Bright Lights Film Journal

Political Filmmaking and America’s “Poisoned Chalice”: The Banned Gore Vidal Interview

“He fears the ‘Party of God’ because he reads their ‘cultural elite’ and ‘family values’ rhetoric as ‘code for [attacking] the media, the Jews, the homosexuals, the adulterers, people who do not believe in God, people who are better looking than you are — put it all together, you have a poisoned chalice.'”

In all my years at Daily Variety in Hollywood, the paper refused to run only two of the hundreds of interviews I conducted. One was with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1976, on the occasion of Stay Hungry. He wanted to talk about how he was making a transition into an acting career. I found him unexpectedly witty and charming. The interview never ran, but I never asked why. I could imagine: “Why is he interviewing this bodybuilder guy?” Variety had a bias against interviewing actors anyway, thinking they were less worthy of listening to than directors, producers, or even writers. Arnold and I hardly talked about politics, if I remember (the manuscript of that interview, alas, is now lost). The future Republican governor of California was smoking a cigar and drinking wine over lunch. I asked how many hours a day he worked out. “Only three” now, he said; he used to work out eight hours a day but admitted (while holding up the cigar) that now he liked to smoke and drink too much to keep doing that.

The trade paper I once enjoyed working for (which Sam Fuller aptly described as “that fucking rag you love so much”) also had a bias against Gore Vidal. When I interviewed the supremely witty writer on the occasion of his acting appearance as a liberal U.S. senator in Tim Robbins’s scathing political satire Bob Roberts (1992), the paper seemed outraged by the interview. The editor in charge of my “Straight Shooting” column told me he objected to Vidal’s constant and characteristic harping against the United States as a destructive, imperial regime. Vidal also expounded acerbically and with his customary erudition on American movies in general, and he made what now appear remarkably prescient comments on the country’s rapidly progressing decline. All highly subversive from Daily Variety‘s reactionary point of view during the Peter Bart regime.

But I suspect there was another motive in the paper killing the interview. At the time I was in the midst of a five-month battle with Daily Variety over my controversial review of Patriot Games, which I attacked as an “ultraviolent, fascistic, blatantly anti-Irish” adaptation of Tom Clancy’s novel, “a right-wing cartoon of the current British-Irish political situation.” History has vindicated my view of the film and the political situation it unconsciously parodies, but Bart and Daily Variety reacted by publicly notifying Paramount I would not be allowed to review any more of its movies. When a widespread outcry erupted over this flagrant political censorship of a reviewer (with gratifying 100 percent support for me from the media), I brought in my lawyer, and the paper assigned me to review a Paramount children’s cartoon, no doubt thinking they were clever. But I was harassed for months by the paper and, while our financial settlement negotiations progressed, was kept from reviewing most films made for adults. Bob Roberts happened to be a Paramount release. I suspect that was another reason this interview with Gore Vidal didn’t run after I submitted it on September 2, 1992, two days before the film’s opening.

When the great American writer and gadfly died on July 31, 2012, I pulled out the interview and was pleased to find Vidal’s comments in our conversation so wide-ranging, using Bob Roberts as a jumping-off point for a meditation on film and our political life in general. I thought it would be a fitting tribute to run a piece of “banned” Gore Vidal commentary from twenty years earlier. A year or so after the banning, I saw him again and apologized, explaining why I thought the interview hadn’t run. He said he had forgotten about the interview and didn’t realize it hadn’t run. Well, no comments by Gore Vidal should ever be forgotten. Here is that interview:

* * *

Gore Vidal has been in town to beat the drums for tomorrow’s opening of Bob Roberts, in which he plays a defeated liberal senator, and he’s bearing some bad news and some good news.

The bad news is that Vidal thinks the American republic is finished: “The game’s up. The system has come to an end. I’m concerned that there might not be another [presidential] election after this one. Who knows who might take over — perhaps the National Security Council.”

The good news is that, as a result, it is becoming easier to make movies about politics: “There is a real chance, because the country’s falling apart very rapidly. Audiences are going to be drawn either toward total Spielbergism — total escape from their fear of losing their jobs, fear of walking down the street — or to things that speak to them and bother them.

“It has to be done ingeniously, because if it’s done like a civics lesson, it will put people to sleep.”

Looking back over the spectrum of American political filmmaking, Vidal can find little enough that’s been done ingeniously: “The few I know of which are realistic — as opposed to being Frank Capra fantasies or fairy tales — are Citizen Kane for the ’40s, my own The Best Man for the ’60s, The Candidate for the ’70s, Tanner ’88 for the ’80s and now Bob Roberts for the ’90s.”

Bob Roberts, writer-director-star Tim Robbins’ scathing satire of our current political malaise, offers in Robbins’ folksinger-politician the most credible portrait of an American fascist I’ve seen in any movie since Edward Arnold’s newspaper tycoon and political boss in Capra and Robert Riskin’s 1941 Meet John Doe.

Though distributed by Paramount in conjunction with Miramax, the low-budget ($4 million) Bob Roberts was made independently, with half the money coming from the U.K. after Robbins shopped the script around the conventional studio route without success.

It’s amazing that a mass-market film was made on this subject, since it deals with issues usually addressed only in the alternative media — issues such as the systemic corruption of the establishment media and political institutions and the cynical manipulation of public sentiment in favor of the Gulf War.

Vidal — who along with Robert Altman just became godfather to Robbins’ two children with Susan Sarandon — also served as a godfather to Bob Roberts, helping validate its seriousness with his presence. The prickly opinions he expresses as Sen. Brickley Paiste clearly reflect his own, although he warns against drawing too close a connection between himself and the character:

“Paiste is defeated and burnt out and has had it. I’m very belligerent and I’ve not had it. I’m ready to lead a crusade against the Party of God” — Vidal’s name for the religious right — “and kick ass, as [then-President] George [H. W.] Bush would say in his manly way. That wasn’t me at all [in the film].”

Indeed, Vidal seems ubiquitous right now. He has three books hitting the stores — his insightful, nostalgic Screening History, a memoir about the movies’ influence on his life; Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal, his mischievous and already controversial novel lampooning Christian mythology; and The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, a provocative collection of his recent essays from The Nation.

All that plus giving a movie performance that’s been roundly praised not only for its verisimilitude — Vidal, after all, has twice run and been defeated for public office — but also for its savvy about the moribund liberal tradition in what Vidal calls “the United States of Amnesia.”

Borrowing elements from his grandfather, Sen. Thomas Pryor Gore of Oklahoma, and from New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (including the bowtie), Vidal shows that if old-line liberalism seems ineffectual, it’s because civility is no match for the brutalism of cynical politicians like Bob Roberts, whose image evokes such figures as Bush, David Duke and Ross Perot.

Vidal helped Jerry Brown in [his candidacy in] this year’s Democratic [presidential] primaries, faxing him ideas for speeches, and though he has nothing good to say about Bush (“He can’t put his foot right”) or Dan Quayle (who reminds him of the “perfectly empty” Robert Redford character in The Candidate), Vidal praises Democratic standard-bearer Bill Clinton with faint damns: “The only plus about Clinton is that he has absolutely no principles of any sort, and he’s intelligent. Franklin Roosevelt was like that, too. A principled man, like Herbert Hoover, will stick to a balanced budget whatever happens, and the stock market will crash. Roosevelt, faced with the Depression, took us off the gold standard and put the economy back on course.”

Though seeing a similar pragmatism in Clinton, Vidal adds that “Clinton hasn’t got the character of Roosevelt — you can have character without principles.”

Reflecting Bob Roberts’ dark take on the hidden forces at work in American politics, Vidal no longer holds out hope for any president because he feels the country can never begin to pay back its enormous debt and because “a president’s been paid for by corporations who run the place and they tell him to do as they please.”

He fears the “Party of God” because he reads their “cultural elite” and “family values” rhetoric as “code for [attacking] the media, the Jews, the homosexuals, the adulterers, people who do not believe in God, people who are better looking than you are — put it all together, you have a poisoned chalice.”

The country’s descent into another Depression is fertile ground for filmmakers, Vidal feels. Though he hasn’t been happy with most of his experiences as a film and TV scriptwriter (aside from The Best Man; Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid; Suddenly, Last Summer; and Dress Gray), he continues to keep his hand in what he jokingly calls his list of “projects in decomposition.”

He’s written a feature about Theodora and Justinian for Martin Scorsese at Universal. Sting is interested in a film version of Kalki, Empire is in the works as a TNT miniseries and Vidal continues hoping ABC will activate Burr, which almost came together as a mini with Albert Finney not long ago. [None of these projects has come to fruition — yet.]

Vidal also is completing his cycle of novels on American history with The Golden Age, dealing with the growth of what he calls “the national-security state” in the 1950s and the Kennedy era, featuring a character named Gore Vidal interacting with other historical personages [that book, the seventh in what he called his “Narratives of Empire,” actually spans the years 1939-54 and was published in 2000].

But when asked if he still harbors any lust in his heart for political office, Vidal sounds as wryly jaded as Sen. Brickley Paiste: “Good heavens, no! Not even by acclamation.”