Why Hollywood Owes a Debt of Gratitude to Gore Vidal (Appreciation)

Gore Vidal 1981 - P 2012
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Gore Vidal 1981 - P 2012

Adapting Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly, Last Summer" for the screen, he slyly defied both the Production Code and the Catholic Church, showing other writers they didn't have to bowdlerize their work.

From his earliest novels to his midcentury screenplays to his recent essays, the late Gore Vidal crusaded fiercely against religious censorship of popular culture. Hollywood owes him a debt, even if at the time of his most energetic battling, against the Production Code that held sway over American movie content from 1934 to 1968, his moral stance made some colleagues uncomfortable. His refusal to bowdlerize material — Tennessee Williams’ play Suddenly, Last Summer, for example — underscored the cravenness of other directors and screenwriters who willingly destroyed adapted material.

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I met Vidal in March 2008 to discuss the cunning way that he had managed to keep the “homo” in the sexuality of Suddenly, which he adapted in 1959. A year earlier, director Richard Brooks and screenwriter James Poe had transformed Williams’ acclaimed Broadway play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  into a bizarre shard of a movie. The play dealt with a gay man who won’t sleep with his beautiful wife because he is still in love with his dead (and male) best friend. The movie dealt with a puzzling man who won’t sleep with his beautiful wife, portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor, for no apparent reason. (Williams was so taken aback by the adaptation he told his friend James Grissom that even he — an openly gay man — would “bounce the springs” with Taylor’s knockout Maggie.)

Like Cat, the plot of Suddenly hinged on the homosexuality of a central character. But Sam Spiegel, its producer, and Vidal vowed not to eviscerate the work. I wanted to find out how they managed it.

Vidal, not Williams, wrote most of the long monologues that Violet Venable, a New Orleans dowager played by Katharine Hepburn, speaks in the film. In an early scene, she makes a grand entrance via a Victorian birdcage elevator, comparing it with the throne used by the emperor of Byzantium, in which the emperor rose from the floor when he held an audience. “But because we live in a democracy,” Venable sneers, “I don’t rise.  I come down.”

Vidal met me in the living room of his Hollywood Hills home. Because of complications from diabetes, he couldn’t descend the stairs. His assistant carried him down, unshaven, in rumpled pajamas and a bathrobe, and placed him in a wheelchair. “Because we live in a democracy,” he said superciliously, “I don’t rise. I come down.”

I had expected condescension, but our encounter quickly worsened when he discovered my name was Mary Grace. He chanted it mockingly — gloatingly — as if I were on the side of the censors instead of the angels. I had to get back on track. “Mr. Vidal,” I finally said, “I cannot tell you how much your disdain for humanity” — I paused — “inspires me, heartens me, gives me hope.”

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He, too, paused. Then cracked a small saurian smile. And returned to our subject: Suddenly Last Summer. After the Production Code Office nixed a synopsis of the script, he agreed to meet with a priest biweekly and show him drafts of the script. He didn’t remember the priest’s specific affiliation. “They have so many of these torture groups — to try to keep literature out of commerce,” he said. But he recalled that the priest was not sharp: “He was one of the dumb ones, a Christian brother or something,” which is to say: not a Jesuit or a canonical scholar. “And I knew so much more about the Catholic Church than he did.”

This was not an exaggeration. Vidal had exhaustively researched the early Christian Church for his 1962 novel Julian, which deals with Julian Augustus, the fourth century pagan emperor who tried to stop the advance of Christianity in the Roman Empire.  Emperor Julian terms Christians “Galileans,” and he fears them. They will slaughter anyone who stands between them and political power.

Vidal refused to turn Williams’ play into a moral fable about the evils of homosexuality and its inevitable punishment. But he did construct the story so that his Catholic critics — and the priest with whom he met — could read it as such if they chose to.

Vidal wrote the script at his house in upstate New York, where, under the name of Eugene Gore -- Gore was originally his mother's maiden name -- he also happened to have been running for Congress. He had made some compromises in the depiction of the homosexual character — the character’s face, for instance, was never shown. Nor did the film reveal what exactly the character did with the young boys to whom he gave money. Still, a few months after the movie came out, Vidal received proof that he had preserved enough of the play for it to make sense. A policeman stopped him for speeding on the Taconic State Parkway and recognized him from his political campaign. “I just saw that movie you wrote,” Vidal recalled the policeman saying. “Was that guy a faggot?”

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“I think he was, yeah,” Vidal told him. The policeman was exultant — because he had figured this out and his wife hadn’t.

To understand the passion with which Vidal fought censorship and religious authoritarianism, one can read “Sex Is Politics,” an essay he wrote for The New York Review of Books in 1979, on the eve of the Carter-Reagan election. Its insights and issues remain startlingly apt today. “Not only is sex politics,” he argued, “but sex both directly and indirectly has been a major issue in this year’s election. The Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, homosexuality are hot issues that affect not only the political process but the private lives of millions of people.”

So-called morality, he suggested, is a system by which the ruling class maintains its power: “Although our notions about what constitutes correct sexual behavior are usually based on religious texts, those texts are invariably interpreted by the rulers in order to keep control over the ruled. Any sexual or recreational or political activity that might decrease the amount of coal mined, the number of pyramids built, the quantity of junk food confected will be proscribed through laws that, in turn, are passed down by whatever god or gods happen to be in fashion at the moment. Religions are manipulated in order to serve those who govern society and not the other way around. This is a brand-new thought to most Americans, whether once or twice or never bathed in the Blood of the Lamb.”

Vidal worked behind the scenes to thwart Hollywood's tendency to “keep literature out of commerce,” managing to earn a good living in the process. But his itch to satirize prevailed. In his 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge and its 1974 sequel Myron, he took on Hollywood without mercy.

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Myra is an enjoyable piece of Hollywood/Los Angeles parody directly derived from Waugh’s The Loved One,” critic Leo Braudy has observed. “But Myron is a nutty, surreal romp through the history of movies, sexuality, and everything else Vidal can throw in. It’s the madcap side that he otherwise rarely let out of his grumpy public intellectual persona.”

Most deliciously, to avoid using “dirty” words in Myron, he replaced them with the names of the Supreme Court Justices who in the 1973 case Miller v. California determined that the First Amendment did not protect “obscenity.” Thus one character in Myron pronounces his “rehnquist” larger than another man’s “rehnquist.” To engage in intercourse is to “burger.” And Myron, who had had his genitals removed to become Myra, changed his mind — engaging a surgeon to restore his “renquist,” but not his two “powells.”

Near the end of his life, Vidal returned to Tennessee Williams, collaborating with director Peter Bogdanovich to complete Williams’ unfinished play Of Masks Outrageous and Austere for a Broadway production (that has not happened). Bogdanovich recalls the respect with which Vidal approached Williams’ multiple drafts. The two pledged not to include any line that had not been written by Williams himself. 

“I loved working with him,” says Bogdanovich. “He was a brilliant technician as well as being a brilliant mind. I think he was the last great man of letters of the 20th century.”

“Early on, he had trouble with some of the critics,” adds Bogdanovich. “Maybe they didn’t get what he was doing.”

Or they understood it precisely and it enraged them: While offering television commentary at the 1968 Democratic convention, Vidal famously called William F. Buckley Jr. “a crypto-Nazi.” To which Buckley responded by calling Vidal “a queer.” 

But great writers have often been misunderstood — even savaged — by lesser writers. In Vidal’s essay on Williams, subtitled “Someone to Laugh at the Squares With,” he attributed genius to the playwright, or “the Bird,” as he called him. But Time magazine, he noted, had attacked Williams from the get-go, “suspecting that Williams might be ‘basically negative’ and ‘sterile,’ code words of the day for fag.”

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“The Bird had many, many enemies, because genius is hated by everyone else, particularly those in the same line of work,” Vidal told me.

The sentence stayed with me. Because it could apply equally well to Vidal.