Nicolas Wrathall, director of Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, met the late public intellectual when Vidal was moving out of his seaside villa in Ravello, Italy, following the death of the author’s long-term partner, Howard. “I found him alone in this big house, somewhat of a broken man facing moving back to the U.S., sad to give up what had what had obviously been an amazing life there,” Wrathall told Rolling Stone.
But despite circumstances, Vidal held to his mantra of “never miss a chance to appear on television.” He let Wrathall film the departure from a house – once known for some of the best parties on the Amalfi coast – and sat for interviews over the last years of his life.
The documentary, which premiered Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival, is composed of Vidal’s reflections, commentary from a handful of close friends, and television footage culled from the writer’s personal VHS archives. It explores Vidal’s many iterations: novelist, screenwriter, cultural critic, talking head, politician, essayist and aristocrat. It even touches on his public feuds with William F. Buckley, Norman Mailer and Christopher Hitchens. At the time, Vidal was mad at Hitchens for supporting the Iraq war, and declared that Hitchens was no longer his intellectual heir. Hitchens then wrote a Vanity Fair story titled “Vidal Loco,” calling Vidal’s ideas “crackpot.”
When Wrathall went to Washington in June 2011 to ask Hitchens for his insight, he found the author in good spirits – drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes and preparing for a dinner party – in spite of a cancer diagnosis. But Hitchens mostly wanted to talk about why Vidal never responded to the Vanity Fair piece.
“He was slighted to be honest,” Wrathall says. “Gore had said to him earlier that he was his heir, and then Christopher contacted Gore and said, ‘I’m going to put that on the back of my book that you nominate me as your heir’ and Gore said ‘No, don’t.’ And that’s when he wrote the article. It really became a playground fight. I wasn’t there to speak about that incident, but that seemed to be all he wanted to discuss.” Despite the spat, in the film Hitchens has nothing but good things to say about his former friend and mentor.
“I’m not the only person who would say their knowledge of the American republic comes quite considerably from reading the shelf of [Vidal’s] novels,” Hitchens says on camera. “I always thought I was one step away from the great man.”
Vidal, by contrast, appeared apathetic about the relationship. They never reconciled, and he missed Hitchens’ funeral. “It showed how principled Gore was,” Wrathall says. “Even though they were friends, the fact that Hitchens had backed the Iraq war was just beyond the pale to Gore. He could not accept that in a friend.”