When you hear the name Gore Vidal, many different things come to mind depending on your exposure to him.
Some know him for his historical political debates and his frequent appearances on television verbally sparring with the likes of William F. Buckley and Norman Mailer, among others. Others will remember Vidal as a prolific writer of essays, plays (The Best Man), screenplays (he wrote Ben Hur – uncredited – and Suddenly, Last Summer) and fiction like the gay-themed The City and the Pillar and historical novels about America such as Burr and Lincoln.
And while it’s easy to label Gore Vidal as gay since his most important relationship was with Howard Austen, he was speaking frequently and openly of sexuality at a time when others were not and said he didn’t see a difference in homosexuality and heterosexuality. In an Advocate interview in 1995, he said, “To be categorized is, simply, to be enslaved. Watch out. I have never thought of myself as a victim…I’ve said – a thousand times? – in print and on TV that everyone is bisexual.”
The new documentary, Gore Vidal: United States of Amnesia, opens this weekend in New York City and in Los Angeles and other cities starting June 6th, and director Nicholas Wrathall has woven together an abundance of archival footage of Vidal as well as footage of the time he spent with him during the end of Vidal’s life. He passed away in 2012 at the age of 86.
The film also includes footage and interviews with Burr Steers, Christopher Hitchens, Jodie Evans, Tim Robbins, Mikhail Gorbachev, Sting, David Mamet, Bob Scheer, Buckley, Jay Parini, Mailer, Nina Straight and Dick Cavett.
TheBacklot talked with Wrathall about putting together the film, Vidal’s view on sexuality as well as what he hopes people take from the film.
TheBacklot: I learned so much about Gore from this film but what did you learn from this film even from spending time with him before he passed?
Nicholas Wrathall: I knew a certain amount about Gore but once I met him and realized we’re going to make this film I started researching and reading and rereading a lot of his work. And my interest was always sort of more, I guess, less about him as a writer and more about him as a sort of public intellectual and a critic of American politics and culture. And just as this sort of brave voice that could speak truth to power. Someone that grew up an insider in the political world who was speaking out against it, sort of a very valuable insight that a perspective that most people won’t have the privilege of having. And someone that was really very ahead of his time on many subjects in the fifties and sixties. Speaking out openly about his sexuality, writing about it and conforming, sort of provoking debates about many subjects in a very brave way. And I thought was an important figure that mustn’t be forgotten and that was a big motivation for me in making the film.
I remember reading The City and the Pillar years ago but the film did make me want to read more of his work. Did you read pretty much everything of his or as much as you could?
NW: As much as I could. I certainly didn’t read everything and I’m sure I’ll continue to read more as time goes on but I hope that’s something that the movie does too. It inspires people to go and learn more about him and read more of his work because I didn’t really want to try to go deeply into different novels or his writing, something that’s hard to do in a film. But I know a lot of people that have seen the film at festivals have said they want to go and read more now.
Vidal at the grave site for himself and his partner, Howard Austen. (IFC)
It’s interesting that in the old clips that are part of the film, you see that he was very open about talking about sexuality and he definitely wasn’t in the closet but yet I also got the sense that he did hold a lot back about his personal life. How do you see it?
NW: He never hid that and his relationship with Howard was public. And he was often very public about his different affairs and if you read his biography there’s a lot of information in there about who he slept with and who he didn’t sleep with. He owned he was and was proud of who he was and was never going to shy away from that. Even though he did say, ‘my personal life, my personal life,’ he wouldn’t really got into it a lot on camera but he would never deny it and that’s I think, now more acceptable, but in the fifties that was quite a courageous stance to make.
And he said he didn’t identify as gay…
NW: In the beginning I think he was bisexual and who knows, maybe even later. But I think he just didn’t like labels. He really didn’t want to be pigeonholed or labeled or somehow marginalized. He just said, ‘I am who I am’ and in his eyes ‘there’s no difference, doesn’t change me whether I have sex with a man or a woman. Apart from the fact that it’s not really anyone’s business.’
Vidal during one of his many television appearances (IFC)
You spent a lot of time with him but from what we know of him, do you feel like you were close with him personally or was there always a distance because he knew you were also documenting him?
NW: At times I thought I did and then at times I felt like I was just another person passing through his life. I think he’d lived such a long life and his personal friendships were people that he’d known a long time. He got quite prickly at times, too. So I felt like he did let me in, but I wasn’t as close to him as his real family or friends, definitely not.
Do you think he thought that people’s perception of his sexuality held him back or maybe kept people from respecting him as he wanted them to? Do you get a sense of that at all?
NW: No, I don’t think so. I think he just didn’t want to be pigeonholed, he didn’t like labels. He didn’t want people to focus on that and not be focused on the things he was saying. He just took that in stride and that was part of his life, that was who he was, but he didn’t want to be defined by one aspect of his life. He saw himself as a writer coming from a political family. He was always out of the closet from a very young age.
You’ve mentioned that Gore would size you and other people up. Did he do that by asking questions or was it more in his observation?
NW: I think it was more about that. He was a good listener. He sized up where politically I was coming from. Maybe the introduction from his nephew helped me. I know that’s what helped me. He certainly didn’t suffer fools and I definitely had to be prepared and be on my toes when I was around him. But generally he was a kind person, mostly and I think if you challenged him he would certainly cut you down and had the ability and the knowledge to debate you on any subject. But I tried not to go there because he could be very tricky. And he was also very generous with younger people and I think he realized that I represented getting his ideas out to a newer audience that maybe didn’t know as much about him. So, he wanted that.
At the very end of the film, he’s asked about his legacy and he says ‘I don’t really care.’
NW: I think his legacy was pretty established by then, in terms of his writing and his work, but I think he was a real fighter, kind of warrior out there in the media landscape and he felt like his work was done. He was living in the moment. It wasn’t about what people were going to say about him in the future. He was very present in what he said and what he did.
He says in the film that he doesn’t like the word love. Do you think there was some fear in that because to be in love is also to be vulnerable in some respect?
NW: I think that’s a very good question and a very complicated question and something that would be hard to get Gore to answer. But I think he had a very ambiguous relationship to love even though he obviously loved Howard and they were together for a long time, and he loved other people in his life. And I think he came from a very loving family life, like his relationship with his mother was very estranged and I think that’s what influenced his other relationships going forward. And emotionally, he was wound pretty tight. He didn’t discuss love and his personal emotions. I think it was quite difficult for Gore. I even certainly asked him about those things he would just be very dismissive. I think he, as far as sex and so forth, he certainly lived a full life but in terms of love, I think he struggled with the concept in a way.
What is your hope for people who see the film? After seeing the film, I feel like we need a voice like his today in the world.
NW: I feel like there isn’t someone else that could step into his shoes, definitely not. But I do hope that people will be motivated by the film and see his courageousness. And especially the young people realize that they’ve got to get involved.
For more on dates to see the film, visit the IFC website.