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Gore Vidal and Hollywood

Gore Vidal was a good writer and a great essayist, but his movie career was forever tainted by his association with 'Myra Breckinridge' and 'Caligula.'

Gore Vidal’s death last week affected me more personally than most people. By the time I was a freshman in college, I had read 20 of his novels. My senior research paper in high school dealt with him. The first novel my parents took from me was Myra Breckinridge. My friends so identified me with Vidal and his books they called me ‘Gore’.

The appeal of Vidal’s books, essays, and personality was his iconoclastic stances and provocative subject matter. His critical view of the American political and social scenes resonated greatly with my attitude and way of thinking during the late 1960s.

Yet, it wasn’t long before I moved on to what I thought were more substantial writers and thinkers like Sartre, Nietzsche, Faulkner, and Beckett. Only in the last 10 years have I reacquainted myself with Vidal’s work, starting with his novel, Burr. I found it typical that Vidal would be drawn to one of the greatest outcasts of American history, Aaron Burr.

Vidal “went Hollywood” in the early 1950s after a run of novels that made few sales. He was part of the breed of writers like Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, who were unaffiliated with universities. He frequently appeared on talk shows and famously feuded with both Mailer and Capote, and even butted heads with William F. Buckley during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when both were hired by ABC as political commentators.

Vidal didn’t publish a novel between 1954 and 1964, instead writing TV scripts during the Golden Age of television drama. Vidal also penned several screenplays—The Catered Affair (1956), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and Is Paris Burning? (1966)—as well as plays that became movies, such as The Left-Handed Gun (1958), Visit to a Small Planet (1960), and The Best Man (1964). He also unsuccessfully ran for a New York state Congressional seat in 1960.

Vidal returned to the literary scene in 1964 with the publication of Julian, a novel dealing with the 4th century Roman emperor who tried to restore paganism. Vidal, a less-than-enthusiastic supporter of Christianity, would naturally find such an historical figure appealing.

But his greatest literary notoriety came with in 1968 with Myra Breckinridge, a satire of Hollywood featuring a transsexual hero (hence the parental censorship, which would occur twice more when I bought John Updike’s Couples and Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape).

Two years later, a movie version appeared, with Raquel Welch playing the title role. Nearly everyone associated with the film tried to divest themselves of it and its reputation. Indeed, the production of the movie is a more interesting tale than the movie itself ever came close to being (check out the extras on the DVD).

It has been cited as one of the worst films ever made. One critic called it as “funny as a child molester.” Roger Ebert gave it ZERO stars. Vidal disowned it, calling the adaptation the second-worst movie ever made.

Among the major players besides Welch were Mae West, legendary director John Huston, film critic Rex Reed (he played the pre-op Myra), and newcomers Farrah Fawcett and Tom Selleck. Welch and West despised one another, only once appearing in a scene together and never in the same shot. 

Director Michael Sarne had helmed the Golden Globe-nominee Joanna (1968) before taking on Myra Breckenridge, but couldn’t control West, Huston, and Welch on set. He apparently also spent hours away from the set ‘thinking,’ which caused the film to go way over budget. In the DVD extra, Sarne even admitted he was out his depth; subsequently, the rest of his career he spent as a film critic and actor (and, according to Vidal, working in a pizza restaurant).

As if the indignation and controversy surrounding the Myra Breckinridge movie weren’t enough, Vidal also lent his name to one of the most infamous movie projects of all time, Caligula (1979). Caligula was financed by Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione, who also barred Italian director Tinto Brass from working on the final cut of the film while he inserted graphic sex, reshot scenes, and created new scenes solely from the editing. Vidal, as before, divorced himself from the film, which is still sometimes called Gore Vidal’s Caligula.

The film did not play at very many theaters, yet it did bring in $23 million domestically besides becoming a big moneymaker on video and DVD for Penthouse. It was also something of a curiosity at the box office: Guccione charged $7.50 a ticket when the regular price at the time averaged $3. His reasoning was that if a film cost a lot of money to make, then the ticket price should reflect this cost. We often forget that we pay the same price for the $250 million The Dark Knight Rises and for a documentary like Queen of Versailles.

Caligula had its share of international stars: Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, the latter two claiming later that they had not known the kind of film it was, or was going to be. McDowell as the deranged Roman emperor continued his career with another bad-boy role, but had only a couple more star vehicles in his future: Time After Time (1979), Cat People (1982), and Brittania Hospital (1982). For Helen Mirren, this was a long way from her more respectable turn as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006).

Meanwhile, Vidal’s subsequent major Hollywood productions were a mini-series made in 1988 from his novel, Lincoln, and a television movie Billy the Kid. He appeared as a preacher in Billy the Kid, an uncredited role. Other similar walk-on roles found him in The Best Man and Suddenly Last Summer.

More substantial parts came in the next decade, playing a Senator in Bob Roberts (1992), and a professor in With Honors (1994). He played his biggest part in the dystopian film Gattica (1997), playing Director Josef of the space administration, who helps Ethan Hawke attain his dream of becoming as astronaut on the Titan mission. He also appeared in Igby Goes Down (2002) and Shrink (2009).

Postscript: The IMDB rating for Myra Breckinridge: 3.9; Caligula: 5.0. I’ve seen both all the way through despite their both being unwatchable. My desert-island choice (if I had to): Myra.

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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John Reynolds August 09, 2012 at 03:09 PM
I saw that Vidal-Buckley love fest on YouTube. Buckley ran out of ten-dollar words and lost his cool, so he started attacking Vidal's manhood. I don't think Vidal cared.
Robert Castle August 09, 2012 at 03:18 PM
Hemingway novels that stand out for me are The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms. Faulkner: As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Sanctuary, Absolam, Absolam!, The Hamlet, and Requiem for a Nun. Both men's early works were greatly affected by World War I. Both were also mentored by Sherwood Anderson -- and both repaid him by criticizing or parodying his work. Hemingway was one of the greatest ingrates of American letters.
John Reynolds August 09, 2012 at 11:14 PM
Mental illness ran in Hemingway's family. By the end of his life, he was being treated for depression and paranoia – years of drinking didn't help either:) I read some of his private letters that were published after his death, going back to when he started as a journalist. They were chatty and gossipy, much different from his published fiction. One of his last letters he wrote was to his doctor's kid who was dying. Hemingway tried to cheer the kid up. Not long after that he shot himself. Go figure. As for his novels being made into movies, I saw "For Whom The Bells Toll." The book was OK, but I don't think Hemingway's work translates well to film. HIs wooden characters are even less appealing on-screen. Even Gary Cooper couldn't pull it off. "The Old Man and the Sea" wasn't that bad of a movie though, if I recall correctly. There wasn't much action in the book, and it consisted mostly of monologue. It's been a while since I saw the movie or read the book, so if I'm going to critique these movies in a forum, maybe I should go back and watch them to refresh my memory!
Ric August 10, 2012 at 12:44 AM
I have enjoyed reading a few of Vidal's books, most recently The Smithsonian Institute, which is a great novel based on history merging with science fiction. My favorite book is, Julian; of course, since I am a history buff. We lost a great American writer with Vidal’s passing.
Robert Castle August 10, 2012 at 04:00 AM
Julian may be his best work. I like Burr as well. He published a book in 1954 called Messiah that is interesting. His other early novel I like is The City and the Pillar. This work caused Vidal not being reviewed in Time and the New York Times for several years, doing great damage to any chance for sales. City and Pillar had a homosexual protagonist and was one of the first novels of this kind by a relatively major writer. Vidal's two book of essays: Rocking the Boat and Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship are very good.

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