It has been said before but it’s worth saying again: Gore Vidal was born to the toga, even if he never actually wore one. A son of privilege who turned on his own ruling class, a celebrity intellectual when that meant something, a brutally eloquent critic of America’s misadventures at home and abroad — Vidal was our last great Roman senator, mourning the republic as he gazed at a corrupt empire. “Whenever I want to know what the United States is up to,” he said, “I look into my own black heart.”
That statement comes toward the end of “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” Nicholas D. Wrathall’s spiky, engaging valediction to the writer, who died in August 2012 at 86. A portrait of a literary lion in winter, the documentary wants to be both a career overview for the uninitiated and a final platform for Vidal’s unyielding political scorn. It’s better at the latter than the former, if only because listening to Vidal was always better than hearing about him. Wrathall’s film catches its subject at his most physically frail yet more than ever assured in his outrage. Of post-9/11 America, Vidal thunders, “We have a totalitarian government that wants to watch everyone — we are totally policed. That is contrary to everything in our Constitution.”
Ironically, Vidal categorizes himself as a “watcher” — an outsider figure in every way. After a first novel established him as a new American voice at the age of 19, his third, “The City and the Pillar” (1948) was so frank in its treatment of homosexuality that The New York Times refused to review it and his next five books. To make ends meet, Vidal wrote mystery novels, hit plays like the 1960 political drama “The Best Man” (later a film), and screenplays and early television dramas, all of which further alienated the keepers of New York’s literary castle. Even after Vidal began his best-selling run of historical novels with “Burr” (1973), he was well-reviewed and grudgingly respected, but never trusted.
Nor would he have wanted to be. Trust would have been too comfortable; Vidal preferred to keep audiences and peers unsettled. To watch clips of the politically charged 1968 debates between Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley — the former coolly vexing the latter into calling him a “queer” and threatening to punch him in the face — is to see the politesse of American public life reveal a devouring ugliness beneath.
Vidal could be glib and showily arrogant, and the documentary captures that, although I’m not sure it intends to. Wrathall skates over his subject’s two runs for office (for the House of Representatives, from New York in 1960, and the Democratic nomination for US Senate in California, 1982; he got 43 percent of the vote in the first contest). A 1971 verbal mugging of a bibulous Norman Mailer on Dick Cavett’s talk show now looks merely cruel, even if Mailer had allegedly head-butted Vidal in the green room. The film also spends a lot of time at the spacious villa in Ravello, Italy, from which Vidal held court for decades with longtime partner Howard Austen. There he hosted the great artists and celebrities of his time while issuing novels, essays, and pronouncements, all of which held his birth country at the end of appalled tweezers.
Vidal’s poor opinion of our leaders was all-encompassing. Nixon was “the lawyer from Whittier,” Reagan “the best cue-card reader Chase Manhattan could find.” Bush Jr. was “a goddamned fool,” Cheney even worse, and the media — The New York Times and The Washington Post especially — were and are complicit. Of Obama, Vidal says “I would like to think he’s completely virtuous, but I suspect he’s not. I know how politics works.”
The film captures the aging writer packing up and leaving Ravello for the last time, too infirm to navigate the stairs. Vidal speaks mordantly of entering the “Cedars-Sinai years,” yet he believed to the end that a life should be lived in the moment of experience and creation, and that posterity could take care of itself. The director bookends his documentary with visits to Austen’s grave (he died of brain cancer in 2003), beside which Vidal will soon lie. The writer doesn’t seem particularly sad or depressed; just ready to be done with the lot of us. Asked what he thinks his legacy will be, Vidal fixes the camera with a glare and says, “I couldn’t care less.”
“Gore Vidal” trailer:Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.