power to interpret a nearly impossible role: he had to be, simultaneously, both wicked mortal and potential godling.”
A lifelong friendship with Newman was one result. Another, less satisfactory, was the film directed by Arthur Penn called The Left Handed Gun (1958), also starring Newman, whose screenplay by Leslie Stevens used – at most – two or three lines of Vidal’s play, and reinterpreted Billy as a Troubled Youth in the James Dean mold, petting his stomach as he tilts back against the nearest wall, squinting at an unseen heaven and mumbling to himself about Havin’ Feelin’s – or Not Havin’ ‘Em. … Imagine an aw-shucks Hamlet without words, and a six-gun to do his thinking.
Vidal was appalled (“Arthur Penn is an Iago in permanent pursuit of an Othello,” he laughed, decades later) but at the time coldly put this behind him, as he would two years later when the film version of Visit to a Small Planet (1960) torched the nuances of his play to become a vehicle for Jerry Lewis. At the very least these wasteful adaptations provided the paydays with which Vidal could complete his planned-for treasury.
The Best Man (1964) nearly met the same downfall. Originally Frank Capra was set to direct, and he proposed new scenes filled with his own brand of sentiment and emotion. He wanted the Presidential candidate played by Henry Fonda to dress up like Abraham Lincoln as he addressed the delegates on the floor in an opening scene. Fortunately, Fonda agreed that this would be a disastrous choice, giving Vidal the clout to show Capra the door and replace him with Franklin Schaffner, who had directed his debut Dark Possession in 1954.
As a result The Best Man is Vidal’s most original film, the one fully expressive of his dramatic sense and world-view. Its closest rival is Billy the Kid (1989), Vidal’s final screenplay, which lifts the curse of The Left Handed Gun and, almost as a valedictory, brings to life his original ambitions for the story. (Unfortunately the passage of thirty years means it must compete amid a whole playground of other Billys – especially Rudy Wurlitzer’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, directed by Sam Peckinpah.) Thus The Best Man remains most purely a creature of Vidal’s imagination and expertise.
“I don’t mind your headline-grabbing and crying ‘Wolf’ all the time,” the outgoing President tells a fear-mongering super-patriot played by Cliff Robertson: “It’s par for the course trying to fool the people but it’s downright dangerous when you start fooling yourself.” Later, when the conscientious front-runner played by Fonda agonizes over whether he should use an item with which he could destroy Robertson – solid proof that this holier-than-thou macho had a homosexual affair in the army — the President scorches such reluctance: “Power is not a toy we give to good children; it is a weapon, and the strong man takes it and he uses it.” That line is a direct quote from Vidal’s late grandfather Senator T.P. Gore. It is this lived-in quality to his insights that keeps his politics from being preachy.
The film’s performances, rhythm and black & white cinematography all were superbly directed, but when the picture opened at the Cannes Film Festival Vidal discovered to his lasting irritation that the posters for Le Bon Homme lining the Croisette made no mention of his own contribution but instead proclaimed “Un film de Franklin Schaffner.”
This led to a particularly nasty trip through the looking glass a decade later, when (following the example of Fellini 8 ½, Fellini Satyricon and Fellini Roma) he wrote an original epic which he christened Gore Vidal’s Caligula (1979). Ironclad contracts guaranteed this, but the subsequent ordeal ended with Vidal suing to remove his name altogether. “I should have directed it myself,” he later lamented. Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Geilgud and Helen Mirren no doubt share his pain. They were seduced by his screenplay, only to find themselves in bed, so to speak, with Italian director Tinto Brass (“Tinto Zinc,” O’Toole called him) and Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. The result is an incandescent mess — a hardcore porno with great dialogue. Geilgud’s parting speech to O’Toole, as he bleeds into his bath and makes a Houdini-like escape from these proceedings, has the sharp music of what-might-have-been: “I’ve lived too long, Tiberius, and I hate my life … For a man to choose the hour of his own death is the closest he will ever come to tricking fate.”
In his 1976 essay: Who Makes the Movies? Vidal asserted that, “For all practical purposes, the screenwriter continues to be the primary creator of talking film.” Apart from such exceptions as Hitchcock, Welles and Bergman, a typical film director is at worst a brother in law and at best a technician, a “hustler-plagiarist who has for twenty years dominated and exploited and (occasionally) enhanced an art form still in search of its true authors.”
This essay kicked up an entertaining controversy about the making of Ben-Hur. In addition to showing off one writer’s mind in clever action it repays close study as an example of how we might track any individual’s contribution to the “authorship” of a given film, even in the context of the Hollywood assembly line.
Vidal flew to Rome with producer Sam Zimbalist and director William Wyler in the spring of 1958. His assignment was to develop a psychological motivation for the quarrel that erupts between two former friends, Massala and Ben-Hur — a feud that must fuel a whole four-hour epic, “until” as Vidal describes it, “Jesus Christ suddenly and pointlessly drifts onto the scene, automatically untying some of the cruder knots in the plot.” Wyler and he “agreed that a single political quarrel would not turn into a lifelong vendetta,” so Vidal proposed something primal: “As boys they were lovers. Now Messala wants to continue the affair. Ben-Hur rejects him. Messala is furious. Chagrin d’amour, the classic motivation for murder.”
This being the 1950s, the story being an adjunct to the Bible, and the star being Charlton Heston, Wyler understandably balked, but Vidal reassured him: “We won’t really do it. We’ll just suggest it. I’ll write the scenes so that they will make sense to those who are tuned in. Those who aren’t will still feel that Messala’s rage is somehow emotionally logical.” Wyler, his back to the wall with an otherwise unworkable script, agreed to the scheme, but issued a now legendary warning: “Don’t ever tell Chuck what it’s all about, or he’ll fall apart.”
Heston, waking up at the butt-end of this punchline decades after the fact, understandably — if grimly — disputed this yarn for the rest of his life, carrying his campaign from the pages of Time magazine to the midnight airwaves courtesy of Bill Maher. “What are we to make of Gore Vidal?” he asked, in a letter circulated to a number of Op-Ed pages. “He’s determined to pass himself off as a screenwriter, particularly of Ben-Hur… He was in fact imported for a trial run on a script that needed work. Over three days (recorded in my work journal), he produced a scene of several pages which Wyler rejected after a read-through with Steve Boyd [the actor playing Messala] and me. Vidal left the next day.” In cold fact, Heston’s “work journal” — published as The Actor’s Life in 1978 — shows Vidal was on the Ben-Hur set not just for three days, but well over a month.
But to harp on this tussle misses the key point of Vidal’s essay, which was “to show the near-impossibility of determining how a movie is actually created.” Memories are fickle; only producer Sam Zimbalist (who preceded Wyler onto the project and brought Vidal aboard) knew which of the five writers involved was responsible for which contribution, and he died of a heart attack before credit could be arbitrated. Karl Tunberg (an MGM contract writer involved years before, as well as a former President of the Writer’s Guild) received the sole screenplay credit; in treating the episode, Vidal’s purpose was not to torment Heston but to belatedly establish himself and playwright Christopher Fry as the actual authors of the Ben-Hur script. He was also aiming a heat-seeking missile at the heart of the auteur theory.
To test its accuracy I spent the better part of a month studying as many Vidal teleplays and movies as I could lay my hands on — twelve, in all — as well as both texts of Visit to a Small Planet (stage and teleplay; the kinescope has been lost, alas); Heston’s journals; the Christopher Fry screenplay for The Bible; and – most tellingly – the multicolored shooting script for Ben Hur archived at the Academy library, in which each page is dated. What emerges fast – especially watching the films and kinescopes chronologically – is that Vidal’s verbal signature is not just identifiable, but his screen work vivid and continuous from film to film. One could well imagine Turner Classics bringing out a boxed set, “The Films of Gore Vidal.”
An unbroken line of development comes right at the beginning, when he was at MGM working with Zimbalist. Richard Brooks may have directed The Catered Affair, but the film bears no visible relation to The Professionals or Bite the Bullet, films Brooks later wrote himself and which very much bear his stamp. What The Catered Affair most resembles is the film Vidal wrote directly after — again for Zimbalist, directed by its star, Jose Ferrer: I Accuse. The complexities of the Dreyfuss case, which rocked the French government to its roots in the 1890s, are laid out in thirty leanly crafted, straightforward scenes. The abundance of treachery and corruption give Vidal’s best wits and insights room to joust and maneuver.
“All our men dislike change on principle,” a kindly officer warns our hero in an early scene, “but it is something of an innovation — having a Jewish officer.”
Dreyfuss, who will nearly be crushed by such institutional Anti Semitism, is someone we need get to know and love in the space of a very few scenes. The traps the fates are laying for him are so intricate they will require the greater part of our attention. Thus, early on, Captain Dreyfuss finds his young son kneeling at play before a little army of toy soldiers.
— How is General Dreyfuss tonight?
— I stopped Kaiser.
— Did, eh? Supply lines intact?
— Yes, captain.
— Communications established?
— Yes, captain.
— Reserves in readiness?
— Yes, captain.
— Good. Carry on, General.
A man’s tenderness toward his boy and his devotion to professional duty, simultaneously established in one compact encounter.
After drafting Ben-Hur, Vidal was invited to England by Michael Balcon to do The Scapegoat (1959) based on a Daphne du Maurier story. Director Robert Hamer is credited with “screenplay,” Vidal with “adaptation,” but the tensile strength of the story’s arc and the sharp, incantatory metrics in the dialogue put it on the same shelf as The Catered Affair and I Accuse.
In The Scapegoat, Alec Guinness plays a quiet, unaccomplished Englishman on holiday in France. He and a local nobleman chance across one another in a pub and discover they are physically identical – virtual twins. This is amusing to the traveler, but to the aristocrat (facing deadly financial pressures) it inspires, in the manner of Strangers on a Train, a murder scheme. The innocent Englishman wakes up with a hangover and discovers he’s been forced to take over his seedy lookalike’s whole complicated identity, complete with a nagging wife, a racy Italian mistress, a French chateau and a half-blind grand Duchess for a mother, played wonderfully by Bette Davis.
Nobody seems to catch on to the imposture. The resemblance is that total. If anything, the dowager is merely irritated at the uncharacteristic generosity her “son” is suddenly showing to the local poor. She demands to know:
— What’s happened to you while you were away? It’s almost as if you were a different person.
— I am, as I’ve been trying very hard to explain.
— You can’t go and get mixed up in politics.
— You can’t go and let people starve.
For all that he’s been cornered into a game that may kill him, this stranger finds he likes wielding power and quickly cultivates the wit to defend it.
Because Vidal entered the field as an established novelist, he had a practiced grasp of narrative. He also had humility about the requirements of writing for actors, and took to heart a piece of advice from Henry James: “Theater is not an art but a secret.” His people don’t speak prose; they address each other straightforwardly, without embellishment. However sharp the rejoinders, we never “hear the dialogue;” we hear the characters. “People do not listen to words,” he discovered when writing for television. “This is due perhaps to habits acquired in everyday life, where conversations are dependent not so much upon the use and arrangement of words and ideas as on certain familiar tones of voice, gestures, hesitations.”
Finding the right structure became key: not in any formulaic, storytelling-by-the-numbers sense, but of finding the right fulcrum – for example, slowing down the story of Billy the Kid, concentrating on key moments in contrast to the severely limited running time of the piece, or in The Best Man of moving back and forth from one rival camp to another with a soon-to-be-former President acting as a humble foil-figure and go-between. Brought aboard to script The Sicilian (1987), Vidal told director Michael Cimino, “I don’t ‘see’ anything, so don’t bother me with action. I’ll do the characters and introduce the themes.”
In Dark Possession, the handsome young Doctor played by Leslie Nielsen stamps his feet as he comes into the foyer and greets his fiancee.
— They’re outside! The new horses.
— They must be freezing! They’re not used to our winters.
— Oh! They’re all right.
A completely innocuous exchange (one Vidal later deleted from the published text), but that by its rhythmic brevity catches the frosty breath and nervous mood of a snowy day, vital to moving forward a house-bound who-done-it. Notice, also, the light-footed way the words “they’re” and “they” repeat from speaker to speaker. Repetition is a trait one can mark in any number of excellent playwrights, but how words repeat and why bears the imprint of an individual mind and ear. David Mamet’s people repeat forcefully, like boxers, proving points with verbal punches. In the work of Christopher Fry, repetition hits the lyric organ-note of a responsorial psalm.
In Vidal’s case, repeat-words are a subtle, organic constant, and advance his notion (a key theme in all his work) that even the most casual conversation is a form of duel. “This can’t be happening to me,” says the domineering mother in Summer Pavilion. Her daughter shoots back: “This isn’t happening to you, Mother. It’s happening to me!”
Wit fights fire with fire; the snap of provocation and response that are Vidal’s trademarks give even routine bits of exposition a clever intensity. Notice the melodic repetitions in The Catered Affair, in which a New Jersey mother played by Bette Davis has this exchange with her son:
— Eddie, your sister’s marrying Ralph.
— That’s good [he grunts].
— That all you got to say?
— Eddie, your sister’s marrying Ralph.
— I heard you, that’s what you said, she’s got him, so good.
— I never seen less family spirit.
— Who’s got spirit? I got nothin.’ Next month in Fort Dix, the army’s got nothin.’
Blue collar reality isn’t exactly Vidal’s native beat — he was radically adapting The Big Deal, a teleplay by Paddy Chayevsky — but the above conversation, the very existence of Eddie (new to the script), indeed all of The Catered Affair as it now stands, is original Vidal dialogue. To make a seamless film-script out of this chamber drama required throwing everything away but the original intention. Theme, anguish, basic premise — these are Chayevsky’s, and Vidal honors them with bold improvisation. Ironically, in 2007, when Harvey Fierstein and John Bucchino commemorated their love for this movie by turning it into a Broadway musical, it wasn’t until last minute that somebody actually compared scripts and realized they were adapting Vidal while tickets were being sold on the Chayevsky name. Vidal took the apologetic phone call that followed in stride: “I did not wish them ill and made no fuss.”
The narrative voice of his novels is a droll, mischievous, Orson Wellesian presence — but Vidal escapes this entirely when writing dialogue for actors. He can mimic old men, peasants, Southern belles, visitors from outer space with equal freedom and absence of strain. His excitement is contagious in the early scripts. Certain familiar obsessions crop up. Historical references abound — in Dark Possession, the elderly father recalls that he heard Lincoln at Gettysburg, “but preferred the speech made by the other fellow.” Aphorisms about power crop up everywhere — the Vidal songbook in this line is The Best Man, with its hit singles, “Power is not a toy we give to good children,” “The self-made man often makes himself out of pieces of his victims,” and “That man has all the qualities of a dog, except loyalty.”
A defining Vidalian trait might be termed the “silent turnabout.” In I Accuse, when her husband has been arrested for treason and the whole world is against her, Mrs. Dreyfuss notices with dread that the lawyer she engaged has gone ominously grave. “When you came to me,” he tells her, “I said I would defend your husband if I believed him innocent…” (She turns to face him, and we brace ourselves, but are surprised:) “Well — I do. …I’m more than ever convinced.”
Such peripeteia form the basic grammar of a dramatist. Vidal is especially adroit at planting such skipped heartbeats, though — time and again, characters catch one another off guard. Even in friendship, the winning duelist keeps his listener guessing.
The dialogue in The Sicilian has all his earmarks:
— Your son is a scholar, Don Masino…
— My son does not exist.
This much-maligned movie deserves a look, if you’ve never seen it – indeed, it deserves a second or third look if you haven’t seen it in a while. (The director’s cut is available on DVD.) What matters in this context is that, once again, Vidal was denied his due acknowledgment. The screenplay is credited to Steve Shagan, who adapted Mario Puzo’s novel before Cimino signed on and brought Vidal aboard – but when I interviewed him in depth on this topic for LA Weekly, Vidal was emphatic that he alone wrote what got filmed.
“I have a simple question I’d like to submit to every member of the Writer’s Guild,” he smiled: “True or False: Would Gore Vidal ever want credit for anything written by Steve Shagan?” More seriously he sued the guild, as much in repayment for Ben Hur as for the Sicilian matter. “They have institutionalized plagiarism, and I don’t like that.” He and the WGA fought all the way to the Supreme Court of California, “which found in my favor,” he writes, in Snapshots in History’s Glare. “This lawsuit was my quarter-of-a-million-dollar gift to the membership of the Guild. No longer need they accept as ‘final’ the judgments of three anonymous hacks [assigned to arbitrate screen-credits].”
He had originally embraced the assignment of The Sicilian as a chance to freshly address the tragic theme of The Death of Billy the Kid, particularly the reluctance of the lawman Pat Garrett, whom he once described as “driven by pride to measure himself against a hero, to become the hero by destroying him.” In The Sicilian the same outline applies. Don Masino’s courtship of a substitute son in the renegade outlaw, Salvatore Giuiliano, is the emotional mainspring that drives the film. We know from the beginning that the tale will, somehow, some way, end at Giuliano’s grave. When it does Don Masino, who had him killed, stands with his confidante Professor Adonis and sheds tears like a bereft father. Their conversation, which powerfully concludes this film, is pure Vidal:
Why couldn’t he — why wouldn’t he — come to me?
Why should he? He was his own father. He invented himself, and we killed him … You and I … Now he’s gone.
What next? What next??
(indicates the grave)
There is no next. There never is … Here.
Pure Vidal? Is that possible in a collaborative medium? Yes. His ear for dialogue is natural, precise, and so idiosyncratic – note the rhythms and repetitions – that with little study you can pick his contribution out of a crowd of collaborators.
Which brings us to Ben-Hur.
“I’d forgotten the heat,” Massalas remarks, when he arrives in Judea to take charge. “If it were only the heat,” shrugs his weary predecessor. (Two lines in, and Judea is already Vidal country.)
The shooting script on file at the Motion Picture Academy Library — a thick parfait of green and pink pages — lists no writers for Ben-Hur on title page, only: “Producer: Sam Zimbalist,” and below him, ’Director: William Wyler.” Fortunately for our purposes, every page of the text is individually dated, ranging in no particular order from late April to late September. The infamous Messala / Ben-Hur confrontations, both at the beginning of the script and at the climax, are — like the whole of the chariot race — dated May 17, 1958. According to Heston’s diaries (hardback edition), Vidal was still very actively involved on this day, though the actor suggests Christopher Fry was heavily rewriting him.
All we have to go on are the dates — but there is no disputing that all of the Messala / Ben-Hur scenes were locked in place while Vidal was still on board. Note the Vidalian rhythms of the repeat-words in the innocuous chitchat as they meet again, and embrace for the first time in years. (And listen for the intention. Is our hero a wee bit nervous about something?)
I said I’d come back.
And I never thought you would — I’m glad. I’m so glad.
They stare at one another, a long moment.
Look at you!
But you’re taller. I don’t like that.
Of course, Tribune, you could take my head off.
They both laugh.
Strange, but when we were boys, I was taller. Remember?
Yes, I remember. Everything.
I do, too.
Hmm. Everything, my prince?
Now — just because it’s the 1950s doesn’t mean we can’t have a little physical business to go with the unspoken. At this point, Vidal — again, going by the dates in Heston’s account — has Messala pick up a javelin. “Where the beams cross,” he says. A stage direction from the script: “The spear sails the length of the corridor and stabs into an oak beam, sticking there — quivering.” Messala grins to Ben-Hur, who picks up a javelin of his own and competes. Again, the stage direction: “Ben-Hur’s spear pierces the beam so close to the other spear that the two weapons seem like one.” (Mr. Heston? Dr. Freud wonders if you’d prefer a cigar.)
Down Eros! Up Mars! Remember?
Down Eros! Up Mars!
After all these years, still close.
Yes … In every way.
Perhaps in Vidal’s draft the dialogue read, “Down Venus, Up Uranus,” and this is Fry’s more elegant alternative — but even so. The problem of how to define Messala and Ben-Hur’s relationship so that their quarrel will have enough logic and emotional weight to last us four hours is anchored — however discreetly — in this sexually charged little duet with the spears. As the quarrel begins, Messala (“lightly,” according to the stage direction) remarks, “Is anything so sad as unreciprocated love?” Here the dramatist’s intent practically has a neon sign over it.
Vidal delved into these matters at length, years later, to establish his authority over the topic of how movies are made. I’ve delved into them afresh because in the context of Vidal’s other work, what is hidden under Ben-Hur is of central importance.
“Vidal’s most useful insistence as a moralist,” writes Harold Bloom, “is that we ought to cease speaking of homosexuals and heterosexuals. There are only women and men, some of whom prefer their own sex, some the other, some both.”
Heston, at his radiant best an icon of unself-conscious virility, was kept out of the loop precisely so that he could stay unself-conscious. A depressing distortion that adheres to all this controversy is the idea that Judah Ben-Hur is a tortured closet-case — when Vidal (and Fry, and Wyler) plainly intend the opposite: that his sexual complexities, such as they are, never burden him — they are never the point.
“Love is not my bag,” Vidal once told The Paris Review. “I was debagged at age 24, and have never looked back.” Love is expressed as power, in the Vidal universe — and men who love power are most deeply entangled emotionally with the other men who love what they love. They grow entangled with women who love power, too — John Hay’s impossible attraction to Kate Chase in Lincoln, for that matter the mutual devotion of Abe himself and Mary Todd, all have a world-conquering character.
What matters — what is most mysterious, and most dramatic, and propels Vidal’s work in all media — is that love as often as not is expressed in treachery and murder.
In Billy the Kid (1989), directed by William A. Graham and starring Val Kilmer, one of the central characters (and this is a nice joke) is New Mexico’s governor Lew Wallace, the civil war General and novelist best remembered now as the author of Ben-Hur. But the drama driving it forward, as in The Sicilian, is the love-hate passion between Billy the Kid and his mentor/tormentor, Pat Garrett. The two befriended each other years ago, and as Vidal has it, reunite on the steps outside the little church where Pat has just emerged from his own wedding. Billy decides on the spot to court Pat’s pretty sister-in-law, so they can stay related.
Does this mean Pat and Billy were lovers in the past? The cactuses are silent. And who cares? What matters is that they are shown to be lightly, unashamedly in-on-the-joke of being so helplessly, emotionally bound to one another. Vidal’s sense of humor and human nature are smoothly aligned in scoring this point.
Our ability to speculate on such topics, lightly and publicly here in 2012 derives squarely from that costly first blow Vidal struck for liberty in 1948 with The City and the Pillar. This has been Vidal’s essential contribution as a dramatist; this is why it’s understandable that he has fought so hard to be given credit for that one rebel vibe still animating Ben-Hur. An act of literary courage forced him to make a living as a dramatist, and amid that unpredictable enterprise, he has been able, with stealth and clarity, to advance his original case with the popular audience.
Another unmistakable result is that Americans are in general more conscious, even more comfortable (including the late Mr. Heston, when his pride wasn’t engaged), owning a sexual handle to these otherwise trackless contradictions in ourselves. And from this eminence, Vidal has been able to take aim at an even greater moral point. Even if there is no “Next,” murder, slavery, all forms of treachery are denials of a prevailing truth. Under it all, despite our contests for power, we — like those two Freudian spears — are one.