Film & Video
5 min

The many states of Gore Vidal

Nicholas Wrathall’s documentary looks at the life of the infamous queer intellectual

Vidal runs down the scandals, successes and great battles in his life in Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia. Credit: Nicholas Wrathall

Referred to by many as the post–Second World War generation's answer to Oscar Wilde, Gore Vidal was a true renaissance man, who, on top of being a novelist, political pundit, screenwriter, playwright and aspiring politician, was one of the most outspoken queer men of his generation. Refusing to identify as gay, Vidal had sexual relationships with both men and women and spoke at great lengths publicly whenever given the chance about the fluidity of human sexuality and the moral hypocrisy of judging something as natural as homosexuality. His candid no-fear attitude and finesse with words made him an icon to a generation born out of the social revolution of 1960s America.

Filmed before Vidal's death in July 2012, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia is a fitting, intimate and swift documentary that debuted at this year's Tribeca Film Festival to much acclaim. Director Nicholas Wrathall knew better than to fill his documentary with endless talking heads and instead focuses the camera mostly on an elderly Vidal as he faces his own mortality and runs down the scandals, successes and great battles in his life.

Vidal wrote his first novel at 21 but didn't become a notorious literary figure until the release of The City and the Pillar, the first major American novel to depict homosexual sex, which got his next few novels blacklisted from The New York Times. Looking to further his writing career, he fled to Hollywood, where he would write the classic film Ben-Hur, which he has long insisted was littered with homosexual undercurrents.

A star among the political, cultural and social elite, he was a fixture on late-night talk shows, thanks to his wit and biting barbs, and frequently contributed to televised political commentary because of his  keen and eloquent insights. Many of his subsequent novels revolved around a historical critique of American history and politics; he even ran for a seat in the Senate a few times, an unheard-of endeavour at the time for an openly queer man.

While the documentary touches on Vidal's thoughts on homosexuality, young love and his experiences as a gay-rights advocate, the scenes about his personal relationships seem cold and distant. He even refers to his longtime partner, Howard Austen, as more of a friend whom he is extremely close to but doesn't have sex with.

Full of intriguing contradictions, fabulous one-liners and stories about the people he's pissed off, Vidal and this documentary are never boring to watch. Hearing Vidal tell in his own words anecdotes about JFK being bested by Tennessee Williams on the shooting range or close friend Paul Neuman blowing up at Conservative pundit William F Buckley for gaybashing Vidal on live television while simultaneously stealing his beer is worth the admission alone.

Top 10 Gore Vidal quotes:

"I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television."

"Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn."

"The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so."

"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."

"Sex is. There is nothing more to be done about it. Sex builds no roads, writes no novels, and sex certainly gives no meaning to anything in life but itself."

“I'm all for bringing back the birch, but only between consenting adults.”

“I can understand companionship. I can understand bought sex in the afternoon, but I cannot understand the love affair.”

“A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.”

“History is nothing but gossip about the past, with the hope that it might be true.”

“The human race is divided into male and female. Many human beings enjoy sexual relations with their own sex, many don't; many respond to both. This plurality is the fact of our nature and not worth fretting about.”

Check out the trailer for Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia.