With this week's news of the passing of American literary and political icon Gore Vidal at the advanced age of 86, now seems a particularly apt time to look back at a truly anomalous career and select some of the highlights of a life lived on pages, stages, planes, trains and in many of the most exclusive locales across the world - Hollywood to Broadway to Washington, D.C. and far beyond.
A true iconoclast in every meaning and sense of the word, Gore Vidal challenged seemingly everyone and everything remotely worth questioning over the course of his life and career. Novelist, essayist, screenwriter, playwright and political commentator may be the most applicable labels given to Vidal in his passing, yet his presence in the media at the time he received perhaps his greatest notoriety - the 1960s - was that of a cultured figure with a vicious, biting wit and a commanding, commandeering way with words so powerful and all-consuming as to make his various opponents positively wither under his wrath - one such example, perhaps the most famous celebrity feud of the era, was Vidal's notorious loathing of political adversary William F. Buckley, a rivalry which reached its pop culture apotheosis in an on-air explosion (and purported offstage scuffle in the green room, as well) clearly worthy of Jerry Springer on THE Dick Cavett SHOW in 1971 after brewing to a fever pitch in the intervening years following their unforgettable dust-up at the televised 1968 Republican National Convention; and all of that is to say nothing of his Norman Mailer kerfuffle. Besides his forthrightedness in consistently, eloquently and evocatively expressing his pointed and studied opinions on a variety of topics - collected in the dozens of essay collections, roman a clef novels, pseudonymic works, television and print interviews published and conducted over the course of his colorful, decades-spanning time as a major critical figure of both the political and entertainment communities - he contributed to the arts in many other ways, as well.
No play speaks to his interests and ideals - and sounds like he sounds; or, sounded - more than the sparkling and seemingly perpetually pertinent THE BEST MAN, currently in a hit revival on Broadway starring James Earl Jones and Elizabeth Ashley. I recently conducted an InDepth InterView with Emmy Award-winning actor Eric McCormack in which we discussed his central role in the Michael Wilson-directed revival of the play (available here) and he glowingly spoke of not only Vidal's timeless words and ideas, but, also, the importance of Vidal's approval of this current production, with the playwright himself managing to attend a New York rehearsal even whilst in the late stages of his eventually terminal illness to which he has unfortunately finally now succumbed. In addition to Vidal's five plays - two of which were adapted into feature films - he also crafted a number of screenplays for Hollywood, most notably the historical epic BEN-HUR, as well as the novel upon which one of the most beloved bad films of all time was culled from, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE; and, of course, one of the most campy and prurient oddities in all of celluloid history, CALIGULA.
Besides penning screenplays and preparing screen adaptations - such as his notable work on Tennessee Williams's SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER and Paddy Chayefsky's A CATERED AFFAIR - Vidal also made the occasional onscreen cameo, evidenced in his turns in Federico Fellini's ROMA and the more recent IGBY GOES DOWN and Bob Roberts - in addition to TV one-offs like THE SIMPSONS, FAMILY GUY and DA ALI G SHOW. While Vidal's contributions to the Academy Award-winning BEN-HUR and his many highly-praised and best-selling novels - LINCOLN and JULIAN most of all - may act as the main entities to have touched the lives of most outside the entertainment and political realms, his position as a literature-based commentator and celebrity essayist recalls the perhaps more culturally-attuned and politically-active days gone by of this great nation and his societal relevance then as opposed to that of a similar figure now - as if anyone could ever be compared - is quite illustrative of how quickly times and attitudes can change. Also of note - and a footnote to history, no doubt - may be the fact that, later in his life, Vidal corresponded with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was spurred on to reveal much new information to him as a result of being inspired by Vidal's Vanity Fair essay on the Bill of Rights, eventually revealing a FBI cover-up and much more. Whether criticizing current trends in culture, art and politics, philosophizing on historically-dictated inevitabilities as they arose or eloquently dramatizing the lives of kings and queens to the most disenfranchised among us in his many entertainment entities in many mediums, Vidal's cultural contributions are multitude and will be continued to be counted and celebrated for many years to come - in November, especially.
The Best Man
So, in celebration of Vidal's most memorable film, stage and TV properties and appearances, today we will focus on the movies, plays and interviews that act as his life lived onscreen and hopefully they shall help us form a further appreciation for Gore Vidal as one of the most prominent and prolific politically-attuned pop culture figures of the late-twentieth century in Washington, on Broadway, in literary circles and in Hollywood. What a rich, resplendent life he led!
First up, here is perhaps Vidal's most internationally influential contribution to arts and letters; 1959's BEN-HUR, for which he penned the screenplay (coming after a series of other writers), based on Lew Wallace's classic best-selling novel and directed by William Wyler. Enjoy the original epic trailer for the entertainment event of the era.
Vidal shares many caustic comments and candid reminiscences in this fascinating documentary on the making of the film - with a particular emphasis on the controversial homosexual elements, unprecedented in an American studio film at the time.
Adapting a hard-hitting play rife with scandalous and button-pushing content, Vidal's work on SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER by Tennessee Williams is appreciable if only for its remaining true to the essence of the playwright's original intentions while meeting the strict screen censorship requirements of the time, as well - and getting a few progressive, if veiled, moments into the final film anyway.
Now, see soon-to-be Broadway director Jerry Lewis in the stage-to-screen adaptation of Gore Vidal's fist play, VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET, in the original theatrical trailer for the comedic curiosity.
John-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon star in this riveting scene from the 1963 Vidal-written IS PARIS BURNING?
Now, from the sublime to the ridiculous, here is the trailer for the 1970 Michael Sarne-directed film adaptation of Vidal's hit gender-bending, futuristic camp classic novel, starring none other than Rex Reed and Raquel Welch.
See classic stage and screen icon Mae West in one of her final film forays with this unforgettable camera appearance in the controversial cult favorite.
Featuring a cast of thousands - and thousands of lewd acts to top it all off - there has never been a film quite before or since quite like CALIGULA. While Vidal gets screen credit, the shoot was fraught with production problems and the result even had two directors, so the final product is assumedly quite a far cry from Vidal's initial intentions for a Caligula-based film. Another camp classic, in any event - see why here.
Gore Vidal adapted THE GODFATHER novelist and screenwriter Mario Puzo's THE SICILIAN to the silver screen in 1987 with mixed results, though the final film may be better than it is remembered for being. Check out the trailer below.
Vidal's final screenplay was for the 1988 film DIMENTICARE PALERMO, starring James Belushi, Joss Ackland and Mimi Rogers.
Though he appeared in a handful of feature films - with roles in GATTACA and IGBY GOES DOWN most prominent among them - his participation in Fellini's ROMA is his only walk-on in a great film, which ROMA undoubtedly is. Arrivederci!
THE BEST MAN is currently playing eight shows a week at the Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre on Broadway. Here is BroadwayWorld TV's exclusive video coverage of THE BEST MAN on Broadway, with the revival originally starring James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury and Eric McCormack.
The revival welcomed many starry new cast members in July - among them Cybill Shepherd, Elizabeth Ashley, Kristin Davis and John Stamos - so now is your chance to see the play in a whole new way.
Moving from film highlights to stage standouts to top moments in television, witness one of the most vociferous and vocal political rivalries in recent history - Gore Vidal versus William F. Buckley - as captured on live TV during the 1968 Republican National Convention. Part 1 of 5 begins below.
With the moment of moments in this genre-spanning clip collection, here is the infamous Vidal vs. Norman Mailer showdown on THE Dick Cavett SHOW that people still discuss to this day - in a world with such ubiquitous on-air fighting one would assume this would seem tame today, forty years later, yet it is truly anything but, still; talk about a talking-to (and dressing-down)!
Lastly, see Vidal near the end of his life in this 2011 interview in which he discusses current events and also looks back at his life and career.
A special bonus: enjoy this all-encompassing PBS AMERICAN MASTERS documentary on Gore Vidal (here).
As the lights on Broadway dim in honor of this influential intellect's legacy on Friday night, they shall cast a shadow on the marquee of the Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre where Vidal's celebrated, seminal play THE BEST MAN continues its successful run, a new cast in place - and, in that moment, all seems right; or, best to say, rightfully aligned.