It took director Nicholas Wrathall seven years—and following Vidal to Ravello, Italy, Los Angeles, New York City, and even Havana, Cuba—to make his documentary. It finally had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it was worth the wait: The film spans Vidal’s entire life as a privileged thorn in the side of the American establishment.
Vidal was the last great public intellectual in America, and he existed as such at a time when television was still a forum for lengthy and spirited discussion. Through bitter and riveting debates with his conservative nemesis, fellow patrician and Mid-Atlantic accent bearer William F. Buckley, and appearances on The Dick Cavett Show (among others), Vidal became a sought-after celebrity. He was ahead of his time in terms of his fierce criticism of American foreign policy and what he considered this country’s corrupt political system, which he claimed was not a democracy at all. In 1960, when he ran for the senate as a Democrat, he was already talking about how corporations ruled America and the rich lived off the backs of the poor and the middle class. His views anticipated the Occupy Wall Street movement by 50 years.
A die-hard liberal, devilishly intelligent, and handsome, Vidal was also a notoriously private person who enjoyed being controversial in public. In 1948, he published The City and the Pillar, one of the first American novels to describe explicit gay sex. After this, the New York Times and Washington Post would not review his books. So he wrote for television and Hollywood, and did very well. He became a succesful and prolific screenwriter, novelist, essayist and playwright; a unique case of a celebrity patrician with radical views.
Vidal is a great subject, a great interviewee, and a fascinating man. The film follows his life chronologically, but it weaves archival footage with recent interviews to create a portrait of a man of unwavering convictions. He was a liberal, but not a bleeding heart; he considered himself a conservative. Being of a generation that could not imagine coming out as we do today, he nevertheless was vocal in his defense of homosexuality, writing at length about it and openly living with his companion Howard Austen for over 50 years. In 1969 he wrote: “Homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime...despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three. Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. Notice I use the word 'natural,' not normal.”
Having grown up in a prestigious political family, we learn through the film that Vidal knew how the system worked from the inside and never stopped criticizing it, even as he successfully used it as his pulpit. Today, he would likely be marginalized as a radical, but in his day, he was at the forefront of American culture. There is a sadness to the documentary since, beyond the loss of of such a titanic cultural figure, it also captures the dramatic decline of public discourse in American life. It's sad that Vidal is no more, that there are no more like him, and that there is no more media space to give the likes of him a respectable platform, not a 140-character tweet or a five-minute segment at a talk show.
The movie uses title cards to include some of his inimitable aphorisms (he would have been a greate Twitter enthusiast perhaps), and with interviews of the people close to him, Wrathall allows Vidal an opportunity to roar with acidic elegance one last time. As is common with many documentaries today—which are made with the help of interested parties (in this case, one of the producers is Burr Steers, Vidal’s nephew)—there are no dissenting opinions, which is a pity, because Vidal himself loved nothing better than a good debate, and because a sprinkle of conflicting views could add a bit of exciting homework for the viewers.
However, Wrathall includes some of Vidal’s famous public spats and captures his thorny, imperious personality and the iciness with which he nixes those fallen from favor (famously Christopher Hitchens after pronouncing himself for the Iraq war). The film does not pretend to be objective, rather, it is an intimate and admiring portrait of a formidable, and formidably entertaining, American intellectual.
Watch the trailer below: