One of the first times I filmed with Gore Vidal was in Ravello, Italy, in his clifftop villa, La Rondinaia (The Swallow's Nest). It was like witnessing an exiled Roman emperor getting ready to return home after many years of banishment in the colonies. This was his final weekend at the house, and he spent it saying goodbye to friends and looking out at the beautiful views of the Amalfi Coast.
There is a palpable atmosphere of melancholia and loss in this scene as Gore packs up his life and memories and prepares to leave. The ghost of his recently deceased long-term companion, Howard Austen, is ever-present in these heartbreaking moments, and Gore spends his time writing at his desk and reminiscing fondly of their days together.
I often asked Gore about his personal life, but he liked to keep it to himself and would rarely comment on his sexual life to me. He did acknowledge having various affairs over the years with other famous writers but would never divulge the details, especially not on camera. He had a very macho tone in response to questions about his love life and insisted to me that he was always a top.
His promiscuity is legendary, and in the film he jokes that sex is healthy and that being active is good for the constitution. That it “tones you up.” His long relationship with Howard Austen provided companionship, but he found sex elsewhere. There is plenty of detail on his affairs in various biographies, but none of this was my focus in making this film.
More interesting, I think, is the fact that Gore Vidal wrote one of the first frankly gay American novels, described as one of the “definitive war-influenced gay novels.” In 1948 The City and the Pillar was published, and Gore suffered at the hands of the press, especially The New York Times, which famously would not advertise the book or review any of his work.
Nonetheless, it was among the few gay novels reprinted in inexpensive paperback from as early as the 1950s. It became a best-seller and made Gore a lot of money, being reprinted many times over. After this Gore wrote a few books under pseudonyms and eventually moved out to Hollywood to write screenplays, where he decided he could earn money that would enable him to buy a house and the independence needed to write whatever he wanted.
In 1968, the satirical diary Myra Breckinridge was published, causing a huge stir. Gore was once again pushing the envelope and courting controversy. The book was dismissed by some of the era's more conservative critics as pornographic, but it immediately became a worldwide best-seller and has since come to be considered a classic in some circles. The book addressed feminism, transsexuality, American expressions of machismo and patriarchy, and deviant sexual practices, as filtered through an aggressively camp sensibility.
“It is tempting to argue that Vidal said more to subvert the dominant rules of sex and gender in Myra than is contained in a shelf of queer theory treatises,” Dennis Altman wrote of the book.
I met Altman at Gore’s house in the Hollywood Hills while he was interviewing Gore for his critical study Gore Vidal’s America. We spoke at length about the importance of Gore’s writings on sex and politics and religion. Altman sees Myra Breckenridge as “part of a major cultural assault on the assumed norms of gender and sexuality which swept the western world in the late 1960s and early 1970s.” Gore’s work played such a critical role in challenging the status quo and shaking up the sexual conservatism lingering from the 1950s.
Always outspoken and with strong opinions and a deft wit, Gore loved to be provocative, which made for great material for the film. There is an interesting moment in black-and-white footage from the 1960s when Gore leaves a conservative commentator speechless on homosexuality when he bravely replies that he sees the difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality as the difference between blue eyes and brown eyes (as in, there really is no difference).
Gore always disliked being categorized and refused to be labeled, famously saying, “There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.”
Although he didn’t really get involved in the movement of the 1970s and ’80s, he stated his case very early on in his writing and spent his life challenging stereotypes and speaking truth to power. I think his strength and honesty as a gay man has inspired many LGBT people. He was at the forefront of the culture wars and never backed down from a good fight, often outwitting opponents with his smarts. The famous scene where William F. Buckley calls him a “queer” on national television, followed by Gore’s acknowledging smile, illustrates how he found inner strength in the places that others might attack him.
I believe The United States of Amnesia captures Gore at his provocative best; it includes a wealth of witty and biting analysis of American history and politics and serves to remind us why he will forever stand as one of the most brilliant and fearless critics of our time.
NICHOLAS WRATHALL is the producer and director of The United States of Amnesia.